Wu Jiabao © 2017

Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (1): Reflections on Faint Light, Dark Shadows (2017)
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (2): You can only obtain useful nutrients from an exhibition by walking through it three times at least
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (3): Seeing the exhibition for the third time

The first time you should briskly walk around every corner of the exhibition venue to create an imprint about the structure of the whole exhibition in your mind. This action  is comparable to opening an image folder on a computer and the computer producing a thumbnail index of all images stored in the folder. Usually, we can decide whether to leave an exhibition simply by walking around once because many exhibitions are lack of nutrient and hence not worth spending time at. For exhibitions that can benefit our learning and growth, walking around for the first time allows us to form a “big map” about which artworks are exhibited. We know then where we should spend more time, and which artwork we should spend more time on looking carefully.

The second time we should walk as slow as possible to savour each artwork. Small-sized artwork should be looked at as close as possible, large-sized artwork should be looked at by walking closer to and away from it repeatedly. Seeing an exhibition for the second time is the most complicated that requires the most brainpower in the whole process of seeing an exhibition. It can be divided into the following parts:

2-1. Try to have a dialogue with “the body of an artwork” in front of you with every one of your sense.

“The body of an artwork” refers to the outermost layer, the most superficial, the most “physical” content of an artwork. To most people, it is the simplest and easiest part when appreciating an artwork. To art students, however, it is the most important foundation in gaining knowledge relating to art. Each art media, such as oil painting, water colour painting, Chinese painting, pottery, sculpture, photography and movie, has its own “craftsmanship requirements”, which are the required materials and operational technicalities when producing the physical body of an artwork. We can ask ourselves if the “craftsmanship requirement” of an artwork in front of us reaches the level of impeccable perfection. These are the topics on which we can have a dialogue with the artwork before us.

Using a black-and-white photo as an example, is ultimate black or white shown in the picture? How much difference between tones of whiter and whitest, tones of blacker and blackest? In the the “density range” formed between ultimate black and white, is there a maximum distribution of tones available? We can also study the size of grains forming the image, contrast, tone, etc. Have the physical and chemical characters of the “photo” been thoroughly demonstrated visually according to the needs of illustrating the content?

Taking a colour photo as another example: Photographer’s choice of printing method, such as chromogenic print, dye bleach (cibachrome) print, dye transfer print and ink-jet print, should demonstrate his or her considerations regarding the craftsmanship requirement showing the choice is the only workable option to reproduce the colour. The photographer should also consider if the content of the picture is in line with the way the colour are produced by the chosen method.

We can even ask: Why would one pick black-and-white? Would the work be better if it were presented in colour? Does the work need to be shown in colour? Is it better in black-and-white? All these questions can be the part of the dialogue between audience and artwork at this stage.

The extent to which an artwork approaches perfection also depends on the materials chosen by its author.  Every choice in the whole photography process, from lighting, camera (formats of camera), lens, depth of field, exposure time, film, viewfinder, printing, and the printing paper’s texture, size, mounting method and framing materials, and its proportion to the photo, will all severely influence the final appearance of a photographic work. All these are things that the audience can first list out when they have a dialogue with an artwork when they see it for the second time.

I always maintain: In order to learn more about photography, one should obtain nutrients from all art forms other than photography, no matter whether it is painting (the origin of photography), sculpture, poetry, music, stage performance, poem, philosophy or cinema (the derivative of photography). For professionals working on design of various kinds and all art students, the way the masters of Impressionism used and matched colours is a precious resource to boost data in their brains.

The Pola Museum of Arts, located in Hakone, Tokyo’s suburb, is one of the places I must bring my students to every summer when attending a tour of museums in Tokyo and Hakone. (Students will visit international exhibitions held at six to ten museums of arts, depending on the major exhibitions held at that time.) The Pola Museum of Arts has the biggest collection of Impressionist masters’ printings in the world. Museums from across the world will borrow pints from Pola whenever they hold Impressionist painting exhibitions. I tell my students: when they see the artworks, especially those from the masters of Impressionism, they do not need to try to “understand” the work. All they need is to have a “long exposure” to the works of the master with their own sensation; the longer time the better. Allowing the senses to be exposed to the works of art masters offers a big help in nurturing one’s sensibility to colour.

