My brother recently returned from a trip to Europe, Paris, and the Louvre. He took the accompanying picture of the Mona Lisa – probably the most well-known painting in the world. I can remember being in the gallery where the Mona Lisa hangs and it seems as if her eyes followed me wherever I was standing. And did you know that it was after the French Revolution that the Mona Lisa was first moved to the Louvre? Later Napoleon had it moved to his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace — it was eventually returned to the Louvre. It would have been a bit creepy to have it in a bedroom with those eyes following people around…

So, how do we (laymen and laywomen) look at art? The following, I think, is excellent input from Justin Paton. What’s the big deal about looking at art? A little over 30% of the Bible is poetry and I think we need the artisans among us to help us interpret the Bible. Bible teachers tend to come at Scripture with a western, rational, scientific mindset, but there’s the right-brained interpretation that will help us to see fresh facets of God’s heart…

(Right Brained Perspective: uses feeling, “big picture” oriented, imagination rules, symbols and images, present and future, philosophy & religion, can “get it” – i.e. meaning, believes, appreciates, spatial perception, knows object function, fantasy based, presents possibilities, impetuous, risk taking.)

How to view ART…

  1. Respect the thing.
  2. Take your sweet time. One painting seen well beats dozens seen in a state of perspiration and frustration.
  3. That said, see as many paintings as you can, and then hunt for more. The fuller your image bank is with remembered paintings, the richer your responses will be to new ones.
  4. When looking at a painting, before answering the question ‘What do I think?’ try ‘What did I notice?‘ No opinions without observations.
  5. If you’re troubled by an apparent lack — not enough color, not enough imagery — try turning the doubt into a question. What would an artist have to gain by losing those things? What is he or she inviting you to notice in their absence? You may feel previously unnoticed aspects of a painting emerging with new sharpness.
  6. Try to imagine your way into a painting’s life.
  7. If a work doesn’t feel as though it’s for you, try imagining the person it is for. At the very least, you will have stepped outside the circle of your accustomed tastes. You might even find yourself enjoying it out there.
  8. If an artwork’s giving you nothing, there’s no shame in turning your back. Remember, though, that if you don’t occasionally wade through art’s lows, you’re hardly qualified to register the highs.
  9. Trust your own impressions. Children often have piercingly accurate things to say about paintings because they haven’t yet been taught to distrust their first impressions and spontaneous associations. Tease out the significance of what you’re already seeing, rather than fretting about unseen meanings.
  10. Trust the painting. The best advice about how to look at a particular painting is usually right there in the painting.

Justin Paton is one of New Zealand’s foremost art writers. A former lecturer in art history and theory at Auckland’s Unitec Institute of Technology, since 1999 he has been curator of contemporary art at Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

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