In search of lost time: an ode to exhibitions

Image: two people looking at exhibits in a darkened gallery room.

It is a day like any other: except you are making a trip to the gallery. You’re probably alone because no one else you know has a penchant for standing in front of some paint, staring, walking two metres and repeating the said process in complete silence for a few hours. So you enter the museum or the gallery all alone. You politely decline when these institutions sitting on millions of pounds of real estate (in Trafalgar Square, the Piazza della Signoria, the 7th arrondissement, Beaumont Street) ask for £5 of your student loan. You put your suspicious rucksack on your front, and they let you into the time machine.

You finally get to see in person all the works that appear on mugs, screensavers and postcards. And there’s nothing quite like it. For me, the most surreal feeling is getting so close to the work that you can see the individual brush strokes, the tiny troughs from where the pressure of the paintbrush has pushed the paint to each side in thick, glossy roving hills. Each ridge painstakingly preserved over centuries so that someday you may meet with it. This is as close as I have ever come to time travel. 

This is as close as I have ever come to time travel.

The summer before last, I was in the Uffizi Gallery. When I saw the ethereal serenity of Botticelli’s Venus, andI couldn’t help but think of the burgeoning empire of the Medicis. How those serene blues and floating robes were painted during their tempestuous reign, plagued with corruption, bribery, disease and violence. I wondered what happened in that year: did Botticelli he find God? Did he fall in love? Did he spend nights staring into the River Arno? I thought of the tedious process of painting with Tempera, how it dries so fast. The multitude of layers required to depict such softness — I think of how many times he must have gone over this painting, how the Tempera would have stunk of eggs. I wondered if it still smells like eggs, but there’s 3-inch-thick bulletproof glass and a throng of tourists standing between me and finding out.

Next time you visit a gallery, I urge you: get so close to a piece of art that you set off the security alarm.

I even miss the pretension. I remember in the Musée de l’Orangerie, staring at the gallery attendant’s chair thinking I must have missed Monet’s perspex period. I miss raising my eyebrows with gallery regulars when tourists would take pictures of the work and leave, without actually looking at what stood before them. The curators eyeing up their peers’ work. And, dear God, do I miss the tiny soundbites of analysis you get from walking past fellow art gazers: “Although I am not a painter, I think that the iconicity of the gesture endangers the devious simplicity of the eloquence of these pieces.”

Of course, all this is lost in a COVID-19 riddled world. Although we can go to virtual exhibitions, we can no longer share a space with these works and their stories. We can see an image of these masterpieces, but I remind you that “image” comes from the Latin “imago” which means “ghost”, “phantom” or “apparition”. These works live and breathe in museums; the screens and prints on which we capture them are just phantoms. They merely extract the likeness of the art’s body, leaving its soul behind. Art’s living form evades any technological recreation. How do we recreate the 17ft grandeur of Michelangelo’s David on a 12-inch screen? No less his comparatively modest genitalia?

These works live and breathe in museums; the screens and prints on which we capture them are just phantoms.

And if you don’t care about seeing these works in person (I’m sure more interesting things are happening in the world) what comes of those strangers with whom you shared the sacred space of the gallery? You may never have so interesting a conversation as you would have with the characters you meet in a gallery at 2pm on a working day.

Perhaps I should count my blessings, there are worse things to miss due to 2020 — more important and dearer than exhibitions. And, no doubt, there are more important things to gain when this is all over. But I do miss time travel. So, in making haste towards £5 pots of watery tea and conversations with charming clog-clad 60-year-old women: let’s hope we can meet with them and the greats someday soon.

Categories: Art, Culture

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