Once a year I have to go to London to apply for my Japanese visa and then I generally spend the time between my buses there and back in the National Gallery or Tate Britain. Both are free and both have good toilets.
I’m not very interested in art and I quickly get bored in galleries. Still, looking at paintings for an hour makes a nice change from walking aimlessly around in the rain while I’m killing time.
So I stroll around, look at the paintings, read the descriptions but my heart isn’t in it. So I sit down on a cushioned bench, partly to rest my legs and partly to get a better view of the bigger pictures. Yet I soon get distracted by the other visitors and end up trying to guess where they are from.
My problem is that I just don’t really see the point in looking at paintings. What am I supposed to be looking at? Here’s a picture of two blokes in frock coats having a picnic with a slightly flabby naked lady. And here is ‘Dionysus and Ariadne’, two Greeks, I suppose. And this is a biblical scene full of people I have never heard of. So what?
Sometimes a painting really does take my fancy, like the one at the top of this page. The girl herself is beautiful, which helps. Also the treatment is beautiful: she is an individual yet also an idealised type: a generic girl. Quite how the artist managed to create something both particular and general is a mystery to me but I like it. And I like it more than I would like a photo of the girl.
If the point of art were always to produce beauty then I would get it. Or if it were to show off the technical virtuosity of the artist then I get that too. After all, human talent can be very impressive. I feel the same way about circus performers and orchestras. Yet I am now so used to the idea that some people are very good at painting that I no longer marvel at it, just as I am no longer amazed that planes fly and telephones ring.
Some paintings are neither beautiful nor technically difficult, like Tracey Emin’s alleged ‘art’. And Picasso? I’m really not convinced he saw people, horses and things as fragmented angles. Nor do I think he even thought of them in those terms. More likely is that he once heard someone say that modern conscious was fractured and got it into his head to paint this idea. That’s fine, but to do it more than once? It’s like telling the same joke over and over again.
Pointillism? As far as I can grasp the artist, rather than mix the colours on his palette, leaves the mixing to the viewer’s eye. This requires the viewer to stand some distance from the painting or all he sees is varicoloured dots. What’s the point? Why not just mix the colours on the palette? Sheer laziness?
Impressionism? Two parts objective reality and one part what your subjective mind makes of that reality when it’s in a hurry. I quite like that idea, and the result. In Expressionism the measures are reversed and the subjective is overwhelming the objective reality. It’s okay. In Abstract art the real world has disappeared altogether and all we’re looking at is patterns and colours. Nah, not for me.
Surrealism? Painting a dream might be interesting but did Dali really dream about sagging clocks in deserts? If not, why paint them?
And so and hour goes by, I consult my watch, go to the toilet for the last time, find the exit and then slowly wend my way down The Mall or along the banks of the Thames to Victoria Coach Station. This is my once-yearly routine.
So why do artists paint? The writer Joseph Conrad once wrote that his task, as he saw it, was, ‘by the power of the written word…before all, to make you see.’ What did he want us to see? Presumably whatever it was he wrote about which was mostly life on board a ship or some far-off, hot, exotic place. Perhaps this is also what artists try to do: tear the veil of custom from our eyes, make the stone stony, make us really see again.
Anyway, next time I’m in London I’ll linger a little longer in front of the paintings in the hope of getting an inkling of what the artist is trying to say to me. Unfortunately I have never seen any paintings by my favourite artist, N.C. Wyeth. In his illustrations there is always enough meaning for me and I never ask, ‘What’s the point?’