The Art Object

I had exactly two and a half hours before departing Paris.  I had been there for four days and every minute of my time from 8AM until 6PM on those days were spent in museums.  Picasso, Braque, Valloton, Miro.  These guys were my new best friends.  My trip to Paris was intended to give me a deeper understanding of 20th century modernism in European art, specifically the artists collaborating in Paris at the time.  Nonetheless when I awoke for my final day as a Parisian, I had to face the facts: I had still had yet to go the Lourve.  It was my first time in Paris, and last time for the foreseeable future.  I am an art history student.  I am in France.  How could I not go?  Yet I will be honest, my mind was so immensely saturated with images from the past three days the thought of taking on one of the largest collections of art in the world was, well, not so appealing.  Not to mention how sore my feet still were.  But I shelved all of those thoughts and somehow managed to get some directions using an Italian accented attempt at French pronunciation of landmarks that would benchmark my walk to the museum. 

Not to begin with an understatement, but the Lourve is huge.  The infamous picture of it with the glass triangular structure in the middle is just the tip of the iceberg.  It took me twenty minutes alone to understand the map of the museum, its different wings, levels, nooks and crannies.  This experience required a game plan.  The museum was not something that could be done casually.  But given my state of art overload the best I could do was decide on the general periods of art I wanted to see and wander in that direction.  While I was initially hesitant to simply wander in a museum of this scope and importance, I gave in and put one foot in front of the other to see where I would end up.  Oh, and don’t worry.  I didn’t forget to see the Mona Lisa. 

I first came across a courtyard of Greco-Roman sculptures, then ended up in a room of Romanesque stained glass and then landed in Egyptian art.  I turned a few corners and was wandering into gallery after gallery of Corrot landscape paintings.  Within the next hour I was bombarded with European orientalist paintings of Delacroix and Gericault.  As I wove my way through the crowds to get closer to the Mona Lisa I found the Apollo gallery, a magnificently decorated room from floor to ceiling of gold gilded ornamentation and murals.  I also made it to a room filled with Rubens commissioned for the royal apartment of Marie de’Medici.  And I mustn’t forget the massively scaled 19th century French paintings like The Raft of Medusa.  That was absolutely stunning.  The scale combined with the exaggerated gestures was totally captivating. 

Egyptian to French, small landscapes to enormous narrative paintings.  The range of works I saw in such a short amount of time got me thinking about some larger art history ideas.  I didn’t have the strength to think about the specific historical context behind each work of art, and so instead I became mesmerized by really looking at the details of each object.  Each gemstone on the Romanesque crosses, each layer of paint on Islamic ceramics, each muscle and fold of clothing on the figures of Delacroix.  I began to think more about how the objects were made.  How were the gemstones adhered to the boxes?  Were the ceramics painted before or after being put into the kiln?  Did Delacroix do preparatory sketches or did he paint his figures for the first time on the large canvas?  My questions were endless and of course I didn’t have the answers.  I wondered why it mattered how the object was made.  So what if Delacroix did a preparatory sketch?  Well, it actually matters quite a lot.  The answer to that question represents a decision Delacroix made and thus reveals more information about what his goals were as an artist.  How an artist works displays what that artist wants his art to do.  Knowing what an artist wants his art to do means knowing what in society he is responding to.  Knowing this gives one a true sense of the past.  Starting with the object as the primary place of information also reveals the different things that artwork can do.  Art of the ancient past could serve to represent gods, deities or ideals.  In a sense they were visual guidelines and reminders for people in a society to live by, and which to align themselves.  Yet, in the 19th century the art object could be more about being the visual representation of a philosophical theory.  For example, a lot of Gustave Courbet’s work was about expanding his ideas about Realism, and what it meant to be a person of truth in 19th century France.  But then in the 20th century the art of artists like Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Anthony Caro was about commenting on the medium of art itself, and experimenting with the unique qualities of metal, or oil paint, to create a new kind of 2-dimensional world.  It is obvious that art can mean different things, and serve vastly different purposes.  Thus, to know what an art object is doing, or what it is intended to mean, one must start with looking at the object and how it was made.  Without looking at the object, a viewer will have no hope of ever placing it in its most natural, and meaningful context. 


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