Viewing Art – Fun or Frustrating?

by | Jan 31, 2012 | Blog | 4 comments

Viewing Art Can Be Frustrating
You go to a museum to see some art. But when you stand in front of the paintings on display, you may wonder why it’s even hanging there! It may not make sense, look inviting, feel attractive, or even look like something you call finished. I received an email from a New York City artist asking for help in understanding a painting he just saw in the Museum of Modern Art. It was painted by surrealist Yves Tanguy in 1927 titled “He Did What He Wanted”.

Yves Tanguy Surrealist painting

Yves Tanguy, He Did What He Wanted, 1927, oil on canvas

In the email he wrote that even though he knew about Surrealism, he still couldn’t figure it out and felt lost. Museums usually see their role as educators, and often post information about the artist and the show at the exhibition’s entrance. Regardless, even the wisest of us can feel a bit miffed while viewing an art exhibition. Here are some ideas I have on this topic.

Art comes in a wide variety
Our world is diverse. There are many different types and styles of paintings, as well as people, each of us with a different perspective, different ways of viewing and creating art. So it follows that there will always be some art we prefer, others we don’t, and some that we will not comprehend, and may not care to either. If you don’t understand it, or like it, just move on until you find one that interests you.

About Viewing Art in A Museum
Museums are educational institutions. They collect art for a wide variety of reasons, but in general try to purchase works that had a significant impact in the way we now view art history. Viewing an historical artwork on display in a museum, with contemporary eyes, may not allow full appreciation and connection to the work unless we know something about that artist or artwork, or have donned a pair of headphones.

It is important to know that even if a particular artwork is created by a designated “master”, this may not be their best work. Great masters like all artists, created many paintings over a long career. Some are truly great, and some may not be so great. Museums want to create a collection that fills in all the gaps, that allows for their ability to display a lineage of art moments. The museum may be on a tight budget and may be limited to purchase a lesser quality work by a master. Or they may have plenty of funds, but due to scarcity can’t get their hands on a high quality piece by a particular master. Keep in mind that just because a work of art is in a museum it may not be of high quality, and it may not speak to all of us.

If the work doesn’t communicate anything to you, then let it go and move on to another image that does. Its more fun to keep looking for work that moves us then spend time with ones that don’t. When I go to a museum I give myself one and a half hours max. After that I no longer have the viewing attention. In that time I wander around in search of one painting that will really move me. Once I find that one work I will stand in front of it for long periods of time to soak it in. What I am soaking in is not always intellectual or analyzed, but more emotional or felt. I go to a museum for that experience, not to see if I can understand all the works that are on display. Sometimes I will go to a certain exhibit to see what the curator had in mind – try to figure out what the educational message is from the show as a whole. But in general I like to view art for the “high”, the emotional and spiritual impact I can get. This, then, gives me motivation to keep painting, to see that art does and continues to have value to the human spirit.

About Ives Tanguy
Tanguy is well known as one of the surrealist masters. I am not drawn to this particular work of his, however, I am aware that paintings look very different in person then from a photograph. The full impact of a work of art comes from a variety of factors, and many of these are omitted when the work transfers from paint to photograph. Qualities such as size, surface texture and sheen, along with the way pigment and color are refracted by light when seen in person are only appreciated when viewing the painting in person. I enjoy seeing paintings in their full glory so I can see all those qualities, most significantly the way the artist handles the paint, and their “signature” visible in the brushstrokes. So I will keep from making any judgments until my next trip to the museum in New York. Read more on Tanguy.

Surrealist Painting by Yves Tanguy
Yves Tanguy, Dangers des courants, 1938, oil on canvas, 10.7″ x 13.8″
Surrealism is an important movement in art history, and is still a major influence in contemporary work. During the time when surrealism was popular to a specific group of artists, there were other parallel movements in the culture such as the early development of contemporary psychology. Surrealism is based on our collective unconscious, so images, forms, shapes and colors are utilized to create a dream-like state in the viewer, and to evoke personal connections. This was a big deviation from other works of that time, that strove to create a very specific place, time and snapshot of reality. This particular work by Tanguy presents a grouping of forms (geometric and “real”) in a landscape that will mean different things to each of us. As Carl Jung discovered, there are certain forms that mean the same thing to us, thus forming our collective, which is better stated in his books on the collective unconscious. When we look at historic works with contemporary eyes we may not find anything of interest. I do believe, though, that a really great work of art will connect to our human spirit in some way throughout time. Read more on Surrealism.

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  1. lad

    You are quite right about real, and reproduced -duced artwork. I was a little dismayed looking at the modern section at the MET – the Bonnards, Picassos, Miros…some seemed to be unevenly varnished, some scraped and distressed canvas areas. Not so bright, tight and glossy as the pictures in books!

  2. Nancy Reyner

    Dear Cynthia,
    This is the true challenge for all artists – to create and enjoy the work you want without paying attention to other's comments and/or preferences. Don't show your work or share your opinions with those who have a very different preference range then you.

  3. Cynthia

    I totally can relate to what this person is explaining. I also have trouble being surrounded by people who ridicule art. My grandfather was an artist as we're several of my siblings. I married into a family of engineers. They seem to think if you can't figure out what it is or what it is saying then it isn't art. They even call some of the art that I am intrigued by sick. How does one deal with this. My artwork has been stifled for years do to this judgement.

  4. Alexandra

    Wow. Tanguy's work is wonderful. I love the geometric visibility.This art piece would make a great conversational piece as it is open to many interpretations.


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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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