This day and age any person can see an endless world of art online. Google some artist’s name or subject matter, browse through museum databases — Why even bother going to a museum when one need not leave the comfort of their home to get a general impression of an artwork? Any artist, any period, any place, any genre. It’s all right there, squeezed to fit on screen in tiny illuminated pixels.
I’ve always found that I experience a very particular, joyous thrill upon seeing a work of art in person that I’ve seen reproduced countless times in books, online and in popular culture. Seeing the marks of labor that made a painting, it’s size, the very construction and craftsmanship of the thing — it’s so much more satisfying and affecting than any digital facsimile can ever be. Getting up close and personal with an artwork grants an opportunity to experience the emotion and passion of the artist who created it.
This past Friday, Cindy and I took a trip to the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke where we had the pleasure of viewing the 50 Great American Artists exhibit. The collection consists of fifty artworks (paintings, etchings and sculptures) from fifty artists from the nineteenth century to the present.*
Paul Cadmus’, “The Fleet’s In“, is one of the works in the collection that I have seen reproduced numerous times. It’s a rowdy depiction of sailors on shore leave with suggestions of prostitution, homo-eroticism and drunkenness. At it’s initial exhibition in 1934 at the Corcoran in Washington DC, the work so infuriated navy officials that it was subsequently pulled from display. I knew this story of the painting and how the controversy had essentially launched Paul Cadmus’ career. What I didn’t know was how large it was, how expertly painted and how absurdly grotesque and grand the painting feels in person.
Another example — Robert Riggs’ 1938 painting, “The Brown Bomber“, depicting the boxing victory of Joe Louis over Max Schmeling. Every printed mention of Robert Riggs I’ve ever encountered includes an image of this iconic painting. So standing in front of this masterwork, leaning in and studying it closely, felt profound and revelatory. The meticulous rendering of every surface and form is immaculate. Many layers of translucent tempera, built up in tiny crosshatched strokes, create a highly articulated and luminescent surface that can not possibly be translated in a photograph.
Bottom line…if you truly enjoy art, take many opportunities to visit museums and galleries to see original artworks. Experiencing art in reproduction and in person is as different as a picture of a grassy field and actually taking a walk outside.
* Some of the other artists featured in the 50 Great American Artists exhibit: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Robert Riggs, Andy Warhol, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Wayne Thiebaud, Reginald Marsh, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Charles Demuth, Charles Burchfield, Maurice Prendergast, Richard Diebenkorn.