Blog / Art History Survival Guide

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By Brooke Hartley, Nasher Museum Intern

I stumbled across a story about myself in The New York Times. Well, OK, not really, but I did notice some obvious parallels between Michael Kimmelman’s article about the perils of viewing art in the age of visual overstimulation and my recent visit to the Louvre in Paris. In a fashion in keeping with Kimmelman’s observations, my mother and I (“two young women in flowered dresses”?) tried to swim through the flood of tourists and absorb the Louvre’s vast collection.

Hypothetically, I had a semester’s worth of introductory art history to help guide us through. Realistically, I had two nights of cramming through a mostly unread textbook before the final. While the last-minute studying still earned me an A in the class, it didn’t help me much as we tried to navigate the Louvre.

“That painting is significant!” I would suddenly exclaim when I saw a familiar Courbet or Delacroix.

“Why?” my mother would naturally inquire, at which point my art history knowledge hit a dead end.

I’m not alone in my ignorance. As the social media circuit responds to Kimmelman’s article, a recent Facebook post by Mat Hastings offered an interesting solution to the question of how to visit an art museum. He wrote to a friend:

I blundered my way through scores of museums across the world, sometimes hiring a local guide other times totally cold, occasionally doing some research.

Then I was saved. I found “1,001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die.” It was fascinating. I’d walked right past 80% of the western world’s most important pieces of art. Sadly, there was no index of painting by museum. I created a spreadsheet and ta-da, I have now “seen” and understood hundreds of paintings in a way that I was too lazy to undertake in the past.

Glancing over Mat’s spreadsheet, I detected some famous names, but was also surprised by the quantity of unfamiliar works in unconventional locations. I was reminded of the hoards of camera-clutching tourists at the Louvre vying for a spot to view the Mona Lisa who had no idea there were hundreds of other real masterpieces just steps from where they stood. Perhaps intense study of visual culture isn’t practical for most of us, but a nudge in the right direction might radically alter our experiences with museums and art. I’ll keep this list handy when I visit Madrid and the Prado in a few weeks.

I don’t want to miss the beauty that is right in front of my face.

CREDITS

IMAGE: Photo by Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times. Visitors at the Louvre: some engage directly with the art while others take pictures of pictures.
SPREADSHEET: Thanks to Mat Hastings for sharing!

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