The Rose teaches ways of seeing

October 19, 2018

Last Saturday, the Rose Art Museum started its “Through Lines” series with a guided tour by Professor Andreas Teuber (PHIL, FA). The program’s goal is to combine an expert guest speaker with the museum’s considerable collection—to provide a distinct point of view to the sizeable selection of artwork on display. Teuber’s “through line” was a simple aesthetic approach that can help anyone appreciate art: practicing how to look.

“You start with what you can see, and then work your way out,” Teuber told the group as we looked at our first painting, “Peaches, Grapes, Pear, Jug” (1924) by Georges Braque. But Teuber didn’t give us any information on the artist—instead, he asked us to tell what we saw. “I see a butt—two of them,” remarked one gentleman.

The exercise soon gave way to more fruitful associations, with one woman observing the lack of depth in the painting. “It comes from several perspectives,” Teuber added. We thought about, in practical terms, how and why the audience would choose this perspective.

Teuber described how most people look at art: reading the title card first, glancing at the painting for a second, and then moving onto the next. It’s an easy habit to fall into—I felt implicated. But it’s such a reductive way to look at art, something that I suspect most of us are guilty of.

“People want to make sense of things,” he said. The intention of the tour was to strip down that sense of why, to retrain the viewer to focus on what’s immediately apparent in a piece of art. “Letting the painting pull you,” Teuber said.

“A lot of painting is haunted by the history of art,” Teuber said, explaining how many artists would spend time doing exactly what we were doing, just studying paintings and their construction. To show this connection, Teuber passed around a copy of a similar still life by Cezanne. Its colors were much more vibrant than the muted, “industrial palette” (as one woman called it) of the Braque. But the inspiration and visual resemblance was clear. Because we’d spent time looking and thinking about it in basic terms, we were able to intuit a lot from the painting.

As we looked at two more paintings, Teuber presented the idea of “reading” art. From a western perspective, we read from left to right, so our eyes tend to look at the canvas the same way. Of course, artists play with this tendency, but having an awareness of it can help provide insight into the construction of a piece—how did the artist construct their painting?

As we looked at Morris Louis’s “Number 3” (1961), a long, vertical canvas with multi-colored dripping bars of paint, Teuber had us think about orientation. “Isn’t this painting upside down?” The attendees argued for and against which was the “right” way to hang the painting. It got us to think about the sense of gravity in art, particularly how the piece treats the physicality of its objects. “Why should there be a right way up?” a professor from the physics department asked.

With these concepts in mind, we approached our last painting: “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” (1957-1961) by Robert Motherwell. Teuber started the conversation in the same way, asking us to describe what we saw—not an easy task. We were challenged to think about the painting in non-theoretical terms. “I see fences,” said one woman. Another gentleman saw a timeline, suggesting we read the white background as peacetime and the black as fascist oppression. I saw oppressive black bars obscuring columns of color, with tinges of tan, brown, and orange peeking through—vanquished but not entirely eradicated. See how it hard it is to keep from theorizing about what things mean? The practice of telling, without interpreting, is hard.

At the end of the tour, we were each given a handout titled “Instructions for Looking at Art,” adapted from a Mary Oliver quote: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

As someone who’s never taken an art history class but tries to write about art, I found this approach invaluable. The fine arts have a reputation for being elitist and insular—you think that you have to have years of education (and money) to be able to begin to approach them. But that’s not true. Anyone who spends time just looking and thinking about a piece can make an informed, totally valid opinion. It just requires time and intention.

I challenge Brandeis students to try this on their own. Choose five paintings in the Rose and try to spend at least five minutes with each of them. Don’t read the info beforehand—just think about where your eyes go, what it looks like and how it makes you feel.

The Rose’s “Through Lines” program will continue this week, with walkthroughs on Oct. 19 and 20 (12 p.m. and 11:30 a.m., respectively) by Nancy Scott, a professor of fine arts at Brandeis. I look forward to seeing a series of different perspectives and connections of this monumental collection.

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