In Faint Light, Dark Shadows, Chiu Kuo-Chun’s In Status of Spiritual Dispersing and Hou I-Ting’s Lik-sú Tsiam-tsílâng, colour embroidery was found on specific areas of their black-and-white photos. In Hung Cheng-jen’s Place of Melancholy, Oceanic Music Season, and Travel Independently (自由行), he deliberately rubbed the black-and-white pictures so that there are wrinkles on them. He even overlapped a few photos to correlate with high contrasted images. Using their own methods, the three photographers create a certain extent of three-dimensional space on two-dimensional images. Adding colour embroidery to black-and-white pictures containing historical imagery produces a big impact. It is like adding flavours of “right now at this moment” to images from the past for the audience. These multi-media treatments by the three photographers all offer synesthetic messages on images that originally could have only been watched with eyes. Besides visual sensation, the audience, to some extent, can also have the sensation of touch.

2-2. Use reason and sensibility to try and have a dialogue with the “unseen” part of the artwork’s body

As said, the first message layer carried in an image contains the “message required as basic instincts for the survival of living being.” Within it, it contains a/plot, b/difference, c/feature of the contour line for recognizing different objects. The second layer contains “visual elements and their structures.” The third layer contains “semantic meaning of the image.” The part where we think we can understand any picture is in fact the most superficial one in the first layer – “plot,” the part of an image that narrates a story.

However, if an image can only narrate a story and relay a story like a news photo, it can only be subordinated to the state of matter of the scene, being at the level of “recording the reality” at most. In human civilisation, this kind of photo merely has news value, only used by the mass media to tell the public what is happening.

An image that wants to surpass the lowest level of narration and storytelling must achieve something in the second message layer “visual elements and their structure.” It is the basis for an image with “information thickness.” In this layer, the audience can first appreciate the beauty brought by the various visual elements of the image’s structured external body.

But what makes visual elements in a photo more appealing to audiences and will encourage the audience to spend more time looking is in fact the structural relationships among the visual elements. Yes! “Relationships” cannot be seen with our eyes! Photography educationalist Gyorgy Kepes (1906 – 2001), who taught in New Bauhaus, mentioned in his book Language of Vision (1944) that the dynamic force of visual imagery is constructed in the structural relationships among visual elements in an image. Of these relationships, the first one that emerged is the blank space photographers intentionally produce (“Leaving blank” in Chinese ink painting), which is referred as “Ground” by visual psychologist (some called it negative space). In contrast, “Figure” is called “positive space”.

Language of Vision, written by Gyorgy Kepes and published in 1994, is a timeless work on the construction of flat image.

How to manage the dynamic force of visual imagery in an image is the foundation of photo literacy education of my institution. Work from Huang Yu-zheng from the 56th class.

As to enhance students’ sensation of visual beauty, the first lesson of photo literacy course is: “Ground is more important than Figure in a photograph” and “The stance of the artist is ‘to see what other can’t see!’”

Deliberate use of Ground can not only instil tension into an image, but also attract the fixation of the audience during their scanning process, allowing the audience to feel the vivid dynamic force of visual imagery in various areas of a picture.

The second lesson is to proactively use invisible visual elements, or known as “elements of composition.” These form the structural relationship among visual elements in an image, such as frame, ganzfeld, centroid, axis, contour line, distance, tension, direction, dynamic force, cohesion, symmetry, anisotropy, balance, interaction, segregation, grouping and cross grouping. Relationships of these elements constitutes the compositional elements required for a photograph, and these compositional elements have no relationship with the first message layer “plot.” However, they are the keys that determine if an image is beautiful and whether it can be appreciated for a long time. We can imagine the presence of the “Ground” by way of a modern dance performance. At first glance, the main content is the dancers’ performance and we may think the stage floor, or the “Ground,” seems to have no relationship with the dancer. However, if there were dozens of stones or holes on the floor, what would the performance look like? This is comparable to the importance of the “condition of ground” to an image. 

I always stress: except for commercial photography whose context is removed, all photographed objects exist in a certain space context and time context within “the message of Ground”. It is why space and time messages of the ground often carry more information than the objects per se. This is where the concept “the Ground is more important than the Figure” comes from. In FOTOSOFT’s Visual Literacy curriculum, there are 23 items under “Language of Space” and 26 items under “Language of Time.” I believe you are now aware that there is so much we have to learn about interpreting messages in relation to images.

