Friday, April 10, 2009

The incongruity of peacocks

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486), egg tempera and oil on canvas transferred from wood, 2070 x 1467mm, Collection of the National Gallery, London

While over the years in my professional life I have written many hundreds -- quite possibly thousands -- of extended labels for art exhibitions, the number of exhibition labels I have wanted to read in a personal capacity can probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. When I look at a work of art in a gallery, or an object in a museum, I am quite happy to do so without knowledge, or at least only the prior knowledge I might bring to my encounter with the work: if what I see interests me enough, then I might find out what it is, or who made it and when it was produced, but it's most unlikely that I'll seek interpretation and contextual information while standing there actually looking at the thing.

When I'm visiting a gallery or a museum, I'm there less for education and more for experience, for the opportunity to become immersed in another way of seeing the world -- to see something I couldn't have imagined by myself. If I simply can't get what I've seen out of my head and have to know more -- specifically to understand the context of its production -- then I'll buy the catalogue on my way out, and think about it later. I don't think I'm alone in this way of dealing with cultural objects.

(One can, of course, simply ignore extended labels when visiting a public art gallery, but it takes a strong will not to read a sign on the wall: we're all conditioned to do so.)

Here's novelist J.G. Ballard's view of the matter, which I came across recently in his terrific autobiography Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, published last year after his diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2006. (He's working on what is quite possibly going to be his last book, whose working title is Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life, at the moment.) Since adolescence, Ballard's intellectual touchstones have been Freud and the Surrealists, whose ideas landed like 'a stick of bombs' for him in the middle-class drawing room of his grandparents after his experiences in war-torn Shanghai as a child. (“I felt, and still do, that psychoanalysis and surrealism were a key to the truth about existence and the human personality, and also a key to myself.”)

"I am sure that a large part of the enduring mystery of the Renaissance masterpieces, in the National Gallery was due to the absence of the explanatory matter that now drains away much of the strangeness and poetry of the Old Masters. I would stare at Crivelli's Annunciation, charmed by the peacocks, loaves of bread and other incongruous items, the passer-by reading a book on the bridge and the Virgin in her jewel box of a house. I was forced to use my own imagination to stitch these elements into a master narrative that made some kind of sense, rather than read an extended wall caption and be solemnly told that the peacock was a symbol of eternal life. Perish the thought, and let the exquisite bird be itself, and nothing more or less than itself. What could be more natural, and more mysterious, than a peacock and a loaf of bread appearing on the scene to celebrate the forthcoming birth of the Saviour?"

J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, An Autobiography, London: Fourth Estate, 2008, p. 155.

1 comment:

Dylan Taylor said...

A peacock driving a Mexican lowrider, wearing a gold chain and rapping about the arrival of the saviour would also be fairly incongruous, but equally engrossing.

I'm also pretty stoked to see that laser beam blasting out from the heavens - I take that as history's way of saying that heaven is a 24 hour rave and god wants yon virgin to chomp on some "ecclestiastica" (ecclesteez, ecstasy) and "reach 4 da lazerrrrz!".

I like the idea that art should be able to be appreciated on at least a basic level without having a degree in art history or having read an essay about the artist. I do however think it's really important to at least have a starting point for the viewer to sink their teeth into (especially in conceptual work - which is often so purposefully ambiguous and esoteric that I can't spare the time to even approach it).

I also agree that a blow by blow explanation of any artist's work is overly prescriptive and kills the fun in viewing art. Then again, what would I know. Healthy middle ground anyone?