Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910


of an Exhibition

by Jo Sohn-Rethel

Published on November 28, 2012

  • Description:

    Visiting the exhibition Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist landscape in Europe 1880-1910 at the Scottish National Gallery highlighted some important considerations for art interpretation- should art exhibitions be about the motivations and techniques of artists, or our own personal encounters with the artworks?

    Historical context:

    Van Gogh to Kandinsky sets out to tell the history of symbolist landscape paintings through an exploration of the cultural contexts in which the artworks were made and the artists’ abilities to convey emotion through colour and composition. In this aim the exhibition certainly succeeds.

    The six rooms are each clearly linked to a movement in symbolist painting and give an insight into the unique historical moments in which the art was made. Interpretation panels explain how scientific developments such as the discovery of evolution and dream psychology were explored by symbolist artists. The personal testimony of artists is often included through material on touch screens, such as letters between Van Gogh and his brother. These undoubtedly help visitors to enter the mind-set of the artist and their endeavour to capture a particular idea or atmosphere.

    The same terminals provide an opportunity to listen to music specially made to accompany the pictures. This sensory experience certainly enhances the atmosphere of specific artworks and demonstrates the similarities between painting and music- art is a tool of emotional manipulation just as music is often created to make listeners feel a certain emotion.

    The visitor’s subjectivity:

    So the ways that artists and history conspire to communicate a constructed reality of nature is clearly explained, but what about the subjectivity that visitors bring to the art encounter? Looking at the evocative and atmospheric painting I continually thought, why am I attracted to this particular painting or ignore that one? How do our experiences and memories, personal aesthetic tastes and personality shape what we look at and for how long?

    The absence of ‘art psychology’ in exhibition interpretation in general is understandable. The primary aim of most art exhibitions is to communicate the historical context and meaning behind artworks while the psychological responses of visitors is based on the here and now. But I feel it’s vital we consider why we engage with certain artworks and unpick our encounters with them; it’s at the heart of what we look at it in exhibitions and hang on our walls. In this exhibition for example, it would help visitors less comfortable with deciphering the symbolic messages of paintings to consider their own aesthetic responses to art as a whole.

    Including visitor responses in displays:

    How easy is it to incorporate visitors’ personal tastes into exhibition spaces in practice? Competition based exhibitions such as the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery and Wildlife Photographer of the Year at Natural History Museum provide terminals for visitors to select their favourite works on display. More ambitiously, Brooklyn Museum got 3,500 community members to evaluate the work of artists in their online and on-site crowd curated exhibition Click.

    Getting visitors to select their favourite works might help them to identify a particular aesthetic they are attracted to, but anything that helps them to understand why they chose them is even better. Perhaps a tool that links their choices to personality traits or music tastes, or explores responses to certain colours. (For the record my favourite painting on display was the dark and oppressive Isle of the Dead- not sure what that says about me!).

    For most exhibitions, including visitors’ evaluations of art would be a deeper layer rather than central tenet of interpretation. Certainly for many visitors, dissecting the psychology behind their appreciation of art would negate the simple pleasure of soaking up the atmosphere. On the other hand, an exhibition such as Click dedicated to our psychological responses to art could be less intrusive than after thoughts.

    I feel subtle shifts from artist centred to visitor centred interpretation can only be a good thing, but further research on the actual impacts on audience learning and experience is needed. If anyone’s done any audience research on the subject, I’d be interested to hear the results.

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