One afternoon several years ago, an attendant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art became angry with me because I was using a pen in the galleries. Too much danger that the ink would harm the art; no matter that I was sitting fifteen feet away from the nearest painting. Alright, point taken. I would have gladly switched to a pencil if I’d had one. But what really upset me was that the attendant didn’t realize the importance of what I was doing.
I’m no artist; instead, I was scrawling words in a spiral notebook. Doubtless I looked like some student visiting the museum as an assignment. In reality, I was making notes for future books that I would write, trying to create a new kind of humanism for the 21st century. I aspired to be one of the great movers of Western civilization; I came to study in the museum because these master painters were my kin.
Prof. Richard Brettell laments the fact that we don’t see many sketch artists in museums nowadays. In the Louvre’s early years, dozens of artists would line the great galleries, set up with their easels and sketch boards to make copies of the great art before them. But they weren’t just making copies: they made subtle changes of their own, emphasizing those aspects of the art that drove them to create. Cézanne, for example, studied the lines and movement of the great statues he found in the Louvre, as you can see in the sketch below left (now held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ironically).
The sketch at the beginning of this post, of American Impressionist Mary Cassatt studying an Etruscan tomb, reminds us that museum-going is hard work (thanks to Prof. Brettell for this observation). It’s hours and hours on your feet; you have to think about your tired legs, have to rest on benches and chairs throughout your progress. It’s mental work, too. You’re trying to create something out of the painting, whether that’s knowledge of an artist/movement or a new idea about the world.
When I go to a museum, I feel impelled to stop often and write, so that I can create something out of the experience. The benches, for me, are for writing in a frenzy. The ideas come and fill pages and pages, and so interrupt my progress through the museum. I go in fits and starts; it’s exhausting, the creation.
Prof. Brettell says that the most important visitors to the Louvre have been artists, since they have been the most productive, creating new art out of what they have seen. But what if the visiting creators weren’t just artists? What if they were writers, musicians, philosophers, general citizens – anyone who wanted ideas of how to shape this world. (More on this in my next post.) That’s what the study of past art is for: constant new creation. Cassatt knew that, Cézanne knew that, I know it too.
How about you? What experiences have you had in museums? What are some thoughts/ideas you’ve had while looking at art?