Once equipped with the ability to interpret the dynamic force of visual imagery of an image and the ability to see the state of Ground in a photo, they can then appreciate the information thickness and abundant messages of an artwork, and see the content of the artwork that could not be seen originally.

2-3. Try to use your own reason and sensibility to have a dialogue with the parts of an artwork’s body that look like “noise.”

We call this kind of message “noise” because many people think they have finished reading an artwork simply after reading the most superficial part “plot” i.e. the first message layer. The so-called “noise” seems to have nothing to do with the “plot” that everyone seems to understand. However, it is the source of higher level and more vivid information that artists deliberately compile. It is like what we see in our daily lives (visual psychology calls it the “visual image”), such as a stain on a glass, a scratch on a car, bird droppings on a car window, a coffee stain on a notebook, the shadow under the sun, and a scanning lines on a CRT TV. These are messages that really exist but do not interfere with our lives. Our senses would automatically ignore these messages to reduce the amount and hence the processing time of information. Messages of such kind are therefore called noises.

However, when looking at a two-dimensional image (including motion picture seen on silver or television screen, also called a “retinal image” in visual psychology), audience’s vision is constrained within the frame and any visual stimulant within the frame will be processed and compared. Hence, noises produce a special meaning. In the Visual Literacy curriculum of the FOTOSOFT, 11 items are listed under “Language of Shadow” with the aim of training students to make better use of “noise,” which looks like a shadow in our daily life but can help artists enhance the information thickness of an image.

In the exhibition Faint Light, Dark Shadows, Ho Ching-tai’s Occupational Injury Victims, Liu Chen-hsiang’s Scenery of Life and Hung Cheng-jen’s Place of Melancholy and Travel Independently, all are works that deliberately use “noise” on the image body to enhance the depth of message. Using the peel-apart film of a Polaroid in his work Occupational Injury Victims, Ho intentionally rubbed the film and paper while the image was developing. Uneven image development produces image noise with cracks or uneven tone distribution. Such image noise echoes the work’s theme, namely portraits of workers who were injured and have disabilities due to industrial accidents. 

In Scenery of Life, Liu found that his B/W negatives were severely damaged after being soaked in rainwater. He then used these damaged negatives to illustrate the living conditions of his relatives and friends in the photos. Meanwhile, in Hung’s works Place of Melancholy, Oceanic Music Season and Travel Independently, he has the photo papers rubbed so that there are wrinkles on them. He then even overlapped the papers to match with the high contrasted images. Through this method the audience is able to feel the rage and helplessness of people facing an ever-changing and merciless environment.  These are successful examples of deliberately using noise on an image to boost the message.

Regarding the addition of messages that otherwise do not exist during the image formation and transformation process, Li Yuan-chia (Untitled) and Lee Kuo-min (Heart Sutra) both altered the tone and colour of the ganzfeld, be it darker (Li), lighter or uneven (Lee). In his Animals’ and Human Being’s Skandha and Dhātava (Aggregates and Realms), Lee used transparent acrylic cube instead of paper to be the image’s ganzfeld. In Untitled, Li believe that the audience find it easier to see the densely coloured ganzfeld in the work and hence the message “helplessness in front of fate” that the artist wanted to relay to the audience. 

2-4. Use reason and sensibility to try and have a dialogue with “an artwork’s soul”

As quoted, photography master Minor White (1908-1976) said, “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”

Another master Robert Frank (b. 1924) stated, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”

When receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, musician Bob Dylan said, “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important.”

Undeniably, in the era of Photography 2.0 when photojournalism and street photography were still the major trends, photographers were mainly responsible for helping people to see or to tell the audience what the photographers were concerned about. Photographers wanted to invite the audience to look into some social issues together. Photographers were therefore mainly concerned with presenting certain social phenomenon through their works. Shen Chao-liang’s YULAN Magnolia Flower, Chin Cheng-tsai’s Sound of Silent Gun Shoot and Pan Hsiao-hsia’s Meng-jia – Drunken Wandering displayed in the exhibition Faint Light, Dark Shadows are all works of such kind.

