While looking through the photos of my recent holiday in Spain, I was reminded of hours spent in Madrid's museums and galleries. A whole afternoon at the Prado only allows for only a passing glimpse at the remarkable collection, something like leafing through an art history textbook. But while wandering through the galleries, some paintings will stop you in your tracks, like Goya's The Third of May, 1808. In a textbook it will be page-size at the most and possibly only in black and white. You see the elements of the image, such as form or tonality, and the subject matter points to the meaning.
What the artist actually intended is another matter, and is a function of the context of his time, fascinating, but limited by our knowledge of history. And anyway, once a work of art becomes public, it can have as many interpretations as there are viewers. Meaning becomes diluted, or broken into facets, and the artist's meaning is one of many. in a world of relativity, importance or truth becomes, well, relative, and subject to manipulation. Art, by being inherently subjective, is a cause and an antidote to this situation and can bring focus to important themes. And with subjects such as war, it allows us an experience about as close as we want to get to the real thing. What do we believe? That which moves us.
My understanding of The Third of May was abstract until I came face to face with the properly lit canvas, 9 x 11 feet in size, shocking in it's detail and presence. Meaning becomes experience and you imagine a closer understanding of the message in the image. There is no glory of war here.
Another similar example is Picasso's Guernica at the Museo Reina Sofia. Research will tell us about the painting, but is only a map to the thing as it is. Here the message is important, and maybe the canvas really does need to be 11 x 25 feet to get the idea across.
wow! I can’t believe that Goya painting is 11 feet long! I always imagined it as 11 inches. Sounds like an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing.
by Margriet Aasman
I love looking at a work of art and responding from the gut. “What do we believe? That which moves us.” Nicely put. Afterwards, I do like to know what the artist intended. Envy you being so close to these masterpieces!
by Jennifer Solomon
So true Paul. I had a similar experience visiting the Louvre years ago. My perception of all these works of art I studied in university was instantly transformed the moment I saw them in real life—a little epiphany about the meaning of context.