When I go into the museum , I often find myself standing behind people who talk about psychology. Many people mistake painting for psychology, they know nothing about painting but they learned about psychology in school. So they talk about their feelings and how the artist must have felt. They discuss the various pathologies of mental derangement and vicariously imagine themselves as decoratively insane, well only a little, nothing too unattractive.They are happiest in front of the work of obviously tortured artists or paintings that lend themselves to speculation on the ideas of Freud.
It is a little like the fable from India about the blind men examining an elephant. Each grabs a different part of what must have been a very patient, docile animal and speculates about the larger beast. One holding the tail supposes the animal is very like a snake, another hugging an enormous leg says the elephant is more like a tree. Understanding painting is like that, and one of its' qualities IS feeling.
- When I am in front of a painting I wish to understand, I try to be open to the expression of the artist. How does this painting effect me, is there an emotion that it creates in me?
- Does the artists expression get through, is it an effective communication? or does it not work?
- Is it smarmy, saccharine, banal, morbid or cheaply titillating? Or does it make me reflect deeply, make me worshipful, remind me of the love of a woman I once knew, or transport me to the consoling solitude of nature? Perhaps it reminds me of the nature of man or the warmth of the family and home. The painting might stir feelings of fear, anger, comfort or humor. When that happens the painter has connected with me. That is expression.
- Beauty, elegance, restrained dignity, lavish excess or ribald earthiness are all moods that a fine painter can evoke with a painting. A portrait may make me feel I have known the sitter, or impress me with their worldly importance now fed to worms. All this is feeling.
- I try to be open and sensitive, to be still and listen to what the artist is whispering from behind the paint. This gets easier with practice. When I am in the museum I will see young art students waltz disinterested past deeply moving scenes by Rembrandt on their way to contemporary paintings that will scream obscenities at them with their pants down around their ankles and their volume set to eleven. It is important to stop and search for the expression.
- Most of the great paintings were meant to be lived with in a home and deliberately avoid expending their force in an instant. It may not be possible to "get" a painting as you stroll past it, you will often have to get to know it. There are songs that I love, that I didn't notice till I heard then a few times. We are surrounded by instant, catchy and dumbed down art everywhere today, television, the movies, most of which are crafted to communicate their ideas quickly without much effort for the beholder. Paintings, great paintings are the product of a discipline from a time when things moved more slowly.
- I try to meditate on a painting that I want to really know, I will stand and stare at it and try to let my mind go blank.I try to receive the communication that I hope will come to me from the painting. I doesn't always work and not every painting that speaks to me, will speak to you. But the museums are full of paintings waiting to speak to you.