Visiting museums and visual memories

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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A couple of weeks ago, I visited the two part exhibition Corps et Ombres: Caravage et le caravagisme européen (June 23 –  October 14 2012). The Musée des Augustins in Toulouse hosted the northern followers Caravaggio, and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier the painter himself, as well as his Italian, Spanish and French followers (I will not dwell here on the problems of the label “caravaggism” or “Caravaggesque”).

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Musée des Augustins allowed photographs of the paintings on display, a rather rare policy when it comes to temporary exhibitions. I took a series of photos, mostly of luscious details of painterly mastery, although I already knew many of the paintings and had various digital photos  of them at home. I should perhaps state here that I had a specialist interest in visiting the exhibition and that I purchased the scholarly catalogue that provided excellent reproductions of all the paintings included in the exhibition.

Dirck van Baburen, The Crowning of Thorns, ca. 1621-22, oil on canvas, 130 x 171 cm, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (detail, © photo of the author)

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Why take pictures then? I find that personal photographs enhance the experience of one’s visit to a museum. They function not merely as visual aids to memory, but reinforce the sense of engaging with a work of art. You are not merely a passive observer but you can choose the shooting angle, or even the part of the painting you want to record. The photos can be shared on social media, stimulating dialogue or encouraging other viewers to visit the museum or specific exhibition. Even as a souvenir of one’s presence (provided that it does not interfere with other people’s experience or enjoyment), the practice cannot possibly be considered objectionable, except by pedantic snobs, who think that behavior in an art museum (and not a cultural institution in general) should follow a specific set of norms. Would anyone dream of making the same argument for a Natural History or Science Museum? I will also not dwell on the class aspect of the will to control the response of the uninitiated in front of works of art, because that would take us very far. All the way back to the seventeenth century and Caravaggio himself, as a matter of fact.

Which is why I was disappointed when, after having to wait almost two hours in a line to get in the Musée Fabre (the real “stars” of the exhibition, Caravaggio and La Tour, were there), I was informed that I was not allowed to take pictures. I will not accept as an argument for denying a visitor the right to take pictures the assertion that the museum shop has reproductions of the paintings on display. I’ve been an assiduous museum visitor for more than twelve years and museum shops never provide more than a selection of their most famous artworks. A boring and predictable selection of best-sellers, a selection clearly based on artistic reputation and marketability. What about that lesser known painter that captured your imagination and for whose work there is no reproduction?

Neither will I accept the preservation argument (only flash might damage paintings and it should be prohibited on these grounds), nor the copyright argument that does not apply for works of art that are already in the public domain. Nor the ludicrous argument that allowing photographs would entail a loss of revenue for the museums. Personal photographs could never substitute professional ones offered for sale, and I don’t think anyone is taking pictures in order to save money from products that they would otherwise purchase from the museum shop. This is a serious and complicated issue that cannot be exhausted here, as it touches on questions about the public character and role of institutions and what kind of relationship they wish to maintain with their public.

For my part, I will never forget Gerrit van Honthorst’s Smiling Girl (A Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Image). Was it my favorite painting of the exhibition? Certainly not. But it was playful and unusual. I also took a picture of it, among other paintings that I photographed that day. When I went back to my hotel and looked at the pictures I had taken, I noticed something I had not seen before. The painting was covered by glass and on the upper hand right corner, it had caught the reflection of the vitraux windows, that looked almost as hanging ornaments in the photo. The exhibition was taking place in the medieval church that belongs to the former Augustinian convent where the Musée des Augustins is housed. This small “defect” immediately provides a sense of place – the memory not only of a specific painting, but of the space where it was originally seen. Mechanical reproduction may have stripped artworks from their aura (and Benjamin would be the first to welcome the democratization that this entails), but personal photographs sometimes salvage the magic of a unique encounter of an individual with a work of art. And that cannot be reproduced.

Gerrit van Honthorst, Smiling Girl, or A Courtesan holding an Obscene Image, 1625, oil on canvas, 106 x 89 cm, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis (© photo of the author)

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