When I stepped into the René Magritte exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I stepped into a Magritte painting. The artist in many of his paintings depicted the ultimate “common man,” pudgy and ambivalent in bowler hat, overcoat, and cane. But Magritte placed this man in surreal contexts, like with a green apple in front of his face, or painted a thousand of these men falling from a blue sky like raindrops. It was the contrast of the two that gave his artworks their power and charm. As museum visitors entered the exhibit, they passed a tremendous tortoise-shell comb on carpeting of blue skies and white clouds. When I entered, I saw a thousand common men like in Magritte’s paintings, walking on sky and spawning like raindrops. Some were sizing up the comb and others were looking at Magritte’s painting of the comb leaning against a wall like that of the museum. Artist John Baldessari designed the gallery perhaps with these effects in mind. Next to some of Magritte’s works Baldessari placed artworks influenced by Magritte, drawing attention to the similarities between the two, and even, perhaps, bringing Magritte out of the past and into the day of contemporary artists. In some respects, this makes Magritte more accessible. In others, it merely glorifies him further; he becomes not just an artist, but a canonical one. I looked at the artworks differently than if the exhibit had consisted of a room with white walls, floor, and ceiling, of only Magritte works. In this case, I doubt I would have noticed the exhibit at all. By fading into the background, the design would have drawn attention only to Magritte’s paintings and his paintings alone. And this is what I would have studied. Instead, thanks to Baldessari, I took in Magritte’s paintings in their context. I compared them to the paintings they influenced and, in the end, compared myself to the objects of his paintings. Here I am, a common man like Magritte’s, trapped in a surreal world. What does this say about Magritte’s time and ours? Does it bridge the two? The answers really don’t matter. In his design, Baldessari has influenced the way we look at Magritte’s paintings. If we take a step back, we have to wonder: what kind of role the museum itself plays in the presentation of its artworks? When we go to a museum, we assume we’re going to see the artworks. Little do we realize the subtle profundity of the museum’s ability to alter our interpretations.
The Louvre in Paris harbors not only the “Mona Lisa” but also its aura. From around the world, tourists come to the Louvre just to see that painting. In person, it is much smaller than you’d expect, perhaps because of the hype. Or maybe it was the distance the crowd enforced that made the painting appear so much smaller.
This room in the Louvre felt less like an exhibit and more like an altar to Da Vinci’s artwork––or perhaps to its aura. I felt this aura in the crowd of unruly tourists at the Louvre. Would it have impacted me so profoundly if it had been deserted? I almost wanted to glance at the “Mona Lisa” and run, just to escape the contained pandemonium. Just as I felt I had stepped into a Magritte painting at LACMA, I felt I had almost stepped into the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre. Amid the hustle and bustle of people and rapid passing of time, I paused and held Mona Lisa’s calm and self-assured gaze. That moment in time isolated itself from all the others just as I detached myself momentarily from the madness of the crowd. What is an artwork but a moment in time preserved? Da Vinci had captured something, and now so had I. The intimacy I felt with the painting perhaps was only heightened by the crowd’s overwhelming presence.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses the ability of photo captions to alter the reader’s perception of the photographs. She writes, “…all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.” Sontag continues by describing a particular exhibition of photographs of 9/11: “While the image, like every image, is an invitation to look, the caption, more often than not, insists on the difficulty of doing just that.” The placards in museums traditionally list the name of the artist and the work, the year of its creation, its materials, and perhaps a brief historical account; they are oppressively harmless in their guise of neutrality. Even these placards, however, cast a different light on the paintings they describe. Sontag asserted the potential of captions for photographs––are the wounded in photographs victims or survivors?––and placards for artworks function in much the same way. Even in spaces dedicated entirely to visual display, language still plays with perception––perhaps even helping to create an aura like that of the “Mona Lisa.” The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, for example, is famous for its very lack of placards. Albert C. Barnes was a scientist with a special interest in the arts. He collected fantastic post-impressionist works of art and in 1925 commissioned French architect Philippe Cret to design an art gallery for them. The museum smells not of a stale gallery but of a mansion ornate in its love for art. From floor to ceiling Renoirs, Cézannes, and Matisses are stacked, as if the arranger compulsively hung up artworks to fill empty space. The museum is beautiful and humble in its display. Tracing the narrow hallways into rooms crowded with framed impressions is more akin to the giddy exploration of a wealthy uncle’s mansion than to the silent and deliberate march customary for the museum-goer. And the lack of placards contributes to this. When I paused to admire a painting, I didn’t stop because I knew it was a Monet or a Renoir. The genuine beauty of the piece caught my eye and held me. When was it painted? Where? What were the accepted interpretations of it? I didn’t know. If I wanted to find out, there were laminated guides at every bench ready to tell me. But I had to seek those out. In the Barnes, I admired artworks for their aesthetic appeal alone, not necessarily for their historical context. And this gave the museum the air of a home with artworks chosen for their beauty, not for their historical importance.
The Barnes doesn’t draw attention to itself; it seems to hint at itself. But the Guggenheim in New York City seems to share the spotlight with its paintings.
When I stepped off the subway and turned the corner to see the modern, structured-tornado shape of the museum, I stopped and stared. I hadn’t even gone inside yet and I was marveling at art. Inside the Guggenheim, cameras are permitted only in the lobby area, from where you can look straight up and watch the spiraling floors wind around each other to the skylight patterned like a spider’s web of stained-glass windows. I wandered through the museum with journal in hand, taking note of some of the paintings, impressive, of course. When I reached the top, I looked over the balcony to the people below meandering through the museum’s center. As I leave museums, I usually peruse the gift shop to find postcards of a couple of the works that particularly stood out to me. And this time, I picked out only postcards of the Guggenheim itself. Here was a museum I visited not for its exhibitions, but for the museum itself.
Indeed, many people visit museums for their atmospheres––not necessarily architectural. Museums have become loci for social interaction. Cafés seem to abound them, as if begging the museum visitors to chat and enjoy the museum not just for its art, but for itself, the context it provides. Not just its design from an aesthetic perspective can attract museum-goers, but also its design as a social space and even the particular demographic museums attract. When scoping out museums in London, my friend and I spotted the Tate Modern. As we were trying to fit it into our itinerary for our week there, we noticed in a tourist guide that the best night to go, it said, was on Friday––when the “cool crowds” thronged to the Tate. We found this too funny to pass up. When at the end of our trek (several floors of exhibitions can wear a person out), we decided to grab a cappuccino at the museum’s café. And there we discovered the hip nightlife the tourist guide had mentioned. In a chic, dark room overlooking the River Thames, young and vibrant visitors sipped wine over tiny champagne-shaded candles, while dark hues of violet illuminated corners of the café/restaurant. As modern as the museum’s name would suggest, the café and its customers intrigued me. My friend and I spent an hour there just for the ambiance, for the understated excitement of the people dining around us.
I have to wonder now what the ideal museum experience would be, but I have to admit that I unable to conjure up one. Inevitably, one way or another, context infiltrates creation. We can try to ignore the contexts, true, to attempt to experience the artworks in their essence––but this would only be an act of delusion. I was oblivious to specific elements of historical context when I visited the Barnes Foundation. But in no way is this a more authentic interpretation of the artwork than if I had known more about the artwork’s context. It is merely different. And I can’t say that I would choose one interpretation over another. It is the plurality that fascinates me and gives the artworks their power. And for what more could I ask, than a plurality of museums in which to experience them?