Art for art’s sake? (August 2009)

Last Saturday, a friend and I went to the Courtald gallery in Somerset House, London, to enjoy a very fine collection of art, especially many great Impressionist and Post-Impressionst works (see link below.)  We spent a very happy couple of hours deconstructing many works of art (metaphorically.)

While landscapes by  the likes of Cezanne and Monet made wonderful viewing, we gained most pleasure from attempting to intrepret the motives of the people within pictures and the message conveyed by the artist in the process, often telling a vivid story in the process.

My personal favourite is Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere (see link below), a painting of such delightful ambiguity that your eye follows through the clues:  the barmaid’s face, passive and melancholy; the strange spatial distortion, whereby what we assume is her reflection in the mirror is impossibly far away; the customer glimpsed in the reflection but not before the barmaid.  Gradually, the realisation dawns that it is we, the viewer, that Manet is mocking.  It is we who are guilty of offering her money to escort her for favours.  A revelation and far more.  A truly great painting in both its physical execution and in its subtle content!

As we later enjoyed a coffee in the courtyard cafe, it occurred to me how important art and culture generally are to our enrichment.  Apart from their heritage value, there is no better way to reflect and relax than by appreciating works of art not only for what they are but on the reaction they inspire in you.  Perhaps we all need to develop the imagination and deductive reasoning powers (as in the Manet) to look beyond the obvious to see where the artist is taking us, for there lies true art.

But where does it end?  The criticism of modern art that a pile of bricks is just a pile of bricks and not possessed of some greater significance, for example, surely depends on the work of art and the context in which it is presented, and indeed how receptive we are to the possibilities it offers us.  One such ephiphany came for me on the day I separated.  I went to see the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain.  Apart from the savage imagery in Bacon’s screaming popes and the distorted carcasses of meat, his work spoke elooquently to me at many levels.  I felt as close to the mindset of the artist as I’d ever been.  Whether or not that was true did not matter – the fact that Bacon’s work said so much to me justified not only my trip but my belief that art nourishes the soul and develops the faculties of thought and expression far better than any other experience available to me.

At any rate, I am so glad to live near London, where so many great museums and galleries are available to me, mostly free of charge.  Of the treasures I can see in both Tates, the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and many, many more, may i always count my blessings.  If you have never been to the gallieries of London and live close enough to do so, I urge you to go, and look beyond the immediate.  I hope the same feeling of euphoria that I experienced comes over you too.

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