Not so long ago I met up with a good pal in Manchester. I wanted to go to the Manchester Art Gallery because they had two exhibitions on that I was desperate to see, and so I took along a friend.
I must add that this friend has told me that they had never once set foot in a gallery and they felt extremely “cultured” to have now done it. Walking around, however, I realized that I really take it for granted how comfortable I feel in galleries.
Art is my passion and has been for years. For as long as I can remember my mum has taken me to galleries and so I grew up just KNOWING about them, but not everyone does.
So in this post, I’m going to try to answer 5 of the questions that my friend asked me as we walked around the gallery.
“Why is it so quiet?”
This is a really normal thing to wonder. Walking into a gallery is odd a first because such huge, and sometimes busy, halls are deathly quiet. As a fully pledged art geek, I can tell you that a big reason for this is concentration. Hard-core gallery goers like to focus on the work, and if it’s a booming ache of noise its hard to do that.
An example I have is from when I went to the National in London a few weeks ago.
I was admiring a Da Vinci piece (The Virgin on the Rocks) and noticed a man stood directly in front of it doing air brushstrokes.
Yes, he looked crazy, but he wasn’t. He was trying to figure out what Da Vinci did so he could learn and mimic that artistry in his own work. This level of focus just couldn’t happen if you had conversations about lunch, work, and gossip in the background.
“Why can’t you take pictures?”
These paintings are, to put it in the worst way possible, old af.
Some of them dating back to the 1400s, that’s 600 years ago.
It is a fact of life that eventually everything decays. These paintings have been moved, looked at, many have been restored and moved to multiple different galleries. That’s a lot to take and it leaves them fragile.
If not kept well the paint cracks, fades and flakes away. It’s easy to spot these as they look in a bad way and will only be from maybe 90 years ago but look in a worse condition that some of the oldest paintings in there.
Using flash while taking photos of these paintings will only speed up this decay. It causes the paint to fade and ultimately means that the painting is much more difficult to keep in perfect condition. Think of the Mona Lisa and Sunflowers, those iconic paintings will one day cease to exist but if we as an art community can keep them as pristine as possible for as long as possible you best believe we will do just that.
So please, I know being in the face of a masterpiece is breathtaking but you can just google it for a (probably better) picture.
Why art is hard to “get”
Simply. You don’t need to. Art does different things for different people. It makes us feel things, it inspires and amazes us.
The painting “The Ambassadors” for example is what I consider one of the most complex paintings of its time. From straight on it appears to have a grey smudge across the bottom, but when stood from the side the smudge is actually a skull. Something that is incredibly difficult to achieve now, let alone in 1533.
This painting is easy to admire without “getting it”. Looking at the history of the painting and its hidden meanings and secret feud between the two subjects, you see the deeper message of the painting. But you don’t have to.
You don’t have to know the artist’s techniques. You don’t have to know when it was painted or why or who for. You don’t have to know what style it is or who it is influenced by. Art snobs like people to think that one must know these things to enjoy art. Ignore them. That’s total BS. You can love a piece simply because it is beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
Why they all have awful names
“Portrait of a man”. “Man with Landscape”. “Portrait of a woman”. “Portrait of woman and child”.
These are all actual names of paintings in the Manchester Gallery.
“Why give them names like that? I mean they do all the hard work, create an actual masterpiece and then it’s like they give up. You’d think they’d be more creative?” were the words of my friend, who, admittedly, had a very good point.
I’m no expert and I don’t try to pretend to be but here’s what I think.
A lot of paintings from hundreds of years ago were painted for 2 reasons.
1) They were commissioned. So Lord and Lady whats-her-face paid the artist to paint a portrait. Paintings were that eras version of family pictures, so it didn’t need a name because it was going to a house and there was literally no need for a title. You don’t have titles for every picture in your house, do you? “Dad”, “Dad and Mum” it just doesn’t happen, and it didn’t then either.
2) It was painted for the artists own research, practice or for them to sell on. A lot of work found from famous artists were just kept at their house or wherever they could leave it, they often didn’t intend to sell a lot of it, or they couldn’t sell it. So when we find this work 100s of years later, it hasn’t been titled, because again, there was no need for it to be titled. If you paint 50 small portraits just to better your own painting you’re not going to bother to title them, they are unimportant to that artist, it just so happens that now they are priceless works of art.
Why galleries are intimidating (but really shouldn’t be)
Art snobbery is very present.
As I mentioned, some people think that you must look, dress, talk, act, think a certain way to belong in the fine art world. You don’t.
Art has no boundaries. It has no race, religion, age, class or intelligence. Galleries are slowly trying to incorporate a bigger audience, having “little artists” zones for children, but it’s not always enough.
Galleries don’t have to be serious or boring or scary. Art doesn’t either. Some art you will love, others you might not understand or might dislike. It’s okay. It’s just like music. You have to find YOUR thing. So visit a gallery. Visit a few. Visit a modern art gallery and a portrait gallery and a fine art gallery and an urban art gallery and a sculpture gallery. Visit all the galleries, why not?
And if anyone looks you up and down, remember you’re both looking at the same canvas with the same paint in the same place. You’re just doing it with a lot less judgment, so whos the real loser?
You’re welcome, you just got a glimpse of what a massive art nerd I am.
Big thanks to Manchester Art Gallery for always being my go-to art escape.
Also big thanks to the pal mentioned, they know who they are and I love them so much for 1) letting me drag them around a gallery 2) asking such ace questions and 3) letting me answer them in the geekiest way ever.