The Experience of Art

The first image below, a rather Van Gogh-esque painting, is the work of French painter, Maurice Utrillo, who has been neglected save in the postcard industry, where his paintings of Montmartre have been reproduced prolifically. A born-and-bred Parisian, Utrillo painted with the palette of Post-Impressionism. What is it about Paris that lends the city to endless pictorial and photographic representation? Van Gogh’s images of Paris, for example, are captivating, despite the fact that they are lesser known in comparison to his Provencal pictures.

This brings me to the question of the reproduction of images: What does the digitization of paintings do to art? Owning a digital image of a painting is akin to collecting a postcard. Sontag is spot on: ‘To collect photographs is to collect the world’. But this is a problematic practice, as Sontag argues expertly in her book. Aside from its more severe consequences, the act of looking at the picture in the palm of our hands will never rival the gallery experience, no matter how tenacious the advertising campaign of art websites (here I have in mind websites such as Google Art Project & WikiPaintings). Examining a Van Gogh up-closed reminded me that aside from the 2D image, a painting is in fact a three-dimensional, tangible object, composed of pigment and matter, a material thing of clumped paint that rises out from the flat canvas.

Can one linger and contemplate before a digital image the same way that one would in front of an actual work of art? What happens to the experience of fascination if the images of art become all too familiar, if the painting’s details and colours can no longer arrest the eye? In many ways, online galleries diminish the authentic experience of art. In a crowded gallery, it is easy to consider familiar Van Gogh paintings such as the Starry Night as ‘seen-and-done’ within a few seconds simply because we’ve all already seen it countless times. Vintage postcards have become an art form in themselves (mainly due to their value as records of late 19th- and early 20th-century society), but would we ever arrive at a day when digital copies can claim the same value?


View from Vincent's room on Rue Lepic

Pont du Carrousel & Louvre, VG

Boulevard de Clichy, VG


Don’t think too much about the moment and refrain from judging life during those hazy hours that afford us no glimpse of its vastness – R. M. Rilke

The March of Bricks & Mortar

The March of Bricks & Mortar

My primary research project focuses on the modern city as a cultural and material phenomenon – specifically London in the early 19th century. Much of the London that still exists today is in fact ‘Romantic’ in the sense that many areas, buildings or monuments find their origin in the early 1800s – these include Regent’s Park and Regent Street; Hyde Park Corner & the Arch on Constitution Hill; Trafalgar Square; the National Gallery; Bloomsbury;  the (new) British Museum;  and the Royal Opera House. ‘Construction’ enjoyed the spotlight on the stage in the Romantic era. When the German prince, Hermann Puckler-Muskau, visited England for the second time in 1826, he remarked on England’s ‘universal rage for building’, which saw the acceleration of urban development and the advancement of architecture as a trade and profession.

But expansion was not always looked upon favourably. The disappearance of green spaces was one obvious consequence of urban sprawl. George Cruikshank’s popular 1829 print, ‘London Going Out of Town, or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ (see above) is a well-known critique of the urban developments that were encroaching upon the countryside surrounding London. The print shows an army of robotic bricklayers that have chimney pots for heads and picks and shovels for limbs, advancing towards rural Hampstead, building rows of grim factory-like houses on the way, and forcing trees and haystacks to flee for their lives. One tree cries out ‘Ah, I am mortarly wounded!’ Flying rocks and invasive black smoke also threaten the survival of the rural landscape. Urban sprawl meant not only that green spaces were gradually eroded but that familiar places would be irrevocably changed by these developments. The place that was once familiar is no more; as Baudelaire writes of Paris, ‘Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville/ Change plus vite, helas! que le coeur d’un mortel)’.

Of course, this kind of critique of urban sprawl and nostalgia for the countryside is not new. London remains relatively green, in spite of Cruikshank’s critique/ warning, and the urban developments of London have come to be loved by the people. However, other cities might not be able to say the same. Today’s problem of urbanization is no longer confined to large metropolitan regions such as London, and the army is no longer composed of bricks and mortar, but concrete and steel. Everywhere we see uniform houses being constructed along new roads, skyscrapers reaching ever newer heights, promoting a vision of  prosperous, advanced modern world – a vision that is usually consumed voraciously. This is most evident in Asia – a subject for another post. But we must ask ourselves whether such developments, both in terms of the cityscape and social infrastructure, come at a great cost, something of which the Romantics knew only too well.

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