So many times we walk into a museum and we don’t know how to start a dialog about a work of art. Many of us just end up spending 10 seconds looking at a work and moving on. Next time you are in a museum and you find a work that interests you try doing the following.
Pretend that the artist is standing next to you. As you look at the work of art ask the artist questions. For example, I am at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and I am looking at Still Life with Sleeping Woman by Henri Matisse. Monsieur Matisse is standing next to me. After spending a few minutes looking at the work of art I have many questions for him.
• Why is the woman sleeping?
• Did she pose for you and fell asleep?
• What happened on the table? Did all the oranges and lemons fall?
• Is that a window on the wall? Or is it a mirror?
• Is the plant coming in from the outside?
• Is the woman dreaming of the plant taking over?
• Is the woman sitting or standing?
As you can see by asking questions it forces you to really look at the work of art. Hopefully it also makes you a bit more curious about the work. You now have questions that can be the basis for your research when you return home.
I recently visited the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) in Rome. It was hard to find but well worth the effort. This is an altar created during the time of Emperor Augustus. When Augustus
Ara Pacis, 9 BCE. Rome
Ara Pacis frieze, 9 BCE. Rome
returned from battles in Gaul and Iberia the Roman Senate confirmed the commission of an altar in 13 BCE. It was inaugurated in 9 BCE. It was used for sacrifices.
The altar is housed in the Ara Pacis Museum. The museum was designed by architect Richard Meier and opened in 2006. The building, a stark white, echoes the shape of the altar inside. The altar has reliefs covering the structure. On the right and left side are images of people in a procession commemorating the day of the inauguration of the altar, January 30, 9 BCE. The frieze on the right side interested me as I looked closely at the individuals. They appear as a family with children and adults. The man on the left with the child holding on to his clothes is thought to be Agrippa, the child is Gaius Caesar and the woman next to the child is Livia, Augustus’s wife. The man next to Livia is her son Tiberius. So we have family members who will continue ruling even after the death of Augustus.
The museum has a display of other reliefs from the Ara Pacis. Originally the altar was found in pieces and had to be reassembled piece by piece. This is not the original location. There is also museum space for special exhibits. During our visit the artist Salgado, a photographer, had a show entitled Genesis. I love the idea of showing a contemporary artist in the same space as a work art from 9 BCE.
At the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence is Michelangelo’s Pieta. Michelangelo was in his eighties when he created this work (approximately 1555). This marble grouping was meant for a funerary chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. This sculpture depicts Jesus after he was brought down from the cross after his Crucifixion. He is now resting on the Virgin Mary’s lap, the figure on the viewer’s right, a pose known as Pieta. The figure at the top of the grouping with the features of Michelangelo is Nicodemus. On the viewer’s left is Mary Magdalene. If you look closely, you will notice that she looks as if she has a more finished look as compared to the other figures that seem unfinished. She was actually completed by another sculptor. Looking at the facial expressions of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary you will notice that they do not express any sadness at the death of Jesus. It is thought that they are aware that Jesus will be resurrected.
Let’s look at the face of Nicodemus/Michelangelo. This work is thought to be a very personal work for Michelangelo. He was a very religious man. He identified with the figure Nicodemus, who was a sculptor. Nicodemus was one of the two men who, according to the Bible, removed Jesus from the cross. Michelangelo’s face expresses great compassion during this act.
Grand Duke Cosimo II brought the Pieta to Florence from Rome. At that time it was placed in San Lorenzo, a church in Florence. It was placed in the crypt. In 1721 it was moved to the choir in Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo (cathedral). In the 1930’s it was relocated again to another place in the Duomo and finally in 1982 it was brought to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where it is today.
Roman Portrait Busts, Marble, Capitoline Museum. Rome
Flavian Woman, 80 CE, Marble
Walking through the Capitoline Museum and the Vatican Museum in Rome recently I saw rooms filled with portrait busts. Roman sculptors created portrait busts of emperors, their families, gods, goddesses, generals, women, children, etc. But what interested me as I looked closer at the works of art were the portrait busts of women. There were so many and each one was very different. Each one seemed to represent a specific woman in facial features and character but also each had a different hairstyle. The Roman women seemed to be preoccupied with the style of their hair. I observed that the hair was intricately formed using all kinds of braids, bangs, curls, and hair pulled up in different ways. For example, Livia, wife of Augustus, has a different hairstyle in each of her portrait busts. One that really caught my eye was the Flavian Woman in the Capitoline Museum. It was placed all by itself in front of a window which enables the viewer to walk around the work of art. Her hair has beautiful curls in the front but it was the back that interested me. Her hair is almost like a cap on the back of her head but looking further I noticed she must have had very long hair. Her hair is braided and coiled as it is pulled up. This is something she could not have done by herself. She must have been a wealthy woman to have someone take care of this for her. Also remember this work and the others would have been painted. The figures would have looked so much more alive!
Let’s discuss the importance of looking at works of art. Most people will walk through museums spending only moments at each artwork or turn pages in an art book quickly only glancing at the art. Imagine if the artist was standing with you in the museum and you could ask him/her questions about how the work was created in content and/or technique. I find if I really look at a work of art I begin to ask questions and I become curious. I want to understand how the artist conveyed his/her intentions through the decisions made in the creative process.
I recently read “Inferno” by Dan Brown. There was a quote from Dante that really stuck with me. Here is an excerpt from the book.
“Langdon let out a low whistle. “ ‘O, you possessed of sturdy intellect …
observe the teachings hidden here … beneath the veil of verses so obscure.’ ”
Sienna stared at him. “I’m sorry?”
“It’s taken from one of the most famous stanzas of Dante’s Inferno,” Langdon
said excitedly. “It’s Dante urging his smartest readers to seek the wisdom
This quote can apply to a work of art as well. If you spend the time looking and becoming curious about a work of art, you will begin to read the “hidden” elements and have a deeper understanding and appreciation. Ask yourself what you want to know and maybe the answer is in front of you or it will lead you to research. As the character in Dan Brown’s book says Dante asks his readers to “seek the wisdom hidden within his cryptic verse” I ask you to seek the meaning found in works of art.