The observation that I know very little about art (and the exercise you should try)

I felt I was knowledgeable about art when I decided to enroll in the docent training program. I went into it with the intent of sharing my love (and opinions) with others. In my mind, I saw myself talking about my favorite pieces to a captive audience.
When I first discovered art, I loved it all. I found the experience of being in a museum exciting. Every gallery held within it discoveries. The more time I spent reading about art and attending art lectures I felt my view of art narrowing. Where once I wandered through a museum, I now entered on a mission, looking for specific names. You would see me passing by hundreds of years of art because it wasn’t to my liking. My head had become full of certainties and notions. Seeing works of art felt like checking off a list. If the artist wasn’t on my preconceived record, I wasn’t stopping.
One of our first tasks as trainees in the docent program is to complete the observation exercise. The goal is simple. The trainee has to spend an hour looking at a painting. The catch is that the pieces are not picked by the trainee but assigned but the trainer. That thought terrified me. I had ideas about which pieces were worthy of an hour. I felt there was a lot of art that I did not want to spend three seconds looking at and it annoyed me that I could not pick my own.
My idea, at the time, of a piece to spend an hour with:

Robert Rauschenberg. White Painting [three panel]. 1951. Oil on canvas. SFMOMA.
Robert Rauschenberg. White Painting [three panel]. 1951. Oil on canvas. SFMOMA.

Who they paired me with:

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Jean-Baptiste Le Prince. The Flower Girl. 1758-1781. Oil on canvas. Phoenix Art Museum

I felt disappointed. Of all the works in the museum, a painting from the Rococo period was my least favorite. It was decorative, fake, and full of shades of pastels. I was not excited about my hour, but I decided to give it a try since I couldn’t figure out a way around it.
I picked up a stool, put it down in front of the painting, and set my timer. The first thing I noticed was everything that was wrong with The Flower Girl. The pastoral scene was fake and reminded me of Marie Antionette. The proportions of the arms of the subject were too long and the subject’s breasts were misshapen. I glanced at the clock. Three minutes had passed by so far. It was going to be a long hour.
I read through the exercise guide again to pass the time but felt more annoyed. I already felt like I knew the answers without looking at the work. I stood up and paced in front of the piece. I inspected the edges of the frame and tried looking at it from different angles.
Then I sat down and looked at her. I stared at her skirt and began to think about the painting and the artist’s craft. I noticed the use of light and shade. The young girl’s face shown angelically. The pleats in her aprons and skirt were carefully shaped to show off the color and texture of the fabric. I began breaking down the composition of the piece. Yes, the model for the painting was wearing a farm girl costume, but it is clear that she is not a farm girl. Her feet are clean, she wears expensive fabrics, and her hair looks done up. Who is she? Who commissioned this painting? Where did it hang? Do the flowers that fall out of her apron have a special meaning?
As I looked at her, I wondered about her age. To me, she seems like she is on the cusp of womanhood. Beautiful, glowing, and happy. I looked around the room and protective feelings begin to emerge towards the girl in the painting. I did not like the way that Colonel Lord Howden and Sir Richard Cumberland were looking at her. I wanted to take the picture off the wall and bring it home and protect it.

At the end of my hour, I find myself smiling as I look at The Flower Girl. I began filling in the pages of the exercise with my observations and questions.
I had received the lesson before in my life, and I found myself a student to it again. I don’t know as much as I think I do. My judgments interfere with my learning because they stop me from asking questions. They prevent my imagination from engaging. I need to slow down. Throw out the checklist for an imagined canon of art history and find a way to engage with a work of art. No matter when or who painted it. If I want to represent a museum’s collection I have to find a way to connect will all the pieces. I need to be comfortable in knowing that the more I learn the more I realize that I know very little.







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