After entering the era of Photography 3.0 (when it became a major trend for photographers to use their images as art media), the audience tried to ask themselves the following questions while looking at artwork: “Other than what the image shows on  its superficial level, what possibly can the image also be?” “Did the photographer try to address a ‘metaphysical content’ through the ‘physical content’ of an image?”

Just like language – the level and value of language used in news reporting and poetry are vastly different. An image that uses precise semantics to illustrate its metaphysical content certainly have much higher art value than a news photo, which can merely portray details of the photographed scene. So, we can say the metaphysical message, the third message layer, in an image is usually the art value of an image. It is also the soul of an image.

Standing before an artwork, an audience member should first ask herself or himself, “What do I ‘feel’ from the artwork in front of me?” After determining the feeling, the person can then try to look specifically for elements from the work or reasons that gives such a feeling. This feeling is usually the message that an artist tries to tell the world (audience) through the work. This is why audience would then ask, “What is the topic that the artist wants to explore?”

Ho Ching-tai’s Occupational Injury Victims, Chang Chien-chi’s Side Chain, Hou Peng-hui’s Self-Portrait, Hou Shur-tzy’s Japan-Eye-Love-You, Lee Chia-yu’s In the dark, Invisible hours and Chen Yan-cheng’s Days at the Sea are all works of such kind.

Image creation of such form not only tests an artist’s ability to write through the image’s third layer “semantic meaning” and fourth layer “contextual meaning” (only exists when images are put together as a group), but also tests the interpretation ability of the audience in reading the semantic meaning and context when seeing an artwork. Strangely, before the era of Photography 3.0, popular perception of photo works was “there must be a definite answer in the image” or “the photographer pressing the shutter to create the image can definitely offer the right interpretation of the photograph.” Such interpretation of photography is only valid when photography helps an audience to see at a specific time and place, and messages an image could convey are only limited to the most superficial layer “plot.” When images are created through abundant use of the third message layer, or even the forth message layer “context” when pictures are put in groups, artist him- or herself is no longer the sole judge about the content of the work; even the same audience would have different interpretation when revisiting the same work after a month. There is no definite interpretation of a photograph in the era of Photography 3.0. 

2-5. Try to use reason and sensibility to determine if “the style and content” of the artwork match.

In the 1950s, entering the era of Photography 3.0, photographers abundantly used the third layer of message, “semantic meaning,” to enhance the information thickness in an image. The era of Photography 4.0 started in 2010 as photographers began using a number of photos to form a “group of photos” (or so-called photo series) that boosts the information thickness through “contextual message” between images. Some even got rid of the linear context: instead of simply placing photo simply on a wall along a line, photographers started using a matrix of context (see Lee Kuo-min’s Heart Sutra and Simon Chang’s Birthmark). Some used “semantic spreading activation mode,” an even more complex mode that makes use of different sizes and positions of a number of photos on an exhibition wall, to further enhance the semantic meaning of an artwork (see the exhibition by Wolfgang Tillmans (b.1958)).

Artworks that operate in semantic spreading activation mode whose photos are placed in a certain form or structure on an exhibition wall are usually not mounted. In such way, message of each picture seems to “spill out” scenes that echo with the neighbouring images (see Hou Peng-hui’s Self-Portrait). Therefore, being parts of a bigger entity, photos no longer follow the traditional line of “a picture is an individual artwork” and are not mounted inside a big frame to be displayed independently in an exhibition space (see Lin Po-liang’s four artworks, Liu Chen-hsiang’s Scenery of Life, Hou Shur-tzy’s Japan-Eye-Love-You, Chiu Chih-yung’s In Status of Spiritual Dispersing, and Li Yuan-chia’s Untitled).

Under the influence of installation art, which began in the 1950s, exhibitions in the style of photo installation emerged in Europe and the US as early as the 1980s. Photo installation is different with semantic spreading activation mode, which has become trendy since the 2010s, and gives more attention to the interaction and activation of semantic meanings among the photos themselves. Messages with semantic meaning that do not come directly from the photo works will be minimized as much as possible (see Hou Peng-hui’s Self-Portrait). Meanwhile, photo installation allows the presence of non-image materials around the artwork that have semantic meanings; some even deliberately rely audio guide or motion picture to bring interactions between messages in the exhibition (see Lin Po-liang’s four artworks, Lee Kuo-min’s Heart Sutra, all of which have their own video and audio guide). This is why during contemporary arts exhibition, the question of whether an artwork’s “style” is matching with its “content” often arises. 

