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On Looking


Van Gogh's Sunflowers, 1888 (Photo Credit: National Gallery, London)


Box of luxury tea, silk scarf, tube of syrup waffles, serving tray, porcelain vase, seven string bracelet, glasses case, mug, teapot, large oval plate, long sleeve top, apron, tea towel, fan, bookmark, paper clip, button, child’s watch, wallet, handbag, key chain, thimble, spoon, Christmas decoration, umbrella, magnet, place mat, puzzle in a can, oven glove, belt, shot glass, dog collar and leash, bandanna, phone case, brooch, t-shirt for human, t-shirt for dog, perfume bottle.


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I have known Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for as long as I can remember. Long before the original, I was shown the poster, and soon after spent the year learning in a classroom decorated with a wall of crude depictions by our seven-year-old hands.

In the many years since I have seen the painting printed on a vast variety of items (the bizarre list at the top of this post naming but a few). But what happens now when I look at the original I am imbued, on standing in front of this work, with memories of my year three classroom, I see that the seeds of the sunflowers are the same colour as the cropped hair of my teacher who introduced me to the painting. I remember all the facts and all the rumours I have learnt about Van Gogh over the years, about his sad state of madness, and I think about how great Chris O’Dowd was as the postman in that film about him. But perhaps the person to my right will be reminded of the vase of flowers that nobody remembered to throw out after his mother died, and how the stench of an old bunch of flowers was inadvertently so much worse than the cold clean smell of recent death and did that mean something or nothing at all. And the person next to him hopes that there is a postcard of the painting in the museum shop, and takes a photo of the original just because it is famous.

For none of us viewers, not even, perhaps, for the artist himself, is the painting a still life. And this gets me thinking, what do we really see when we look? And is it actually possible to all see the same thing? There can be something in a work which will draw us in and pull at our heart or our memories or our tear ducts. But that same image the next day may do nothing at all. Paintings, in an individual lifetime, by and large remain the same. It is us who change. So do we keep coming back to paintings because they act as rocks for us in our constant states of transition? And if they do not change does this, therefore, mean that when we are affected by a painting, we are seeing nothing objective, we are just bound up in a very human trait of recognition, a deep-rooted desire to find meaning? (I wonder then if this is the reason I find Max Ernst so unsettling; nothing to grasp on to.) We are vessels of our own experiences, our hormonal imbalances and our general day to day fuck ups. If these are the personal minutiae that affect how we view the world, no wonder they affect the way we see painting.

Why, for example, and as I wrote about in a recent article, was I so infatuated with Picasso’s Still Life with Pitcher and Apples? One, because historically it is seen as a ‘good’ still life by a Canon worthy artist, or- Two, because I was so exhausted in that tall city with its sharp lines and French formality. And to come across that beautifully generous still, still life, the jug painted with all the sensuality of a curvaceous nude, was such a respite in the burning heat of the summer. To ignore my academic art historical credentials (pah) for a moment, I would be inclined to weigh more heavily on the latter. I have just finished the book Pictures and Tears, (James Elkins), about the reasons we cry, or don’t, at art. And so more than I ever have before, I’ve been really thinking about my own emotional or visceral responses, and if they conflict (as he discusses) with on ability to be a successful Art Historian. True, some paintings are puzzles, to be pondered, analysed and interpreted. Symbolism is alive and kicking even today, but that aside, while we can get as far as we like with our facts and our histories, if we aren’t feeling anything then what the hell is the point of looking at all?

But while sometimes we can feel everything, at others, we feel nothing at all.

The inadvertent damage caused by the museum shop. Museum shops create a carrot and stick mentality to viewing art, get through the slog of the gallery, tire your eyes on the masses of imagery and information, and then hey! it’s spending time! Now the real fun begins. As much as I love a postcard or (have mercy on me) a museum magnet, I believe that the irreverence they create about artworks is hugely damaging. For how can you take any artwork seriously when you have seen it emblazoned on a t-shirt made for a dog?

Dog coat (photo credit: Van Gogh Museum)


The Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, Dali’s Clocks, almost anything by Van Gogh, it is so many years of so many eyes that have ruined them. Please, take them away, lock them up. Let us forget them, and then, once our memories are blank once more, perhaps then we will truly be able to appreciate them.

(Photo credit: author’s own)

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Photo Credit: The National Gallery, London.