I’ve often thought that what we see in a painting is what we bring to it. Some might argue that we are made up of a collection of experiences. If this is the case, how could we possibly draw on the same ‘stuff’ to view a piece of art, as unique individuals. I’d argue that it’s the observer who makes the art unique.
As a student and during the early days of my training, I remember being taught some basic principles around how to observe art. This started by understanding what each part of the artwork was made up of, and one of those parts was the Golden Section, or Golden Ratio. Although this was an important part of my early education, years later I found that I was unable to observe a piece of art other than through a lens that summed up its parts, rather than the ability to appreciate it as a whole. These days I’ve developed my own way to observe and experience art which involves listening to what happens to my body when I observe it, and understanding how the work makes me feel. Of course there is no right way to view a piece of art, we all find our own way.
When I view the work of another artist I know that somehow, I’m hoping to meet the artist. Hoping for a small identifier that helps me understand more about the artist and their motivations beyond the words of their artist statement. I want to meet the artist through their art, through the marks they’ve made and the risks they’ve taken to create what they have. But I’m aware that as I view the work, I come along too!
Having had many conversations with people about their thoughts around viewing art, it seems that when a conversation starts between the painting and the observer, a painting can quite quickly become a mirror. And I wonder if that has to do with a desire to find ourselves in something, to relate. I would imagine that this is the most natural response to a work of art and helps us find and form ourselves.
In contrast to this, some people observe art in a way in which they retrieve recognisable objects from the painting ‘that bit looks like a bird’, for example. And so I am conscious that it’s not always easy (or interesting) for every observer to go hunting for themselves in a work of art. There are countless ways to engage with and enjoy art, and that’s the beauty of art! We take what we need. And when those jaw dropping moments come our way and we can’t live without ‘that’ painting, it’s magic!
For an artist to strike a balance between sharing themselves and raising questions, producing work that is deeply personal, conveying their story, whilst keeping the observers soul alert, and of course not forgetting that golden section, there is a lot to be done to enable each and every observer to connect, to see something, to be a part of it. Maybe even to find a voice, their voice.
I remember once, a friend came to visit me and I’d just finished a painting. As she viewed this new work she said apprehensively ‘it’s like someone is looking right into my soul’. Only much later did I realise the bravery in her statement.
So whose voice is in the painting? Or rather, who is in the painting? Does a good painting mean the artist leaves, allowing the observer to step inside and take up their place in the work as they imagine it? Does the observer become the artist?
Marcel Proust said ‘only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees’. This quote interests me because I wonder if we can ever ‘know’ what another person sees if we’re seeing something through our own eyes, with our own filters. However, it seems to me that the sentiment of his words is loaded with empathy, which is no bad thing!