In Faint Light, Dark Shadows, ten showpieces including Ho Ching-tai’s Occupational Injury Victims, Chang Chien-chi’s Side Chain, Hou Peng-hui’s Self-Portrait, Hou Shur-tzy’s Japan-Eye-Love-You, Lee Chia-yu’s In the Dark and Invisible Hours, Chen Yan-cheng’s Days at the Sea and Lee Kuo-min’s Heart Sutra and Animals’ and Human Being’s Skandha and Dhātava (Aggregates and Realms) are all displayed in the form of photo installation. When looking at these artworks, apart from the images, the audience can rank the installations according to the strength of their “style” constructed by other materials. When looking at these artworks one by one, you should ask yourself, “Is this artwork’s ‘style’ stronger or weaker than its ‘content’? Or do they match each other?” You can write down your own interpretation and judgment and ask yourself the reason behind your thoughts.

Following this prompt, I believe, will enhance your experience of visiting Faint Light, Dark Shadows. You will learn in this exhibition that there are many artworks whose style is stronger than content, and there are works whose content is stronger than style. Of course, you may be surprised that many artworks in the exhibition, without reading explanatory notes on the side (Isn’t that the presumption that a visual artwork should be able to survive in front of audience on its own?), have a style that is unprecedented strong (So strong the audience can only learn what the direction of the content could be while they are unable to understand the content of the artwork itself). For a few artworks, you may even ask yourself in your mind, “Is artwork of this level suitable for display at the second largest photo exhibition in Taiwan’s first public arts museum?”

2-6. Try to examine if the “elements of art creation” of an artwork before you have reached the balance.

You may ask what kind of content should be deemed as valuable for an artwork to be invited for display in a museum of arts.

The three elements in the nature of art creation taught as part of photo literacy course are:

1.Content (Issue)
2.Human being

You may have noticed these three elements do not appear in what many photographers generally recognize as the image’s core message i.e. “state of matter in front of the lens” or the superficial layer “plot” on the first message layer. Indeed, in art creation (including plot in video and cinema), state of matter before the lens is merely one of the elements an author uses to refer to certain metaphysical content. State of matter in front of the lens like “image,” “photography,” “visual,” and “message” are all elements that artist must use in the process of image creation.

The second element is human being. Naturally, a work of art is created by an artist as a “human being”. It is thus important that the content of an artwork is able to showcase the creator’s subjectivity. We cannot forget, however, since Roland Barthes’ notion of “The Death of the Author,” how an audience interprets an artwork is regarded more important than the interpretation of its creator. Therefore, there two human beings with crucial relationships to any artwork; one is the creator, another one is the audience.  The human element surely leads to value orientation as proposed by the content of artwork and issues that the creator tries to bring to the audience. Since the creator and the audience are both human beings, the value of the artwork is certainly determined by the content an artwork wants to carry. Is the issue an artwork tries to illuminate important and memorable to the majority of people and does it address the shared culture among people? Or is the issue (such as gender, environmental protection, the gap between the rich and poor) very important to the shared history of mankind? Maybe some of these issues have become cliché because they have been available for a long time, but then you can ask: Does the artwork in front of you approach the issue from a different creative angle? Or even when the topic is important to its creator, can it still resonate with the majority of audience?

In other words, when visiting a big exhibition curated by a big art museum, we as audience can try to use the three elements in art creation – content, human being and media – to analyse each artist’s each piece of artwork. We can also analyse the interaction and balance among the three elements.  

When we use “balance among the three elements of art creation” as the approach to evaluate the work in Faint Light, Dark Shadows, you may quickly find out which photographer and which work is worth revisiting a few more times, and which artworks are merely playing with style, have no thoughtful content to audience, but are displayed there by accident. Personally, I think there several artworks of such kind. I can only say it is regrettable to have them displayed in such a monumental exhibition in the history of Taiwanese photography.  

2-7. Try to experience the huge difference between an artwork’s image printed in the exhibition’s official catalogue and its original on the exhibition wall.

We began learning the art of painting from when we are small from an image of the Mona Lisa in primary school textbook so we are familiar with the look of Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci. In university, we learn to recognise more printings by masters in western art history through textbooks. We always believe we know the masters when we understand what these masters painted in their works.

