“It’s actually very simple,” says art historian and curator Otto M. Urban when asked how to understand contemporary art.
I deliberately put the question to an expert who headed the Department of Theory and History of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, served as curator and director of the art collection at the National Gallery and is now the senior curator of the DOX Center for Contemporary Art. He looked at tens of thousands of works for an expert who created dozens of exhibitions during his career, studied hundreds of books and artistic fields.
Otto M. Urban, who enjoys great credit in the art world, is the latest to take the understanding of art lightly. Despite his undeniable expertise, however, he says that to enjoy the exhibit and appreciate the art, we don’t need to be experts in art history.
There I meet the chief curator of the DOX Center for Contemporary Art, in an institution that mixes fine arts, literature, music and performance. The philosophy of the DOX Center is to offer visitors many ways to understand art. The chief curator himself is a great lover of literature and cinema. “A lot of artists, for example, refer to David Lynch films, and that’s a path that can lead you into the visual arts,” he says.
In the first of the gallery’s three art spaces, there is an exhibition called Promising Prospects, which deals with the theme of the child in Czech art. The collective exhibition, which presents some forty Czech artists, follows a previous exhibition entitled Vanitas, the theme of which was death and agony.
Upon entering the space, the figure of a boy from the studio of sculptor Matouš Háši tears us away from the idea that perhaps the Perspectives of Hope would be a set of images from an idyllic childhood. The Boy, as the work is called, shows a symbolic “fu*k you” with a hand gesture, immediately places the viewer on a plane that is far from his original idea of a life-themed exhibit. ‘childhood. Right behind him, Krištof Kintera’s work, “Revolutionary”, depicts a child who, after approaching the viewer, begins to resist by banging his head loudly against the wall.
“The first works are to tune the viewer to a reality slightly different from the usual one. His task is to take him out of the outer space from which he came, and to show him that he is in a gallery, a reality in which one speaks a language other than the ordinary world,” explains Otto M. Urban. This brings me to my fundamental question of how to understand works in galleries.
So how do works of art read?
The way we read art, how we understand it, is always based on your own experience, on who you are as a viewer. I could tell you detailed descriptions and stories of these works, including the personal motivations of their authors, but you, as a regular visitor, will read nowhere. As soon as you have an artwork in front of you, you usually only see its name and the name of the author.
If you go to exhibitions more often, the name of Krištof Kintera will probably ring a bell, maybe you have already come across his work, so you can put this work in context with who the author is, what his works look like other works. That in itself says a lot about a particular work. Whether or not you have this information, the work must arouse your attention and your willingness to ask questions: What do I see?, What does this mean?.
But does every viewer see the same thing?
No, because the spectrum of viewers who frequent galleries like ours is too broad – preschoolers, pensioners, people of different education come here. The purpose of a gallery or similar institution is simply to show something that is not expected.
How to understand the parts?
Art requires a certain openness. So far more important than seeking and getting answers is the exact opposite – asking questions. The easiest way to understand a work is to describe it.
For example, a painting by painter Marek Meduna entitled Slower: we see a bench, a little boy crying in the park, a garbage can, dead birds. Everyone sees it, it’s a clean description. Only now can we begin to ask ourselves: what happened to these birds, why did they die, is this an epidemic? Suddenly all these simple symbols start to make sense. Especially if we put our own experience into it.
Should we reflect on what the author himself meant?
Of course, when a work poses these questions to the viewer, it’s good. The problem is that the spectator who begins to think like this will very quickly grope, because he will never know exactly what Marek Meduna or another author is thinking. It is therefore important to insert your own knowledge, experience and information into the interpretation.
It is said that the more open a work is in terms of interpretations, the more alive it is. Once we agreed on an interpretation, we preserved the work, mummified it. As long as the work is debated, it is still relevant. Whether he is six months old or two hundred years old.
For example, religious painting, that is to say all of the Gothic, much of the Renaissance and the Baroque, generally depicts the motifs of the crucifixion of Christ or of the Virgin and Child. Your cultural knowledge will tell you clearly what is happening on the screen, you know the stories.
However, many authors have inserted very personal symbols into the work, which you will never read in these works as a viewer, because you do not even know that you have to look for them. For example, a number of paintings depicting the Virgin Mary depended on the decor, ornaments, which the artist painted on the floor. Everything had its symbolism.
Should art be beautiful?
It is not necessary, because the concept of beauty is very relative. What one finds nice will not please the other. The idea that something beautiful should be part of every work began to crumble among artists in the mid-19th century. At that time, Charles Baudelaire and other artists came up with something unheard of: in aesthetically beautiful form, poems or perfect painting, they began to depict something repugnant.
Galleries today are not tasked with displaying only the nicest things in the first place, perhaps quite the contrary. If the viewer only wants to see beautiful objects, he should go to the supermarket instead. Because you have the ambition to please, seduce and inspire, unlike galleries.
How do you know that a work is of good quality?
Here is the most complicated part. Of course, the form of the painting, the technique, the composition are important for each work. To determine the quality of a work, therefore, a little more of this technical knowledge is required.
Personally, I have seen tens of thousands of works over the years that have allowed me to create my own order of values. As an art student, you first encounter big names like Botticelli, Caravaggio, Leonardo or Michelangelo.
With these artists, you learn what painting is, what its styles and possibilities are, and this knowledge then defines you certain categories in which you evolve when evaluating the work. Then you can tell for yourself whether the paint is simple or complex, shiny or shoddy.
Should art evoke emotions?
If he can, that’s fine. At the Promising Prospects exhibition, for example, many visitors tell us that they did not feel well mentally during this one, mainly because it did not paint the idyllic image of childhood that they imagined. But it’s good.
It may seem like the artists we feature here had an unhappy childhood or trauma, but for the most part, that’s not true. But they are artists and their job is to be sensitive to the events unfolding around them and to convey that experience through art.
Where to learn about art?
The best way is to see these things in reality. Unlike books or monitors, you see a work in galleries in the format the artist intended for it. Whether the image measures twenty centimeters or two meters is of great importance.
Moreover, very often the work in reproduction, on the monitor, will not interest you at all, whereas when you see it live, it will absolutely captivate you. There is a structure, a visible touch of a human hand, the artist put his intellectual and emotional experience into the work. And that’s the magic you only find in art.
Is there a way to browse the galleries?
Return. People are often at the exhibition unnecessarily long, they honestly look at all the works and in the end they no longer have the strength. It is therefore better to go through the exhibition first to get information, to find out where what is, and only later to come back to what interests us. The first visit to each exhibition must be without ambition in order to understand everything immediately, understand everything and form an opinion on the exhibition.