How To Fit In At An Art Gallery (and a little about Lichtenstein)

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During this languid bank holiday, I went to check out the Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern. I absolutely love it there; admittedly they had me sold with their ‘converted power station’ architecture and the fact that their cafe sells soya milk. And the art isn’t half bad either.

However, I have found that art appreciation, like many such ‘high brow’ pursuits, has become increasingly (and unnecessarily) exclusive. The stigma surrounding History of Art degrees doesn’t help; as the chosen degree of most royals, it seems that the minimum entrance requirement is an upper-middle-class background. Nor do claims like Michelangelo’s, who attributed a high-and-mighty godly significance to art: ‘The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perception’.

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Let’s bring it back down to earth for a moment. Art is, in the most rudimentary of descriptions, a collection of lines and shapes on a page. It consists of colours and archetypes that we are all familiar with. Unlike with classical music or literature, there is no need to apply complex technical terms to it (disregarding, for a moment, the pseudo-intellectual spiel of an ageing curator). Finally, as human beings, our sight is our most acute, developed sense, and so art manifests itself most obviously to us. Bearing all this in mind, there is no reason to be intimidated by art. 

In light of recent trips, I have written a five step guide on how to best engage your unique creative spirit with the manifold nuances of famed artist genius.

Or just, how to enjoy the paintings.

1) Single, Free and Unwilling To Mingle

Often people will attend art galleries with a friend or two, which is great. But what is not great is an uneasy obligation to approach Picasso in a wolf pack. The most uneasy experiences, for me, was when a date decided to take it upon himself to regale me with his knowledge of art (by ‘knowledge’, I do mean hasty paraphrases of the painting captions). Whilst neither of us came in with any pre-existing insights into the exhibition, this is not an obstacle for the most seasoned of bullshitters. Since this experience, I have realised that being something of a lone ranger in a gallery is kind of cool. The important thing is just to go with people you feel comfortable around; comfortable enough to roam free, and confident enough to discuss the exhibition afterwards without pretensions. Because, like with any kind of creative appreciation, it’s not about saying the right nonsensical bullshit about ‘intense quietness’ or ‘quiet intensity’; it’s about the way it inspires you.

2) Look Sharp: Wear A Beret

I jest. But I do find there is a certain style of dress in art galleries, which is split according to age. The serious young art connoisseurs- the ones nodding knowingly to themselves in front of the unmade bed- are, contrary to what you might think, not dressed in East London style vibrant colours with badger’s testicle earrings, but in fact dressed in a much more toned down, minimalistic way. Chic tailoring, monochrome and, for the female art fans, heels that give them a necessary presence in those hush-hush corridors. The idea, I suppose, is to say ‘I am a canvas, inspire me’ in a cool Warhol-like manner. Then, for the older generation, I would without a doubt recommend all the lavish clothing possible: canes, fur, the works. If you manage this, all the while sounding a little like the Queen on a sick day, you might well commandeer the respect of your younger peers, who will naturally assume you to be a moneyed patron of the gallery, or the world’s leading expert on Pop Art.

3) Take Your Time

Art galleries give you a freedom that other art mediums don’t. We are so used to films being around two hours, and songs being around four minutes. But there is no set time period in which to admire a painting. This is another reason I think it’s important to go solo. There is no point in patiently twiddling your thumbs beside a friend, if you can see nothing more than a fat, dimpled duchess in the nude image they have been musing over.

4) Listen Up

Like many of us, I have always associated audio guides with over-excited tourists on open bus tours, who are neither cool, chic, nor aware that it has been raining for the last 20 minutes. But the audio guides in art galleries tend to cut out the crap, and can make for great listening. The guide at the Tate Modern included quotes from Lichtenstein’s wife, along with some funky jazz music in the background. It discussed individual paintings, going above and beyond the programme booklet. It also showed photos of Lichtenstein’s inspirations, like Picasso and Matisse. This was particularly useful, as Lichtenstein was quite into his ‘art about art’, and claimed that ‘the things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire’. Incidentally, he must have really admired Picasso, because he has done some crazy shit with his ‘Seated Woman with Wrist Watch’, pictured below:

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All in all, I would say that the audio guide is worth the money is you really want to make the best of your trip to the exhibition. Although, above all the perks I have listed, the main benefit of the audio guides and headphones is that they mercifully drown out all the self-proclaimed critics around you shrieking ‘ooooer, phallic!’. 

5) Criticise

No one is expecting you to love very bit of the exhibition, especially as even the most serious artists seem to throw in a piece of old chewing gum or, in Lichtenstein’s case, a redundant metal rod, just to pad out the exhibition. But if you avoid over-scrutinising these pieces, generally some gems will stand out for you.

Here were mine at Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

‘Galatea’

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In classical myth, Galatea was the name attributed to Pygmalion’s sculptural representation of his perfect woman. This classical tale was a great influence on Lichtenstein, not to mention a series of erotica and latterly the pornography industry. The idea is that this sculpture was rendered enormous lust to whoever looked at it, but- until it eventually came to life- had none of those bothersome female qualities like breathing and shopping. Think ‘sex doll’.

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Lichtenstein takes this idea, but reduces the idea of an erotic figure to the bare essentials: thus we are left with a brushstroke image of hair, two boobs and a bum. The implication, I think, is not as extreme as to suggest that other parts of female beauty are superfluous, but simply to show what meets the eye first, and what can be arousing of desire. Incidentally, check out the blonde in the corner. Putting aside the ‘dip-dye’ hair and the librarian get-up, she is exactly the kind of attractive woman that lechy Lichtenstein was trying to represent.

‘Whaam’

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Whaam is universally recognisable as the ‘big explosion cartoon’, but it has more serious connotations than I once realised. It is a criticism of the ease with which modern nations can attack each other; in Lichtenstein’s words, ‘wars waged at the push of a button’. Obviously it looks nothing like an actual explosion, but it picks up on the heat and the energy of the flying debris, and it is loaded with an implicit criticism of nuclear war.

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What I also liked, which the audio guide directed me towards, was the 3D version of this explosion that was hanging off of the ceiling. This was a layered sculpture of different enamels meant to represent the same idea as ‘Whaaam’. I personally couldn’t help but be reminded of an inverted fried egg with ketchup. But I still thought the concept was pretty cool. Lichtenstein also threw in a bit of an in-joke, placing a sheet of steel mesh below the sculpture to represent the dots commonly associated with his 2D art.

‘Landscape with Philosopher’

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Looked at from afar, this painting is uncharacteristically picturesque for Lichtenstein, who famously did not like to paint from nature. The tree shapes follow in the tradition of the Chinese Song dynasty, who took their inspiration from the delicate patterns of Chinese calligraphy, and the gradation of the mountains is very well depicted. When you get up close, you realise this is done through a series of Lichtenstein’s usual dots, which makes it impossible to view it as a naturalistic landscape painting. But it is still impressive, especially as he uses up to 15 different dot sizes, so it is much more complex than in his other paintings. What I really like about this painting though, is the tiny orange figure, almost indecipherable (ZOOM IN), in the bottom right hand corner. Although Lichtenstein is doing his usual modernisation of an old-skool style, he sell manages to capture the sense of a quiet, meditating philosopher, contemplating his absolute insignificance within the vastness of the universe. Whatever you think of Lichtenstein’s style, whether or not you agree with 1964 Life magazine’s declaration that he is ‘the worst artist in the US’, I do think you would have to concede the brilliance of this painting.

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