When we have the chance to see the original artworks of these masters in western art history displayed on an exhibition walls, we come to realise that the really valuable content of these masterpieces is not what we thought it was.

Right now, Exposition du 30 Anniversaire du Musee d’Orsay Taiwan, an exhibition with works from Musée d’Orsay in France which is held on 1F, Library Building, National Palace Museum in Taipei (originally to end on 24 July but now extended until 28 August). Please go visit the exhibition and buy an official exhibition catalogue before entering the exhibition venue. While adopting the various methods mentioned above to appreciate the exhibition, please spend some time to compare images on the catalogue and the originals on the exhibition wall. What are the differences in terms of colour, tone, and contrast?

Just after a few comparisons, you will stop believing in images printed in books relating to paintings found in bookshops, libraries, your reading room and those found on the Internet. Yes, the distance between original paintings on walls in galleries and images printed in any books is so unbelievably huge.

Comparison of this kind brings about several benefits or results:

1. You finally realise the value of the painted artwork has nothing to do with what was printed (We once thought it was the major content of painting). You finally realise the value of artworks by renowned masters in the art history is about the visual experience you feel when standing in front of them. Such an experience cannot be replaced by any language, word or interpretation! Unless you expose your senses to a painting by standing in front of it, you can only feel a ten thousandth of it.

2. You finally realise you cannot believe in images, not only painting but also photographs, printed in any books.

3. You finally realise “seeing exhibition of artists” and “having a compilation monograph of artists” are two totally different matters.

4. You finally realise the huge differences between the two messages, “understanding” and “feeling” that artworks bring to us!

5. You finally realise you have to go whenever there is big exhibition from Europe and the US held in Taiwan (Like Exposition du 30 Anniversaire du Musee d’Orsay Taiwan held in National Palace Museum in Taipei). Or else, you have to travel a long way to France and you have no idea how expensive it could be.

Comparing the catalogue of Exposition du 30 Anniversaire du Musee d’Orsay Taiwan with the originals on the wall, I found apart from the incorrect colour, tone and contrast in the catalogue (huge difference between printed images and the originals, especially for paintings, is unavoidable and cannot be improved. The result of this time can thus be said to be “the usual one”), there are some serious differences between the originals and the catalogue’s images to an extent that, visually, they are totally different.

The most obvious example is Venezia Bella, Regina del Mare (120.5 x 157 cm, 1893) by Edmond Aman-Jean (1858-1936), the 55th work exhibited in the Taiwan exhibition. Standing before the original, no matter whether I looked at it from its left or right, or how hard and detailed I tried to look, I could only see that the right-hand side of the work is almost completely black in colour, except some very minor gradation changes to the bottom of it. In fact, the whole work itself is predominantly dark in tone. The most apparent content we can see is a naked lady on the left-hand side. While the outline of the lady’s left side is slightly clearer, details on the right are not clear. Using more technical terms according to the Zone System to describe the work, 3/4 of the work is in zone two to three in the zone scale, which are the darkest gradations in which we can barely differentiate concentrations visually. Only less than a quarter of the work is in zone three to four. Meanwhile, an 18 percent reflectance, zone five, is considered as the middle point between pure dark and pure white.

However, when we look at the work’s printed image on page 117 of the catalogue or on the official webpage of Musée d’Orsay, we can see clearly that there is a boat with eight or nine paddles on the right side of the naked lady. And, in the head of the boat, there is a curve appearing like the neck of a phoenix, which is symmetric to the outline on the left-hand side of the naked lady. In the right bottom corner of the work, it ooks like there are also petals falling onto the water.

Huge visual difference found in the original artwork and printed images on catalogue – similar phenomenon of such kind can be also found in at least five other works.

1/ Exhibit 23, catalogue p. 99. Laitière normande à Gréville (73 x 57 cm, 1874) by French painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1874);

2/ Exhibit 22, p. 103. Bergère avec son troupeau (81 x 101 cm, 1863), also by Jean-Francois Millet;

3/ Exhibit 24, p. 101. La charrette, souvenir de Marcoussis (98.2 x 130.3 cm, 1855), by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875);

4/ Exhibit 26, p. 109. La mort du père dans une isba (90 x 70 cm, 1887) by Russian painter Kirill Vikentievich Lemokh (1841-1910); and

5/ Exhibit 25, p. 93. Effileuses d’étoupe (51.5 x 65.2 cm, 1877) by French painter Adolphe-Félix Cals (1810-1880).

