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I must see this film (National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman) for all sorts of reasons.

When human endeavour sometimes seems to me to be directed in all the wrong sort of places, art acts as a balm to the soul, an electric jolt to the eye, petrol thrown onto the flame of intellect.  You can mix those metaphors too and they work just as well: balm to the eye, petrol on the flame of the soul  – whatever way you mix it  – art makes you feel.

Way back when I moved to London, I spent many hours at the National Gallery.  Certain paintings became friends.  They still are.  I don’t call them, or write them, or send them gifts, but they are fixed in my heart.

Maybe that’s why I once I dreamed of a long conversation in an art gallery.  I half-started it once and it may have been the most important almost conversation of my life.  I have some slight hope that this film may be the final word on the matter, and then I can wake up.

On the other hand,  it may just be a nightmare, if the Guardian review is to be believed.

God it’s boring. I love the National Gallery and I was squirming in my seat. Why doesn’t Wiseman let the paintings speak for themselves? Again and again, he films audiences listening to curators or guides give lectures about the National Gallery’s works of art. One such talk would make sense in a portrait of the museum. But why repeat the exercise, again and again – and again?

Time Out critic’s conclusion ‘The film’s bold, brilliant climax’ sounds better to me.

Switching it all off

Isn’t that a state of nirvana – turning off the chattering brain?

When you get to your middle age you realise how much more knowledge you had when you were younger, but is that knowledge of much use?  Well yes, it is in in a way in the role of a tutor where people are expecting to come to you to be told about things that they don’t and (presumably want) to know.   But I find the job of learning and teaching is more interesting and I believe enduring if you can signpost the destination and give people the guidebooks,maps, games and discussions to take their own path.  Show don’t tell and all that.

But setting aside that role in life, how much does the knowledge of stuff get in the way of the pure appreciation of expression.  Quite a lot it seems.  Yesterday I tried to find a piece of art I didn’t know about (including the artist), didn’t represent anything immediately identifiable and meant nothing to me other than what I saw in the moment.  It was pretty hard.  It would have been easier if I was 6 again.  Then I thought more about knowledge as stories and realised that pictures I had much liked when I was younger were actually only of interest to me because of the knowledge or story I knew about the subject.  For example, I was much in the habit of looking at this at the National Gallery in my early 20s.

but now I come to think about it, I was not admiring the art, or thinking about the colours or the composition or even the artist.  I was applying my knowledge of Charles I’s absolute belief in the divine right of Kings, considering the weakness of his chin, albeit covered with a beard, and wondering how such a piece of triumphal self-promotion could go so badly awry that he would end up with his head rolling around in a basket a few years later.

I was involved primarily in an intellectual pursuit: considering Charles I and his general deluded state and not really looking at the art at all.  The picture was purely a vehicle for my prior knowlege.  Perhaps the picture was only a piece of 17th century marketing and I was therefore engaging with it for its originally intended purpose in any case.  Perhaps Van Dyck would finish his morning cup of small beer, cursing the fact he was going to have to go and continue painting an impossibly full-chested horse and a pointy-chinned king after breakfast again (this was all before he became a Hollywood actor and painted pavements for Mary Poppins you understand).

I don’t know what Dick or Charles thought really, but what I do know is I don’t actually like that picture now at all.  So, tastes change people say.  Well maybe, but I still retain my childhood dislike of Brussels sprouts and porridge so maybe pure dislike stays with us, and the time I spent in front of that enormous canvas was merely a mental cul-de-sac I was lured up by my history lessons.

What I was purely visually drawn to at the time was the way Rembrandt painted the dark silks of an old woman’s dress.  Looking at this image now I think I would like to go back and look at how he has painted the 83 year old skin (I have no technical knowledge of painting which might interfere).  At the time I didn’t know anything about the woman, or Rembrandt or the Dutch Masters.  I am wondering if it is better for my soul to keep it that way.