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Summer is coming to an end. I will always remember this glorious Summer of 2014 as the Summer of Art. I finally got to see Europe and the top museums and galleries of the world. The British Museum, the National Gallery, the Louvre Museum, the Orsay Museum, and the Vatican Museum. In college I took a few art history courses that covered specific time periods and works, but never one that surveyed everything from beginning to end. So I’ve decided to read through E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. I probably should have done this before I went to Europe and visited the museums and galleries, but the trip was abrupt so there wasn’t enough time. I was glad to find an English copy from the Kyobo Book Centre in Seoul. Not that reading it in Korean would have been overly difficult, it’s just that I much prefer reading books in their original language. Translations always taste different from the original words; they lose the word play, the humor, and the soul.

Over the years I’ve found that my experiences and thoughts that are not recorded slip away from memory. Names are lost, dates are hazy, and I can barely remember who I was with or what I was doing at the time. Highlights and underlines on pages were useful at the time, but when I open the same book months later and the meaning that grabbed my attention is lost. The only thing that will keep those thoughts alive is writing.

It is often the expression of a figure in the painting which makes us like or loathe the work (p.22).

I often wonder how the artist has managed to capture not only the fleeting expression but also the person’s character. Perhaps that’s why we stand fascinated in front of portraits, whisked away into their lives. Personality bleeds through the colors and shapes, embodying the person and the artist that drew them. Then there is the viewer; the harsh, critical eyes of the viewer. That moment when the viewer stands before the artwork judging its value and significance. Some will be passed without so much as a mere glance, while others lock the viewer prisoner for endless silent minutes that pass.

I think back on when I was a child. An ignorant self-absorbed child who had no interest whatsoever in art and portraits. Every monumental moment in my education has been the simple realization that everything- every trade, event, and purpose-is about humankind. Which means everything is about human observation. You hear high ratings and praise about some product or company and find it is all about  people. From art to computer engineering it is all about people. So professionals and great people that walk among us are ultimately the greatest observers of people.

Knowing that, everything changes. Even the portraits change. They are no longer random portraits by random artists. You see the portrait, you feel the emotions, and you meet the people. How many countless hours did the artist spend face to face with this person? What did they see in that particular person that was different from so many others? Do people still have their portraits drawn these days? We live in a time when we are blessed by the infinite number of photos we can leave of our faces. Yet portraits by artists are still something that seems rare among us. Although, I myself would probably not feel all too comfortable sitting there with someone staring back at me. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why portraits aren’t that common.

We must first learn to know [the artist's] methods of drawing to understand his feelings (p. 23).

Some prefer audio guides to learn about art works in a gallery, others don’t. It is easy to decide a preference for one or the other. I tend to prefer audio guides, but I understand why others wouldn’t. It is nice to be able to see a piece of art without any sort of influence by others on how we should feel or perceive it. I wonder though, is it truly possible not to be influenced by the thoughts of others? We are influenced by the people around us, the objects around us, the experiences we have lived through, and the education we have received. The way we view one piece will no doubt be influenced by the works we have seen before it. Unless you enter an empty gallery, you will be influenced by the other people in the gallery. You’re likely to hear the discussions of other viewers and commentaries by guided tours. There is no such thing as silence in a full gallery. Instead, there are questions and supposings with a bit of knowledgeable comments thrown in here and there. There are nods and tilted heads that muse over the conversation that has grown around them.  Still, we like to think that our thoughts are purely our own and would like to decide what to think about a piece without having them decided for us by an audio guide. Fair enough. In my case, I like to see a piece, feel it, ponder over it, then listen to what the audio guide has to say about it. Audio guides will never dictate your thoughts unless you allow them to be. Instead, I feel as though they offer history and background that can add more layers to the relationship you have formed with a piece.

We should never condemn a work for being incorrectly drawn unless we have made quite sure that we are right and the painter is wrong (p. 25).

Sometimes I wish there were commentary for all the pieces that are displayed in a gallery. Perhaps this would be unreasonable in terms of time and practicality, not to mention cost of labor. I don’t mind as much with artworks I can make sense of. It’s more the works that I struggle with that I often wish for commentary. Usually the works I struggle with most are modern art. Appreciation comes harder and understanding fails me frequently. Yet when lightning strikes it is profound and moving in a way that is difficult to explain with words. Still, I find myself fighting the distaste that grows as I stare at some bizarre piece of work and try to understand why the artist created it, and why others have found it to be art. I find myself drowning in frustration and sometimes even guilt as I simply can’t find what to make of the work before me. Perhaps this is a good thing. Life without mysteries and full of uniform predictability would be unbearably boring. I should be allowing art to push me out of my comfort zone and challenge the way I perceive the world. Why is then that I find it so much of a struggle?

 

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After picking up the London Pass near Leicester Square I wandered around looking for a place to grab lunch. I happened to stumble across Trafalgar Square. Up to this point I was of course enjoying the European style buildings, but it wasn’t necessarily mind-blowing. When I reached Trafalgar Square I felt a paradigm shift in the world I had known. No photo, video, or lecture could have prepared me for this experience.