In the essay To Know the Present by Past Experience: Reflection of Our Photography Creation from Exposition du 30 Anniversaire du Musee d’Orsay Taiwan, I wrote: these five works were made after 1839, the birth of photography. In the middle of the 19th century, painters regarded their works as “sophisticated replications of the nature” [1]. However, painters who looked up to Naturalism were under increasing pressure from photography, which was fast, convenient, and could portray a landscape in front of the eyes accurately. As a response, these painters worked hard to look for ways to produce paintings that feature dissemblance.  During the process, these painters finally found a way: softening the edges of the contour line and omit the details in a bid to distance their pictures from the reality before their eyes. 1/ and 2/ Jean-Francois Millet’s works as well as 3/ Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s work uses the setting of “backlight” to omit details of the main character in the picture (3/ The shrub on the right). Meanwhile, Works 4/ and 5/ use the light coming from the windows in the rooms to omit details inside the room from the audience. The strategy of omitting the details is coincidently in line with the principle of visual message processing in human cognitive system. This is why it is an important strategy to paint objects and scenes that, although resembling less, leave a stronger impression to the audience.

However, exhibition catalogues and museums’ official websites are seemingly responsible to portray every detail in an image to meet the demand of replicating and portraying every detail of the originals and offering detailed information relating to the artworks. This is why painters’ idea of allowing the audience to feel the backlight and hence not to see the details stands in contradiction to the principle of exhibition catalogue editors. Such experiences seem to prove again what I have pointed out earlier. “Seeing the originals at an exhibition” is similar to enjoying a live concert of a famous singer in the front row. The message you can receive from images in the official catalogue of exhibition is merely like information as revealed by reading lyrics inside the CD booklet.

2-8. Don’t try to complete the whole exhibition in one go; it would be better to have a break every half an hour.

We have to understand the maximum capacity of our brain’s short-term memory is about 30 to 40 minutes. When seeing an important exhibition, it would be better to take a pause every 30 minutes. Take a rest in a coffee shop or sit on a chair, take some notes of the visited artworks before starting again. An Important exhibition should be completed by visiting a couple of times.

Completing an exhibition in one go is similar to those naive children who want to watch four or five different movies in a day. The result is that you will not be able to remember anything the next day. It is like you have watched nothing at all.

The floor plan of Faint Light, Dark Shadow (11.03. – 18.06.2017 at TFAM)

2-9. If one wants to learn more, try sketching the masterpieces in the exhibition.

To students hoping to develop in the field of art, I suggest you bringing your sketchbook to the exhibition. After seeing three times, if you have time, pick a few favourite works of yours and draw them onto your sketchbook. This method is not only useful for paintings but also for other art media like photography and sculpture.

Only people who have done it can understand the importance of the experience of drawing artworks by the masters. Of course, if you plan to sketch, you have to see if there is a big crowd of audience in an exhibition. Sometimes there are too many people in an exhibition that you cannot do the sketching slowly.

Continue reading:

Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (1): Reflections on Faint Light, Dark Shadows (2017)
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (2): You can only obtain useful nutrients from an exhibition by walking through it three times at least
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (3): Seeing the exhibition for the third time

[1] Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821-1867), the greatest French art critic in the 19th century, criticised in The Salon of 1859 the madness, the extraordinary fanaticism towards photography in the French society. Baudelaire is a French Romanticist and the precursor of symbolic movement in European literature. He considers imagination as the “queen of faculties”, truly creative power. The imagination must shape what nature makes available to it. Baudelaire expressed in his article his disapproval of the naturalist painters and poets, and maintained that art should focus on the aesthetics rather than resemblance.

He wrote: Artists should indulge in the world of imagination rather than the visible world. It is a happiness to dream, and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt. In matters of painting and sculpture, the present-day axiom is this: “I believe in Nature, and I believe only in Nature. I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature (a timid and dissident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent objects of nature, such as skeletons or chamber-pots). Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of art.” A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: “Since Photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire, then Photography and Art are the same thing.” From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers.