This past summer, as I was wandering through the rooms of the Museé d‘Orsay in Paris, I had a realization. I had reached the fifth floor, the crown of impressionist art, when I caught myself engaging in something that felt wrong. After observing the first few paintings, I noticed I had fallen into a routine, a bad habit, an incorrect way of seeing things — approach the painting, read the label, then look at the painting, judge and walk away.
“This isn’t fair,” I thought. I wasn’t appreciating the canvas for what it was: the technique, the colors or the beauty of what lay within the frames. Instead, in a museum filled with masterpieces, I was paying the most attention to the white squares in Arial font that were glued a few inches away from the golden borders of the paintings. A small and worthless caption was, in some way, telling me whether I should pay attention to it, or if I should just walk past it as if it wasn’t even there in the first place.
I would engage in an automated maneuver: Monets and Van Goghs made me stop in my tracks, merely because the name — or dare I say, the brand — made me feel I should. Yet for those that I was unfamiliar with, I would mindlessly and ignorantly skip past them, neglecting their very existence, ignoring their potential.
I began thinking about how different it would be if they hadn’t been there to start with. What if I could go back, forget what I had read and re-enter the exhibition all over again? I’d be aware, of course, that I was walking into a showcase of impressionist and post-impressionist art, but this time without the temptation of prejudice or the help of someone else’s judgments. It would be more difficult, certainly, but I would be the sole creator of my opinion, the owner of my experience. Diving into this unknown, informed only by the dialogue I created between myself and the work, would allow me to see the art for what it truly was.
This is not to say that the context of a work should be hidden from its audience or that artists aren’t an important, or even essential, part of interpreting art. These details can unlock meaning by placing us in time and space to understand a work’s subject and purpose. However, when they are revealed before the viewer has had the chance to create their opinion solely based on the work itself, a lot can be left out — what if I saw a flower where the artist painted a strawberry? What if I wanted to bask in the bliss of imagining Sisley’s town as a place I thought I knew, before understanding that no, I had yet to go to Louveciennes? A moment of bliss ruined, unnecessarily, and not by choice.
It made me think of how I had experienced art throughout my life. I reminisced on different scenarios in which labels had made me see a work differently than how I first did. At times, they had added value to my experience, like during my visit to a contemporary gallery selling art by emerging artists, in which I relied on labels as a starting point for my understanding of the work. Other times, they left me outright indifferent; but most often, they boxed out any other possible messages so that no room was left for my interpretation. If the museum said so, I guessed it must be so.
For example, I was at a Kandinsky show in New York a few weeks ago, and I saw a painting that immediately made me feel the joy I felt when listening to a beautiful song. I reached the opposite side of the museum and I intuitively did what I always do first — read the label. It mentioned no music, only industrialization, which I hadn’t perceived at all. I felt like I had failed, so I moved on, though a bitter aftertaste lingered as I left that exhibit behind. This clash of readings ignited an existential dilemma within me: What had art come to? Would the artist who spent so much time creating the work be content with us reducing it to six lines, a year and a location? Surely not.
What I then understood is that museums are institutions that can either nurture or deprive one’s ability to wholly grasp the essence of a work of art. The labels they include have the power to define the value the art has for us.
Thus, envisioning an ideal scenario in which a painting is presented to you in its original state is delusory. But what if for once, we got rid of all labels? If I could just reach the fifth floor of the Orsay, read the introductory blurb and be teleported into a specific time and space as I waltzed around. Swaying from painting to painting, stopping on those that caught my attention, stepping around Dega’s ballerina sculpture as if the ground below me was fresh snow — wanting to hear every crunch, every detail.
In this scenario, I would leave the room feeling inspired, having smelled the landscapes of impressionist work, having looked deep into the eyes of Flander girls, having even given careful attention to the reliefs in the frames … it has been a vis à vis.
I leave, and as I walk out the door, I understand the sweetness of having waited until the end to get the chewed information. I scan a QR code near the exit door and get redirected to a fancy-looking site. The facts come marching in — I learn that the painting with the flower field was by Monet and that the one that resembled it was Pissarro’s. I discover that the young lady with the ball gown and the soft complexion was done by a woman. A woman! Berthe Morisot, a disruption to the male-dominated art world.
I understand then that meeting the work for what it is and meeting the artist can happen at the same time. This time it was a rendezvous, not an intrusion. I think I like this better. Do you?