We Are What We See

Gordon Waters is an artist, teacher and good friend who now lives in Sydney. I’m a big fan of his work (you can see more of it here) and of the way he thinks about seeing and looking. When he shared this recent essay with me, I thought it would be an inspiring guest post. Thanks Gordon.

By Gordon Waters

It became apparent to me on a recent trip to Europe, more so than ever before, that we are what we see. In this case that we are the art that we see, or more specifically, we are how we see that art. This may sound convoluted but it all comes down to how we, as artists, or laymen, driven largely by the visual stimulus around us, are able to process that stimulus into meaningful, coherent impressions. Having spent roughly a quarter of a century looking at works hanging in museums and galleries, my recent epiphany with one profound little museum makes me think that we are going about things all wrong.

It is well established that when we go to a museum or gallery, on average, we spend roughly 20 seconds looking at a work of art. Of course this varies depending on the viewer, the size of the venue, etc. But in general, even the most erudite art lover would admit that the cursory glance prevails over the contemplative gaze. It cannot be helped. It is the way we are programmed.

Our contemporary society has done nothing to alleviate this problem and everything to exacerbate it. Shorter attention spans, busier schedules, media such as video and installation that often eschew deliberation have all contributed to the malaise. But it is not just our genetic character or contemporary art practice that makes it difficult for us to see what we are looking at. It is the museum itself: vast spaces filled with masterpieces and a maze of second rate works, one after the other, topped off with the clanging of the cash registers from the obligatory gift shop. Not to mention-and this pertains more to the destination museums in the world’s most famous cities and to blockbuster shows in other less famous museums- the crowds. If you are into people watching, a museum is about the best place to go. If you want to look at art, you’re in trouble.

So, when you come upon that place where these concerns are not a factor it is like re-acquainting yourself with your sensibilities, with your ability to perceive what the artist really intended. For me, this is the point of all great art. And I don’t mean the point in the sense of meaning; I am referring to the point as the sharpest end of the experience. I believe the most profound works of art are those where the artist has sublimated himself to such an extent that the work becomes devoid of subjective or objective analysis. The artwork reaches its full potential completely within itself, leaving the viewer naked to interpretation and absolute realisation. But this realisation is only possible if the viewer is provided the opportunity. An exquisite diamond is easily mistaken for glass in the wrong setting.

At the end of the Tuileries Gardens, a short walk from the Louvre Museum is the Musee de L’Orangerie. A modest building that faces onto the Place de la Concorde it would be easy to leave it off your schedule in a city which boasts so many attractions for the art lover. I was in Paris for a short stay 25 years ago on my way to Italy to study art and Italian and, as it turns out, to begin my career as a painter. I made the trek to the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, and the Pompidou. But, I did not get to the Musee de L’Orangerie.

The realisation of L’Orangeire as the repository for what is widely regarded as Claude Monet’s greatest works has a fascinating history. Monet, who bought the property at Giverny outside Paris in 1890, had been painting his water lily series almost from the moment he got there. In fact he is credited with inventing the concept of a series; there are 250 paintings in the water lily series alone.

Monet’s close friend Georges Clemenceau received a letter from Monet shortly after the end of World War II in which Monet offered to the French state the largest of the water lily panels, which he suggested should be placed at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. The subsequent negotiations and the correspondence between the two friends are full of dedication, largesse, disappointment, misunderstanding, and particularly, on the part of Clemenceau, gentle prodding. After considering more than one option, including the grounds of the Musee Rodin, the site of the Musee de L’Orangerie was put forward by Clemenceau and the French administration as the best option for Monet’s work.

The building was a wreck when it was designated for the pictures. An architect, Camille Lefevre, who was the head architect at the Louvre, was hired to make the necessary changes to the building. The space had to fit the panels, and the panels were massive. In the end, the combined works added up to eight panels in two rooms with the same height (198 cm) and a total combined length of over 90 metres.

Monet did not live to see the completion of the project. In 1927 the museum itself opened to universal acclaim. While it seems normal for us to think of Monet as being lauded for whatever he created, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Monet did not have the stature he maintains today. Despite a lukewarm response to the pictures inside the museum, Monet had reached the height of his powers. It does not happen to all great painters but it should: their best work is not achieved as a young person striving but a wise seer having arrived. Despite his failing eyesight and moments of doubt, even someone who knows nothing about painting can feel how powerful the Nymphae’s are. It is a visceral reaction to an object, pure and simple.

The Nymphea’s at L’Orangerie are sublime the way Emmanuel Kant refers to the sublime in his discussions regarding metaphysics. Their size has a lot to do with this. But this is scale not the way the Abstract Expressionists or the great historical romantic painters like Gericault used scale. The size of the pictures is almost inconsequential; they do not make you feel small or of a certain proportion, they just envelop you but in the most comfortable and unassuming way. It is an example of grand scale at its most intimate. I have seen one of the Nymphae series at another location sitting flush to the wall at New York’s MoMA. It is beautiful, but it is not profound like the pictures at L’Orangerie.

By being enveloped, by having the paintings all around us, our eyesight is thrown out of its normal comfort zone. It needs time to adjust, to allow for the brain to process the myriad impulses and to comprehend the sophisticated nature of the peripheral viewing experience. This process slows us down to such an extent that contemplation becomes not just desirable but imperative.

