Installed currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery is this summer’s Blockbuster Art Exhibition, “From Degas to Dali”. On show are masterworks gathered together from the collection of an American art museum, touring while the home galleries are being renovated.
Typical of blockbuster gallery presentations, the price of admission is steep, though still less costly than a ticket to an opera performance. Tickets must be booked in advance, as is admission time to the galleries. Huge crowds are anticipated. I am debating about going to this!
My visit in 2000 to the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s paintings of the Wertheimer family soured me on attending highly touted art shows. The experience was similar to waiting for the Metro during a Paris rush hour. One was embraced by the crush of bodies and moved along automatically with the surges and stoppings of the crowd. Any desire to closely study individual paintings at leisure is thwarted at every turn by the jostling throng. Thoughts are difficult to spin out to their natural expanse, since distraction prevails in the gallery – stray comments, the tinny residue of taped commentary waxing and waning as visitors walk by and as huddled groups, gathered in front of paintings, interrupt sudden awareness of fresh perceptions.
Sure, it is possible to rent a tape recording to recieve a studied commentary and background on the paintings. Also available are group tourings with docents. At the end of the exhibition, there is a small section of the gallery devoted to publications about the exhibition and souvernir type items to buy. However my experiences with these types of show have yielded frustrated, irritated, exhausted and harried feelings.
If one visits a gallery blockbuster with companions, hushed, terse discussion is the best one can hope to partake in. This is not a venue for serious prolonged study, for sharing personal observations with friends or debating about what is being experienced. There is a linear sequential flow in the way an exhibition is constructed; it is difficult to go back against the flow to check out a sudden insight that crops up about an earlier section. Didactic panels function as traffic controls as well as information disseminators.
While moving along with the packed crowd at the Seattle Sargent show, I turned and faced the painting of Asher Wertheimer, the paterfamilias, and was struck by a sudden overall view of the painting and of how casual and strange effect the family dog, shown near his master’s feet seemed. An idea formed for me that maybe Sargent did have a sense of humour or that perhaps he revealed an opinion not only about Mr Wertheimer as an individual, but also about himself, Sargent, as a sensualist. There was something subversive in how he painted that dog, and I wanted badly to spend a long, uninterrupted time in front of that painting, study and consider it in light of my assumption. Unfortunately, the masses swept me along.
The current state of my ability to see being not very good, I am reluctant to submit myself to the frustrations I know will be my lot if I do venture out with friends to see “Degas to Dali”. A good friend works at the VAG and could probably get me in to see the show before the doors open, so I could pace my looking in a manner more in keeping with my bad eyesight.
Should I ask her to arrange permission for outside public hours viewing?