Scale is not something you can learn from books and imagination. Scale is something you learn by beholding the giants before you. It’s not that I’ve never seen a tall building before. In Korea, I am surrounded by 20-30 story apartments. There are plenty more tall buildings in Seoul as well as in Seattle, LA, and New York. Perhaps it was the combination of architectural style and scale that took my breath away. Or maybe it was simply the fact that I had never seen anything like it before. The funny thing is, Trafalgar Square was just the beginning of the incredible things I saw in Europe. It certainly can’t be picked as the best place to see in Europe. I think though, that it may have been one of the most memorable. Trafalgar Square was the gate that opened Europe for me.

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The first building that stood out on the road to Trafalgar Square was St. Martin-in-the-Fields. At the time I didn’t know the name of the building, only recognized that it was a church. There was an interesting sculpture of the birth of Jesus at the entrance. The smooth texture of the baby’s skin against the roughness of stone was quite the contrast. Maybe because when I see babies, I see them placed on the softest blankets in cozy cribs rather than a rough surface.

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As I walked into Trafalgar Square I realized that I had never truly understood what a monument was. I’ve seen other landmarks and ‘monuments’ before of course, but my reaction was completely different. You see, when I stood in front of other monuments for the first time, my reaction was “oh, nice.” When I stood under Nelson’s Column for the first time, my reaction was to stand there with my mouth open completely struck in awe.

 

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I envy all the Londoners who can come sit in Trafalgar Square whenever they wish. How they can walk into the National Gallery for free and spend hours in front of great art merely at an arm’s length away. How they can sit on the edge of large fountains and hear the rush of water while feeling the warm sun above them. I would like nothing more than to live in London for a few years spending day after day exploring the city and viewing all the incredible works of art it holds.

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I think this big blue chicken was the most unexpected thing I saw in Trafalgar Square. Maybe even the most unexpected thing I saw in London. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. It’s sort of stuck out to me, but I haven’t decided if I liked it or not.

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The tourist agency set up my hotel for London at Earl’s Court Station. Traveling through a tourist agency was not my preferred choice, but that was one of the cards I was dealt so I simply had to make do. I suppose Earl’s Court wasn’t all that bad of a location considering it was still on the Piccadilly line. I loved the Piccadilly line for its whimsical name and the ease of use. I think of the horrors I would have faced if it had been on that confusing yellow Circle line which had trains that went in different directions from the same platform. My experience with the Circle line was that I was forever getting on the wrong train or waiting for the right one that never arrived.

It was convenient having a Pret A Manger right next to the station. Pret A Manger was a chain store that had a wide array of sandwiches, wraps, and salads. The ‘three’ star hotel I was staying at didn’t have much for breakfast so it was nice to grab something from Pret A Manger before starting the day. They even had berry mix that I enjoyed.

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This is what I found on the way to the hotel! It’s a British postbox! I was delighted when I first saw it because I’ve never seen anything like it. The postbox felt special in a way that was similar to the red double-decker buses and the red phonebox. I was wondering why so many things were red in London, and when I asked I was told that red was the royal color. It surprised me to hear that the mail was royal. After all, the US never had a monarch after independence Great Britain and Korea hasn’t had a monarch since the Japanese invasion.  from Royal Mail had an interesting timeline about their history. It was interesting to learn that mail started in the Tudor dynasty by Henry the VIII. The usual thing that comes to mind when thinking about Henry the VIII are his many wives, not the start of the mail system. At one point in time, the post office officially hired cats! Here is a story from their website:

In September 1868 cats were officially appointed by the Post Office to catch rats and mice. Three cats worked on probation at the Money Order Office in London, with an allowance of one shilling a week. They had to rely on mice for the rest of their food. The Secretary to the Post Office warned that if the problem with mice was not reduced within six months, the allowance would be cut. In May, 1869, it was reported that “the cats have done their duty very efficiently.” In 1873 they were awarded an increase of 6d per week to their allowance. The official use of cats to control rats and mice soon spread to other Post Offices. 

I find it rather amusing that the cats were officially hired and earned wages for catching rats and mice. It makes me wonder how many animals throughout the world have been paid for their services.  Apparently the postbox having once been the color green was painted red to increase visibility. So it wasn’t because red was the royal color as someone had suggested. Green probably blended in with bushes or trees so it makes sense to switch colors. Although, I thought that the red would have some sort of significant meaning. For instance, the Chinese consider red to be a lucky color.

When I reached the hotel the check-in time wasn’t until 2pm. Waiting for hours for check-in was out of the question so we just left our bags…for a price. It was the first hotel that has charged me for holding on to luggage due to a late check-in time. In any case, that wasn’t the most important thing I learned during the first day of travel. The number one thing I learned was that overnight flights and late check-in hours requires dry shampoo. I was able to wash my face in the airport restrooms, but you can’t really take a shower and wash your hair. Apparently Heathrow does have showers but they’re in the VIP lounge and require reservation and a considerable price. This wasn’t the first time I had been on a long flight, but it was the first time that I couldn’t check in to a hotel, dormroom, or apartment after a 10 hour flight. I had never thought the first lesson I’d learn traveling to Europe would involve dry shampoo, but there you have it.

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