Art on lockdown

Elizabeth Jowett Conservation of Paintings

Writing from home in the weird circumstances of a global pandemic and general widespread lockdown, I got to thinking about what it all means for museums.

There has been a move towards visitor access and engagement in recent years, with collections and their care taking a back seat (except in instances of decolonising collections). With this in mind it is interesting to wonder whether the physical museum and its objects may be secondary to the ideas that they represent. Many museums have gone online with their content to allow people to access them despite the closures, and Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate galleries, said in a piece in the Observer (25th May 2020) that they are reaching new audiences through online content. In John Armstrong’s The Intimate Philosophy of Art, which I have been reading again recently, he talks about the pleasure and freedom of looking at pictures without any pressure to respond. It’s tempting to ask if we even need museums and galleries at all, with internet access to so much of the world and technological advances, such as 3D printing that mean objects can be faithfully reproduced almost anywhere.

Clearly art is a fairly basic human need after shelter and food, as cave art testifies. During lockdown people have been creating their own art, such is the desire to make and see it. I’ve been enjoying Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4 and seeing the works people have been sending in on different themes. The utter delight of those whose works have been chosen for the exhibition that will follow has been contagious (possibly a poor choice of word in the circumstances). What’s interesting is the perceived elevation in status of the pieces, or perhaps legitimisation or approval, by the fact that they will be displayed in a gallery as part of an exhibition.

If we consider the space itself, a museums or gallery is more than just the place where a collection is displayed. As well as having this aura of importance that can legitimise the objects inside, they are also public spaces that anyone can enter and use. With People use museums as performance spaces, celebration venues, meeting places, learning environments and safe spaces. As a parent of young children, I go to museums on rainy days with them; the large spaces, lifts, stairs, shops and cafes are generally what appeals to them and it means I can pass a chunk of the day without them bouncing off the walls at home. If I can glance at something beautiful or interesting in between times then that’s great. If I can get them to engage with something then I feel I’m winning. At the beginning of this lockdown, the prospect of my kids at home for months on end and no museums to visit was quite daunting. With the news that galleries can start opening in July, I feel cautious optimism that I will be able to go again, slightly sooner than expected.

In my line of work, the tangible authentic object is important. I strive to do my best by the painting and its creator, to preserve what is there and make it as presentable as I can, so that the original work of the artist can be seen and enjoyed. I am concerned with how the painting has been made and ensuring that it is structurally sound. I can’t help feeling that there is something special about seeing an original object. This passage from The Intimate Philosophy of Art particularly resonated with me:

“…consider the fact – so obvious that it is almost embarrassing the labour it – that pictures are made by the manual application of paint to a flat surface. Paradoxically, copyists working in galleries (the Louvre seems to have more than any other) often attract keener attention than the original works whose superior merit their own devotion attests. What the copyist offers us – and what the finished work withholds – is acquaintance with the half lovely, half tedious process by which a painting comes to be made. We observe the gradual mixing… of colours on the palette; we enjoy the way the pigment is held on the bristles…; we take pleasure in the smell of oil and the hopeful areas of primed canvas… these are things we can enjoy sensually.”

– John Armstrong The Intimate Philosophy of Art, p. 26

I am more able than most people to contemplate artwork and come to greater appreciation at my own pace while I work on things in my studio. Obviously handling an artwork entails a level of risk, which means the particular privilege of seeing a work out of its frame isn’t feasibly available to the wider public. Attempts have been made in the past to democratise the experience by having viewing areas in conservation labs (there is one at the People’s History Museum) and conservation taking place on display (as with the Etty project at Manchester Art Gallery some years ago). It’s what I try to do through this blog.

There are things that you can’t fully appreciate from a picture in a book or on a screen, such as scale and texture. I remember seeing Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (you know the one: melty clocks) on a trip to MOMA in New York. For years I’d had the image on my wall as a teenager – an A1 poster bought from Athena on Market Street in Manchester – and was astonished to find that I had nearly passed it by in the flesh, so to speak, because it is so very small (Wikipedia tells me it’s 24 x 33cm). Astonished, but not disappointed. I think finding the details all there, so delicately rendered, made my appreciation for the work increase.

Lockdown has given everybody a new perspective on life, and a glimpse into what is for some people their everyday experience regardless of the pandemic. There are definitely things that we should keep from this experience of lockdown, including less focus on getting to a place and more opportunities to bring the place to people where they are. But I’m looking forward to being able to visit museums and galleries again when I can. I’ve got favourite places and favourite pictures that I like to see every now and then. When I’m in London, which is a lot less frequently than it used to be, I like to pop in to the National Gallery if I’ve got time, to say hello to Holbein’s Ambassadors and the Wilton Diptych. More locally, I like to check on paintings that I’ve worked on, just to make sure they’re still doing alright. Which works do you like to say ‘hi’ to when you’re passing?

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