Looking, Looking But Not Seeing


The Musee d'Orsay.

The cavernous expanse of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay is one of the world’s most pleasurable places to see art. Even with the 5th floor Impressionist Galleries undergoing the first full-scale renovation since its 1986 opening, this must-see collection of 19th century French art housed in a once long closed railway station and one time site of Orson Welles’ film, The Trial, dazzles the visitor with one iconic painting after another. And even with masses of newly itinerant Chinese tourists, weighed down with kilos of digital cameras, cruising the galleries (and unlike the Louvre, with photography mercifully interdit in the collection), the vaulted ceiling with its bright but diffused skylights invites you to stroll as if you were in an Impressionist’s plein air park.

While I was standing in front of George Seurat’s large pointillist painting Le Cirque, an almost precursor to Pop Art in its brightly colored, flat, cartoon-like surface, a family wandered in front of me, breaking my sight line and concentration. The family’s child, a boy of about 8 years, stopped, even as the others continued on, clearly captivated by the painting. Like much of Seurat’s work it is easy to get lost in the surface riot of thousands of colored paint dots that somehow cohere into a magical canvas that never fails to command the attention of children. (Even the frame is painted by the artist.) Seeing that his son had come to a stop and had broken the stream-like flow of visitors who never seem to actually pause and look at more than an attribution label, the father headed back and grabbed his son’s arm. Then he said, “Come on, Josh, we have a poster of that one at home.”

“Le Cirque” by George Seurat.

A poster at home? We all have posters at home, in one way or another. We are swamped with them, reproductions of artworks from every corner of the globe we can imagine, and if not actual posters, then books, videos or easily available internet sites to download them, just as I do for these essays. We can print almost any image we can think of. The very ubiquity of reproductions of the world’s storehouses of painting, sculpture and photography have turned most iconic images into cultural “everydays”, even clichés, duplicated, reworked, manipulated, imitated in other media as commercial selling devices--- to the extent that when we actually see one of these signature works in person, we are not even certain what we are looking at or how to break through all the previous iterations we have seen, to somehow see the work itself with fresh eyes, even if we are in fact seeing it for the first time.

The day before my visit to the Musée d’Orsay, I had toured the Louvre collections, starting with its now accepted pyramid entryway by I.M. Pei.

I.M.Pei Entry Courtyard of the Louvre Museum.

The Louvre does allow cameras in the galleries and the constant shuffling around of shutterbugs makes it almost impossible to concentrate on a single work. Why the hell would I be in a major Paris museum in mid-July, anyway? Well, it was not to encounter this, though clearly I did:

That dark speck on the back wall is the “Mona Lisa.”

In the adjacent Grande Gallery of the Denon Wing of Italian paintings, any number of other great Leonardos attract scant attention as the crowds press toward Gallery Six, home to the bullet-proof encased Mona Lisa, personal video cameras running constantly in an endless Louvre length tracking shot, eyes locked on the flip screens as they pass the ranks of quatro and cinque cento paintings.

Just what is going on here with the father tugging his son away from the Seurat, and with the Lourdes-like pilgrimage to worship the eternally enigmatic smile of “La Giaconda”? Then, a few hours later, I walked through the beautifully displayed Classical Greek galleries. Most of the visitors here appeared to be Japanese. As I approached the timeless beauty of the armless Venus de Milo at the head of the gallery, I spotted a plaque thanking the generous contribution of Japanese NHK Television toward the galleries’ refurbishing.

The centerpiece of the newly refurbished Greek Galleries.

Clearly, back at home in Japan, NHK had made no secret of its awarding of this endowment to the Louvre, and millions of Japanese TV viewers knew all about it. Of course, TV being the great culture purveyor that it is, they now had to see the results for themselves.

Most of us are fortunate enough to see art in a more intimate (hopefully) encounter than this annual mid-summer stampede, and indeed there are niches in both the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay where you can quietly study masterpieces. I retreated to one of those out of the way corners at the d’Orsay, behind a massive Courbet painting, The Artist’s Studio, and tried to sort out in my own distracted head, not the masterful paintings and sculptures I had been seeing—but the mindset of this insistent, almost manic, stream of people who seemed hell-bent on looking at, or at least in the direction of, everything.

“The Painter's Studio” by Gustave Courbet.

What if—what if, in fact, many of them were not really seeing the art at all but just casually looking? Not seeing, not because of the crowds, although that was powerfully distracting, but because they already in a sense felt that they knew these paintings and sculptures? In life, when we meet a fellow human for the first time we study the face, the posture, listen to the voice, try to “read” the person, and make initial impressions about his character, try to sort out from the start how we may relate to this person. As we get to know someone this close examination most often falls away and we become more comfortable, even casual in their company, less prone to scrutiny. Or, conversely, once seen carefully, we decide to give that person a wide berth. Do we possibly look at paintings and sculptures  in a similar way?

