Beautiful things we hide

How do I love thee? Let me lock you up.

Sounds a bit harsh, but isn’t that what we do with beautiful things?

Guggenheim Museum, New York City. I actually really like this circular space, but the walls are still white and you’re still looking at works of art in a museum.

We stick masterpieces in sterile environments like museums and art galleries. On one hand, this preserves the art. On the other, it sucks the life right out of them.

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The building’s exterior may be unique, but the galleries inside look much like any other museum.

If art is meant to imitate life, where does life happen? In schools, streets, libraries, places of worship, pubs, cafés, offices, homes, malls, parks, public spaces—the list goes on. Instead of having beautiful things all grouped together in one place, wouldn’t art integrated with life enrich our day-to-day experiences?

How much more significant would it be to encounter Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère that I wrote about here when you’re ordering your drink at a bar? You would literally become that invisible yet reflected customer in the mirror who’s supposed to feel a bit uncomfortable.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. 1881-82. By Edouard Manet

Or how about seeing Degas’ Portraits in an Office or Edmond Duranty in your own office or workplace? The stack of papers and expression that says, “where do I begin?” looks pretty familiar.

Portraits in an Office, New Orleans. 1873. By Edgar Degas.

Edmond Duranty, 1879. By Edgar Degas.

There’s something about seeing art in the context it references that adds to the viewer’s experience. You don’t get the same effect when viewing art in a neutral space like a museum where every other painting shares the same backdrop. Let’s spread out the beauty. Many cities do have public art installations. How about indoors? Most restaurants and cafés hang art on their walls – I actually talked about this in my last post. Maybe even your workplace does. Can we extend this to other spheres we live life in too?

For example, I’m not a huge shopper and I have a strong dislike for malls, but even I would find a sterile suburban mall slightly more bearable if decorated with artwork such as these by modern Impressionist painter Leonid Afremov:

Day of Shopping. By Leonid Afremov

I’d be doing the same activity as these shoppers on canvas — there’s an affinity there between painted and real subjects. I am in their scene and they are in mine. In this way, seeing art in the context it references helps remove some of the distance between art and viewer that tends to get put up when visiting art in a museum. Even the term “visiting” has an alienating quality to it, like we are entering a world separated from ours when the two are, in fact, inseparable – nor should they be. I’m not saying every painting has to be put in the context it depicts (sometimes a piece speaks to us more if it seems out of place)  but I do think we should consider and play with the powerful space where art and life intersect.

Shopping District. By Leonid Afremov

What spaces in your life would you like to see come alive with art?

I’ll leave you with the song that inspired these thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “Beautiful things we hide

  1. Ah, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is one of my favourite paintings. The idea of seeing it in a bar is interesting but I feel that the distractions around me would detract from seeing it. I like to see art everywhere but there’s something special, holy even, about art galleries. I’ll ponder what it would be like to be in a late night diner staring at Night Hawks

  2. Hmm, you make a good point about the sacredness of art galleries. I do think the danger of seeing art in more everyday contexts can run the risk of failing to appreciate it because it becomes so ordinary or, like you say, can get lost in all the other distractions. So maybe feeling like you’re “visiting” a different world when you go to an art gallery is a good thing? I’ll have to think on this some more…Thanks for stopping by and also for introducing me to Nighthawks. I’ve (embarrassingly) never seen this painting before! obviously my knowledge of American art could use some expansion.

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