The building greatly assists with this act. Once through the foyer the visitor enters the first of two elongated oval rooms where the massive panels are placed. The lighting, originally natural, has been replaced for technical reasons by artificial lighting that approximates natural light. The gentle glow of that effective illumination enhances the experience as the viewer looks at the paintings. There is also a comfortable single bench in the middle of the room. The design of this piece of furniture is important: it is only just long and wide enough to accommodate one or two people comfortably. The bench is also understated as if Monet himself has just risen from contemplating his work. After standing close to the paintings, then at a distance, I sat for quite a while on the bench and, by rotating my viewpoint ninety degrees I could reflect upon each panel.

The immediate mood of these rooms is welcoming, reverent, but not dour. It says to the viewer, “quiet yourself now so that you can feel how Monet felt.”

Another crucial aesthetic component is the fact the pictures are not behind glass. Everywhere in Paris and in most other locations in Europe paintings are behind glass. This for conservation and security purposes, but being able to get close to these large paintings and not see your reflection or that of the lights, allows an intimacy synonymous with an embrace.

The size of the rooms also benefits the work. The panel at the back of the second room is 17 meters long but the room feels as if it is not lost, nor overwhelming. The Two Willows fits into the space like Cinderella in her slipper: it was always meant to be.

It is illuminating to compare the experience at L’Orangerie with that of the Louvre less than a kilometre away. This may sound like comparing apples and elephants. The Louvre is a massive building and has approximately 35,000 works in its collection. That is 34,992 more objects to look at than on the top floor of L’Orangerie. (This does not take into account a collection of 20th century paintings which was installed in a contemporary gallery downstairs in the Musee de L’Orangerie in 1966. The works were donated by Paul Guillame and his widow, Mrs. Jean Walter.)

Unless you get a particular thrill out of watching the hordes standing six deep with their digital cameras in front of the Mona Lisa, the Louvre is a conundrum for most viewers. There is just too much to see. Willem de Kooning, the famous Dutch-American abstractionist used to have a wonderful way of dealing with this problem. He would go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, an institution of similar size, but he would pick two or three pictures to look at and concentrate solely on them. This way he could create his very own L’Orangerie. Concentrate on very little to gain a great deal.

On the same European trip I visited Gaudi’s Casa Batlo in Barcelona and felt many of the same emotions about the work and the place itself. Two years ago, after many times visiting Sienna and walking right by it, I finally sat and experienced Duccio’s Maesta in the cathedral museum. Diego Rivera’s fresco cycle in the National Palace in Mexico City is another artistic endeavour married to a perfect setting.

Nevertheless, there is something quite extraordinary about the Nympheas at the Musee de L’Orangerie. Perhaps here more than any other place the equation is just right; perhaps here it is possible to truly experience great painting without really trying; perhaps here is where the artist, his art and the place where that art is displayed coalesce in perfect union.

(Photo credits: Gordon Waters)

3 Replies to “We Are What We See”

  1. Wonderful essay.

    When I was preparing for my first trip to Paris with one of my sisters, I was told to be sure to visit L’Orangerie. My sister and I were not disappointed. These many years later that visit remains one of the most memorable of my experiences of art.

    Two anecdotes that I think underscore Waters’ points about the museum-going experience:

    A friend recently visiting Washington wanted to see a particular classical painting at the National Gallery. She located the painting and stood in place before it as the crowds went round her. At some point after standing before it for some 20+ minutes, she said she found herself alone with it and feeling tears rise. A guard stepped up to her to inquire as to why she had been there so long, telling her it was his duty to ask “for the sake of security”. She told him she was from out of town and missed seeing the painting on her last trip and wanted simply to absorb it, that it was her favorite artwork. He then told her to be sure not to get too close. Feeling herself being watched, her concentration broken, she remained a few minutes more before going her way.

    When in New York earlier this month, I especially wanted to see the 13 Aboriginal paintings at the Metropolitan. They were extraordinary and yet couldn’t have been placed worse, in a main hallway a few steps from three elevators that disgorged viewers constantly and from one of the little sales stalls that one finds in odd places in the museum. The lighting was too bright and the space too compact. Placed farther apart in a gallery of their own would have been their viewing so much more delightful.

  2. Thank you for sharing this essay. I agree entirely with Mr. Waters’ points. I felt the same when I was in Paris. I had underestimated the power and size of the Monet paintings in the Musee de L’Orangerie and was thoroughly enchanted, just standing still absorbing the paintings.

    Since then, I have experienced those emotions other times, but when I don’t, it leaves a trip begging for more. Just two weeks ago I was in Rome for the first time and thoroughly discouraged that after my first day of sightseeing, nothing really impressed me. Hearing Mass from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilicia was lovely and the sound of the Trevi Fountain at night was moving, but it wasn’t until the next afternoon at Galleria Borghese that I really found something powerful. The sculpture rooms of the museum are designed with only one main piece of art per room, so your attention is less easily diverted. The flow of people was minimal, and when I reached the room with Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, I was spellbound. There were no guards and no glass, no angry looks or loud tourists. I would definitely recommend a visit there.

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