I’ve always liked the idea of visiting art galleries and being super cultured and smart (and admittedly a little pretentious) but I often leave galleries feeling confused and deflated. I had this same feeling in the galleries of Florence. What’s the point of it all? What does it mean? What am I supposed to feel? Why are some things considered art and others not? What makes a piece of art ‘good enough’ to be in a gallery?
It probably doesn’t help that I’ve spend time in some of the weirdest galleries around (I’m looking at you MONA), but even the masterpieces of Europe leave me with a feeling of ‘just not getting it.’
Given this, I’ve been super interested philosopher Alain de Botton’s ideas about art. He says art should teach us how to live better lives, and has some suggestions as to how galleries could do this better:
- Arrange art galleries by theme (rather than chronology). We would have a section of the gallery for a different human experiences and feelings, like grief, hope or rejection. These sections would hold the pieces relevant to this theme, so we can connect the pieces and experience what they have to teach us about that topic in a coherent way.
- Caption the pieces in a more meaningful way. Very few people care that it’s oil on canvas from 1754, commissioned by the Duke of god knows where then sold to the gallery in 1905. Instead, Botton would write captions prompting us to think about the story behind the piece. What do the subjects feel and why? What is the story behind the piece? What does this tell us about our own lives?
As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve done a little more research on artworks that stuck in my mind and tried to find more meaningful ways to relate to them.
What’s the story
If you have, you might have a different interpretation of what’s going on in that girl’s face. She’s only a maid, but her mistress’s artistic husband has inappropriately asked her to model for this painting. She’s in the process of working out her place and identity in a complex world. She’s balancing demands, navigating relationships and playing with the social and economic constraints of her time. She’s not just another face in an art gallery. She has a life story.
I feel like I can appreciate the artwork so much more now that I can put a story to the face. It is so much more engaging. Maybe art galleries could tell us more stories about the faces they display.
Art asks us to think differently
Titian’s Venus of Urbino was one of pieces I encountered in the Uffizi, Florence. Just like thousands of others before me, I fell in love with her immediately.
I love that she’s curvy and doesn’t perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty, like similarly racy images so often do today. Before I get too carried away, it’s important to note that she’s not exactly the pinnacle of feminism. In her accessible and colourful book, ‘A Short Book About Art’ (which I picked up after feeling bewildered at the Uffizi) Dana Arnolds highlights an issue with this kind of art:
Since the renaissance [the female body] has been presented in art as the object of male desire.
So while the male nude represents the perfection of the human body, the females nudes such as this are objects created for the consumption of male eyes, rather than appreciation of the body’s intrinsic beauty.
The political target of this piece was less about protesting gender inequality and more about challenging ideas and taboos surrounding marital sex. She’s looking at us so sweetly, but also confidently and directly. It’s suggested that her hand’s location is less about modesty, than for her own enjoyment. She’s not ashamed of her sexuality:
The lush, naked Venus directs at the viewer a liquid gaze full of sweet surrender and yearning tenderness. She seems to be completely at ease with her inclined to corpulence form, displaying a confidence and openness that make her even more charming and desirable; her body, tilted slightly towards the viewer, throat exposed, lies in a pose of suggestion, or perhaps a demand. – Art & Critique
I overheard a tour guide explaining that the dog on the bed symbolises her fidelity to her husband. So we know that despite her provocative position and open sexuality, she’s not a prostitute or an unfaithful wife.
The image overall can be viewed as one giving legitimacy to the idea of sexuality, and endorsing intercourse (between a husband and a wife) as positive and desirable. Catholic dogma of marital intimacy and procreative sex as inferior to celibacy, and as of being merely the lesser of two evils between itself and extramarital relations, dissolves in this image. – Art & Critique
Hilariously, Mark Twain had a lot to say about this painting in his travelogue Tramp Abroad.
You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world –the Tribune– and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed –no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl –but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to –and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her –just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world…yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words….There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery.
I could imagine this piece in a gallery section themed marriage. It could be joined by the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (below), another piece I saw in the Uffizi, but that has something very different to say about marriage.
Art as self expression
This was another piece that I was fascinated by in the Uffizi. My immediate thoughts consisted of ‘yay girl power’ and ‘omg so badass.’ But some further reading about this piece has made it a million times more meaningful to me.
It was painted by a woman, Artemisia Gentileschi, which was a pretty damn impressive thing during the magnificent but undeniably male-centric renaissance. But she was ready to take them on. When a client doubted her ability on the basis of her gender she replied: ‘I’ll show you what a woman can do.’
The story of this painting follows the Biblical character of a voluptuous and brave widow named Judith. She’s frustrated with her compatriots for failing to trust God to save them from the foreigners, so she takes things into her own hands. She and her maid go for a cheeky stroll into enemy territory, right into the centre of their camp and introduces herself to their leader, Holofernes. She says that she is a double agent, and will give him strategic information about the Israelites. He takes a liking to her and drunkenly allows her into his tent. Dumb choice Holofernes! She beheads him and takes his decapitated head back to her chicken-shit people. Now the enemy have lost their leader they can no longer operate and Israel is safe again. What a cool, independent, badass woman to admire! (Although admittedly decapitation is not my preferred method for smashing the patriarchy).
Knowing the story behind this courageous woman gives life to this gory, brutal painting. But this isn’t the end of the backstory behind this painting…
This painting is a self-portrait.
Gentileschi had her own struggle against men who didn’t respect or value her work because she was a woman. She’d been cheated out of payments and remarked that: ‘If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.’
Unfortunately unequal pay was not the end of the misogyny she faced in her lifetime.
Her family were not very high in social status, and her father had a few unseemly friends. One such friend was Agostino Tassi. He was a painter who had served time in prison for rape and incest. He had also arranged for his wife (a prostitute) to be murdered by bandits (although she survived). However, he was also a painter and mentored Artemisia in her work. Then he found her alone, painting in the house and he forced himself upon her.
In 1612, Artemisia’s father brought a lawsuit against Agostino for raping his daughter. The trial involved torturing her with thumbscrews to determine whether she was telling the truth about the rape. As if that weren’t sufficiently traumatic, she was also subjected to a gynaecological examination in front of the judge.
As Agnès Merlet, director of the film depicting the artist’s life, states: ‘But whatever the truth of his allegations, for me the trial itself was a rape, a physical and psychological violation of both her body and her private life.’
Judith Slaying Holofernes was painted during this trial. We could imagine that the bloody violence of the piece expresses her passionate anger against the patriarchal, misogynistic society that committed these horrific wrongs against her.
I feel like if I’d had this information at the time I saw the painting, I would’ve responded totally differently. Now I’ve read up about Artemisia’s life, I feel this sense of admiration for her, and solidarity with her as a groundbreaking feminist of her time who faced unbelievable challenges. This changes the way I relate to her art. I wish the gallery had provided this information in it’s exhibition of the piece.
Am I arting right?
In her aforementioned book, Arnolds quotes Picasso:
As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.
Maybe the whole point of art is to say things visually, without words and explanations. Mozart doesn’t need to write an explanation for his masterpieces. I understand what Vivaldi is saying when I hear The Four Seasons because I feel it in my heart.
Maybe I just don’t understand the language Picasso is talking about yet. Maybe meaningful captions and stories are just training wheels for those of us who’ve not yet learnt how to appreciate art standing alone. But I’m more inspired than ever to learn how to do this.