Sunday, March 05, 2023

Musée d'Orsay: to photograph or to see II

The Musée d'Orsay clock. A view over the Seine to Montmartre. Please click to enlarge the photo. L'Horloge du Musée d'Orsay from: Paris Tickets by Headout.

These jottings are a remake and a sequel to my remarks from 2014 titled "Le Louvre: to photograph or to see" I.

Before the pandemic, there was a global golden age of museum attendance: never had museums been so popular. Now, after a three year interruption, crowds are returning, not least from Asian countries. Hopefully the golden age continues.

I have travelled to Paris in business since the 1970s, but my first tourist trip I made only in 2014, and it was then that I also visited Le Louvre for the first time.

In 2014 I was amazed to observe visitors photographing artworks at Le Louvre. These are legendary works of which there are high resolution images online without paywalls. Observing the fantastic online images one can get deeper into informative detail than viewing the paintings themselves.

Susan Sontag, among others, has praised the service done by high quality photographic reproductions for art historians, critics and artists. Before photography, it could be overwhelming to gain such a wide grasp of art history as anybody can have today.

Brilliant online reproductions are available around the clock, but when the rare moment arrives to actually see the legendary cultural object, what do we do? We don't view it. Instead, we take a photograph.

Nine years ago I thought that we have reached the nadir in this behaviour. The classic photograph of the phenomenon was taken by Guia Besana for The New York Times, 28 July 2014: Mona Lisa. (I quote the photo in my remarks on "The queer gaze of Leonardo"). The tiny lady is in her bulletproof glass cage, surrounded by safety rope. A crowd throngs around. Everybody takes photos, some turning their backs to the painting for a selfie.

I refused to visit the Mona Lisa room but became a victim of the photographing mania anyway. Wanting to examine the Code of Hammurabi Stele in peace I soon realized that I was disturbing photographers, who in turn kept interrupting me. Great images of the stele and complete accounts of its contents are available in sources, but the three-dimensional presence of the object is an unforgettable and haunting experience that a photograph cannot convey.

Now again in Paris, this time visiting the Orangerie and the Orsay museums, I realize that the nadir of the photographing mania has not yet been reached. Visiting the Matisse exhibition, it was not rare to observe a photographer in front of every painting. It was like a Godardian combo satire: running through a museum and bringing back only postcards.

There are still benches in exhibition rooms, but not in front of the most famous paintings. The classic habit of visiting exhibitions included the possibility to spend an hour meditating in front of a masterpiece. Today, museums are turning into conveyor belt platforms of photo opportunities.

Susan Sontag was puzzled by the phenomenon of photography as a substitute for seeing. Which is connected to major philosophical issues dating back to Socrates and Plato.

By incessant photographing we attempt to outsource seeing to a machine. It is a futile exercise. Seeing as documenting factual information is important. But particularly when we are dealing with a visual artwork, the substance is only revealed in a complex mental process that requires time and focus. Often it requires revisits. Even the physical reality of the visual artwork is multi-layered. There is the surface (line, shape, colour, texture, value, form, space). But that is often only the beginning. A painting is a physical, three-dimensional object. One of the magical mysteries of Mona Lisa is that she seems to have a different smile and a different look depending on the light and the direction of the viewer. A good painting can be many paintings depending on the changing circumstances of display.

Seeing in the highest sense of the word means insight. It means being illuminated. It means being enlightened.

These things cannot be externalized to a machine. Not even an AI machine.

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