How to Look at Paintings in an Art Museum
An effective yet easy approach to art appreciation that anyone can use
At the beginning of my twelve-year-long journey to rethink and reinvent a traditional, run-of-the-mill National Museum of Fine Arts into a humanist or human-friendly museum, I decided to spend time with schoolchildren visiting the museum, touring them around the galleries and highlighting artworks on display. My ambition was twofold; getting to know my publics and developing the apposite methodologies to help them acknowledge a collection as a resource proper.
The museum display was, back then, a linear presentation of regional schools of art presented chronologically in ways rarely attractive to young visitors, most of whom would be visiting an art museum for the very first time. These groups would often be hyper and keen on having fun in ways and means generally not associated with museums—to catch their attention and keep it for the whole length of their visit proved to be no easy feat. The visiting classes often seemed like a bull in a china shop, in the literal sense of the phrase.
I used to do these tours with great pleasure. It was often all about negotiating knowledge, or the type, format, and language required to communicate and present an artwork effectively and beyond any knowledge levels generally associated with art museums. Knowledge was, to all intents and purposes, all about access to an artwork holding meaning that was generally not seen or immediately perceived when visiting a museum. It had less to do with art history, given that students would not have the necessary background knowledge to appreciate a painting. Indeed, it was all about helping students break the ice and look at a painting, despite the lack of connoisseurship. Years later, I would be lecturing on Visual Literacy… which was what I was then experimenting with.
Back to the students and their tour. My introduction would be generally inspired by what Pablo Picasso once said:
“Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”
This would be the metaphor for week after week of engagements with young audiences. My challenge was to work with an audience keen on the fun and excitement of a museum visit, and never let them experience the cliche of a boring museum tour. This is where my choice of paintings and artworks proved to be strategic.
How to Look at “Fire on the Tiber”
The painting which gave me the most rewarding insight on uninhibited perceptions towards works of art was this version by French eighteenth century artist Claude Joseph Vernet (1714–1789) entitled “Fire on the Tiber”. This is one from his repertoire of paintings inspired by the forces of nature. It is essentially monochrome to highlight the darkness of the night and the raging fire in the background, with only minor touches of colour in the foreground.
How would it unfold and happen?
My class would be made to sit comfortably on the floor, often using cushions or comfortable blankets strewn all over the floor. Students would be asked to look closely at the painting right in front of them. As they settled down, I would introduce them to the magic phrase inspired by Picasso. I would make no mention of the artist, neither any reference to the technical, artistic and art historical value of the painting.
Instead, I exposed them to the painting, and hand-held them to break the ice by engaging with this work of art they would know little about, with two direct questions inspired by Picasso’s much-cited phrase. I asked them versions of these questions:
What did the artist see when painting this picture and, subsequently, what type of emotive response would he have experienced?
What would anyone standing in front of the painting feel if there was the opportunity to immerse oneself into the story?
Reactions to these two questions helped students break the ice and engage with a painting they had never seen before. Most of the answers and reactions would be informed by personal circumstances or ambitions, background, and general knowledge, aptitudes and skills.
What did the artist see, and what can you see?
Answers and reactions to this question would be, at first, straightforward. The painting would be immediately described as a fire happening next to water. Some would note the commotion happening in the foreground as a sizeable group of people seeks shelter away from the uproar happening in the background. With more time, more observations would be articulated. The galley in the background would be scrutinized down to details and descriptions would also include things happening behind the structure in the background or onboard the galley — although these were not featured by Vernet. By that point, the painting would have become a narrative proper.
If you had to be part of the scene, what would your reaction be? How would you behave, what would you do, what might you smell, see, fear…?
This is when things would become much more enticing and the group more engaged. This is when the extent of the raging fire would be understood much more, as this is practically the only source of light in the picture. Another reaction would be fear, with shouting elicited as a reaction to circumstances depicted by Vernet. I remember the group shouting their hearts out infront of the painting.
Those who were conversant with the smell of firewood burning at home during cold, wintry months would also comment on the smell. The more sensitive classmates would also imagine the sound of moving waters and the creaking noises of tight rigging tensioning against the wooden planks of the galley.
The answers to both questions… and the outcome?
I think the method is pretty straightforward. You can elicit a broad range of emotive responses by simply looking carefully at a painting, exploring the subject, and letting the work of art speak for itself. It yields a soundscape that it encapsulates in between its brushstrokes and allows the paint on canvas to come to life.
Once hearts and minds become receptive to the emotive responses that a work of art can elicit, you might as well then look for who the artist who painted this work is.
What I was experiencing back then was not about art history studies, but about how publics engage with art and what they understand that to be. For a child with no inhibitions or not yet having been educated out of creativity (as Sir Ken Robinson aptly puts it), this would have been a relatively easy task to handle … it is certainly the case of bridging what John Falk describes as the “knowledge luggage” of assumptions and experience that every visitor brings with him to a museum.
The method is simple to use and explore, although it may not necessarily work for any painting. Landscapes are great to work with. In a sense, this is akin to the ten sentences that primary school teachers asked their pupils to draft in response to an image pasted on the child’s copybook, which I remember very well from my childhood days.
How to Do It Yourself
You can try this out with family and friends when visiting a museum or an exhibition in three simple steps.
- Choose your picture carefully. Start from a straightforward subject that is easy to engage with. Do not look at the caption or description — you can forget all about it as it does not matter who the artist is.
- Look at the painting and take time to explore the subject. Try to describe it in your own words, starting from the main characters or features, and slowly work your way around the work of art.
- Immerse yourself in the subject. Imagine what sounds or noise the subject hints at, the conversations happening, what other senses might be engaged, and your emotive response if you were actually present.
Remember to begin with landscapes and subjects that are relatively easy to engage with. Go for a more complex subject, such as abstract or conceptual art, once you feel comfortable.
Once done, do look up the painting to check what the experts had to say about it. A quick look at the caption will give you more information about the artist—and that can lead you on to more!