I was staying at a small hotel on the Île St. Louis, the smaller of the two “islands” splitting the Seine as it flows through Paris. The north end of the Île St. Louis yields a great back view of Notre Dame and its flying buttresses.

Every day I walked past Notre Dame along one side or the other, leaving and returning to my hotel. As I passed, hundreds of tourists were snapping photos of this great edifice. There is a real sense of delight in standing beside one of the West’s most famous buildings and having your picture taken, or as I had done myself, taking a quick snap to send to Carol on the morning of my arrival — to say “Hey, I’m in Paris.” But after having made a few photos or video pans most tourists move on, not unlike the procession of pilgrims in the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay.

Sitting behind the great Courbet canvas of The Artist's Studio in d’Orsay I began to reflect on what exactly I was encountering here. Tourists were coming from the four corners of the globe to have a personal experience of viewing great art and architecture, yet many of them seemed oddly detached when actually standing in front of that very art. Simple travel fatigue? Data overload? Or something more ominous? I know that most guidebooks have a kind of hit-list of must see art. The actual experience of seeing that great museums like the Louvre contain an almost inexhaustible number of masterpieces well beyond the scope of any well-intentioned guidebook, can leave you with a kind of mind-blitz. But what is the effect, say, of stopping in front of one of Monet’s “Haystacks” if you have seen it and a dozen of its companions in a Monet art monograph, or in a TV documentary, or as a poster you had during your student days, hanging in your dorm room ? Excitement at finally seeing it in real life? Or a kind of déjà vu ennui?

In an essay from last January I examined six of these wonderful paintings that are at the Art Institute of Chicago and how they never fail to delight me anew:

John’s Bailiwick: Claude Monet’s “Haystacks” in Chicago blog entry


Standing behind the Courbet painting, I began to recall bits of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay from 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin’s overlay of Marxism may compromise his work for many of today’s readers, but his prescient thoughts about how the Capitalist (read “commercial”) perspective affects our ability to experience art, still resonates, perhaps even more than he could then have foreseen. Much of the essay is actually a critique of the movies rather than painting or photography. But two simple sentences he uses cut to the quick of how many of us today experience art:

“ …that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.… . By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique experience.”

In our efforts to become cultured citizens of society we study art and fit it into its place in political and social history, a role that often removes the art itself from its real intent — the unique creative expression of the artist or artists, even if the work were done “for hire” as was the case for much of the religious art that fills these museums today. There may be a kind of unintentional contextualization of the work itself that is antecedent in our minds to our actual viewing of it. What and how much prior information and judgment do we bring to that initial encounter, a kind of prepackaged internal discourse? Is it difficult to truly see the art we are looking at, at this very moment, because we are already pre-disposed to experience it in a certain way? Are the very tools that are meant to prepare us to engage with art also a kind of impediment to actually doing so? Or, conversely, are we somewhat indifferent to this “contextualization” because we have swallowed the pill of “art for art’s sake,” that the art itself is freestanding beyond the ken of any set of historical conditions?

My own first encounter with “art history” as a formal exegesis was when I was a student in Innsbruck while on a junior year abroad program. I was auditing a university art history class in an effort to expand my German vocabulary. The course was a deeply focused seminar on Surrealism and I was in way over my head, not only in the use of German art critical cant but in just what the hell Surrealism is. But instead of running through a cavalcade of famous paintings by the movement’s major artists, the professor showed us about a dozen slides at each class session and examined each work from multiple perspectives. What I brought away from the course as a gift from this marvelous teacher was a methodical way of looking at art. Even though I struggled with the art terms in German, the passion with which he moved his pointer over the image, the focusing of our eyes on detail after detail, then pulling back for an overview, informed an approach that has remained with me to this day.

I am not very sanguine that this approach is any way close to the way many of us today are experiencing art. Watching so many young people sort of briefly pause or stutter-step past works they recognize or not even cruise past ones they don’t, makes me wonder about just how pervasive this errant way of looking may be. Are the very media that are purveyors of cultural material also contributing to our becoming inured to the experience of art? Is it easy for us to look at art, but difficult to really see it? Is it so tough to break through the accretions of familiarity created by reproductive media, in order to have a real experience? And if one wants to extrapolate wider, does this sense of instant familiarity dampen or even occlude our ability to experience the external world itself, the real world? Does the world we live in become a kind of simulacrum of what we have seen already in film or on television, the principal media that occupy ever more of our waking hours? Think of the cliché of the tourist who visits the Grand Canyon or “Old Faithful” at Yellowstone Park, recording the experience with a hastily taken video, and whose principal experience of it will emerge only in watching the video on his TV back home.


