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Observations at an art gallery

June 20th, 2011

Filed under: ART & DESIGN


By Chris Rawlins, guest blogger

Looking vs reading a painting
There’s something terribly wrong with the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. As I went around, I felt it more and more. By the end of my visit, I knew exactly what it was. Van Gogh’s paintings are taking up too much space!

See, I came to this conclusion because that day I’d decided to free my eyes from the ‘information panel’ and concentrate on the paintings instead. As I wandered round, I found people absorbed in the one thing that I choose to avoid. At any one time, as I looked around, it seemed that at least 50% of the people were reading.

This struck me as strange. Here we were, in a building full of Van Goghs. We had all paid (well the adults at least) 14 euros for the pleasure to see this collection of work, and yet, many people still spent more time reading about than looking at the paintings.

Another thing I noticed was how some people glanced at the painting and then buried themselves into the information. Once satisfied with the information they glanced at the painting again and then repeated this with the next painting and then the next painting.  They obviously had a method.

Perhaps people were watching me too. If they were, they would’ve noticed something strange too. I was biting my tongue when I looked at the pictures. Yes, it is strange!  But I had my reasons.

Biting one’s tongue will increase engagement
The day before I read something on why 95% of language learners fail. Arkady Zilberman, once a simultaneous translator for the Soviet Union and now inventor of a new language learning methodology, believes that most people after the age of 18 become logical thinkers. Only a lucky five percent remain visual and that’s the main reason for such a high failure rate in language learning. I’m not sure I believe this but he added an interesting tip that he used in his teaching approach. When people heard or saw a word in their target language, he got them to hold their tongue between their teeth, as this prevented them from trying to pronounce the word or get caught up in translating it from their native language. Above all it made it easier for them to see in pictures.

Besides feeling a bit self-conscious, my visual approach had some advantages, I’d quickly dismiss paintings that didn’t interest me and move on to the ones that did.  I also spent time with the paintings that fascinated me.

The two paintings that I spent a lot of time on were The Potato Eaters and one of the portraits of Van Gogh himself.

Mysterious potatoes and mystical self-portraiture
The Potato Eaters (shown above) is an awkward and fascinating painting for me. The people seem too big for the room and the crude strokes created people with personalities. One of the women stares at the man who’s eating the potatoes. Her eyes are trying to say something. What, I don’t know.  His eyes are lost to the world. What is their story? Why? This painting made me wonder and wonder.

The self-portrait that I enjoyed the most is a radiant, brightly coloured and fiercely painted one. The strokes go outwards from the centre, which creates energy and Van Gogh looks like some crazed saviour. His eyes connect, his passion is felt and his thoughts, mmmm, are a little uneasy. This style of portrait has been taken up by the world religions. Strokes have been replaced by electric lights that flash around the gaudy heads of Jesus, Buddha and Shiva. Plastic has replaced Van Gogh’s canvas. It’s a very powerful portrait.

And what to do about the problem at the Van Gogh museum?
One option is to reduce the size of the Van Goghs.  We have the technology and it’s only fair.  I believe that we can reduce his paintings by 50% and that will allow us to proportionally increase the size of the information panel.  This will also allow us to increase the amount of information given on each painting, seeing as this is what people are interested in.

Another option is to bite your tongue and ignore the information given. This way, you’ll spend more time looking at people and paintings.

And a third option and the one I recommend, is to follow the advice in Jane’s article How to visit a museum.

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