How do we create an “authentic experience” of art, or of the world itself, and of our fellow humans in an age when so much experience, art and life, is commodified? It’s not easy. Benjamin wrote of the “aura” of art. He elaborated by saying:

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.”

On the surface, this may be true. But if this view is also the limiting element of how we experience art, then there is no significant point to studying it. But, if art is an expression of universal as well as local impulses, then our focus on its particular ethos may enrich our experience, even though it does not define or limit it. Art should be a witness of and a testament to our shared humanity and to its diversity. The very particulars of time and place that may deepen our appreciation of art demand a lot of work, not a casual walk-by. On the wall adjacent to Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio is another even more important canvas in the history of 19th Century painting. It is his A Burial at Ornans. Both of these paintings are about 10 x 20 feet in size, larger than many movie screens, a fact that creates a totally different in person viewing experience than studying any poster-sized reproduction or a blog-sized one like this.

As I looked toward this painting, a group of about 30 English school children were sitting on the floor as a museum guide explained to them in close detail why this great work is one of the masterpieces of Western art. Its apotheosis of the common man rendered on a heroic scale had previously been reserved mainly for documenting religious and royal events. The young people were riveted both by the richly detailed story narrated by the guide and by the sheer overwhelming scale and presence of the painting. You can read a museum commentary about it here:

Musée d’Orsay article link

A critical consensus builds around certain works of art, ever shifting and subject to re-evaluation—but nonetheless, one that becomes a kind of “canon.” And it is this canon with its hierarchy of value that is presented to us as part of our cultural education. As I stood in the space behind Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio I saw another painting, completely hidden from view unless you, too, had walked behind the Courbet canvas. It was set against the museum’s Seine sidewall. In the 15 or so minutes that I stood there examining this huge work, about 13 by 18 feet, only two people entered the area. This “academic” painting titled Divina Tragedia (an allusion to Dante’s great poem) by mid-nineteenth century Salon painter Paul Chenavard, is one of the losers of art history.

“Divina Tragedia” by Paul Chenavard.

Maligned at the time of its completion by both fellow academics and insurgent critic-poet Charles Baudelaire, it had been set aside early after its creation, only rediscovered by the Musée du Luxembourg in 1974. The d’Orsay website describes its fate:

Musée d’Orsay article link

Echoes of great Renaissance frescoes and Baroque ceiling murals pervade this painting. It is a totally Academy style work created as a dying gasp of the Old Order during the heart of the plein air and Impressionist revolutions. Its fleshly, heroic ambitions do seem in certain ways to be all of two hundred years out of date. Yet I was riveted by it. Every bit of the critical pre-conditioning I brought to this painting seemed to call out for its dismissal—yet the work was executed with such technical and aesthetic perfection, even to the choice of a pastel-like near grisaille rendering of tone and texture, that I found myself overwhelmed by it. Here are several closer details:

“Divina Tragedia” (detail).
“Divina Tragedia” (detail).

I stood there for a long time in a kind of art-critical feedback loop thinking about why so many people could walk casually past some of the world’s most revered masterpieces and why I could be way-layed by a painting hanging in this gallery, put there mainly as an example of the kind of painting the Courbet Realist revolution had decimated. How does one begin to answer these kinds of questions? Perhaps, it’s a simple matter of “à chacun son goût.” What is important, finally, is that we each have to decide for ourselves what is meaningful. And we can really only do that if we make the effort to engage the art on its own terms, in its own place.

On my way out of the d’Orsay I realized I had missed seeing the paintings of Gustave Caillebotte whose great Paris Street: Rainy Day is one of the highlights of the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and, along with the Monet Haystacks, a must see whenever I am in Chicago.

“Paris Street: Rainy Day” by Gustave Caillebotte.

This painting has been described by some as “a major painting by a minor painter,” an art critical condescension that has annoyed me since I saw a major retrospective of Caillebotte’s work years ago at LACMA. D’Orsay has my favorite painting of the entire early modernist movement, a medium sized canvas by this sometimes putative “amateur.” It is called “The Floor Scrapers.”

“The Floor Scrapers” by Gustave Caillebotte.

I saw several paintings by this enigmatic artist that day — but not the “Floor Scrapers.” This painting has been one of my own pleasures for decades, since I first saw it in the Jeu de Paume back when the d’Orsay was still an abandoned railway station. I can’t call it a guilty pleasure exactly, because it is so highly regarded — by some. But why did I not see it today at the d’Orsay? Did I simply miss it? Or has some curator or art historian seen it as a future Divina Tragedia, no longer a part of the “canon”?

It is exactly this kind of painting that is waiting for an eager eight-year-old child to find, take to his eyes and heart — and hopefully with an equally curious dad or mom in tow, stop and see it together—even if they already have a poster of it at home.

As always, please share your thoughts and comments.



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