Art Museums for the Uninitiated

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Let’s spend the afternoon at the art museum.” How do those words make you feel? Many, if not most of us, would probably admit to some apprehension. Why is this? Most of the art museums I’ve been to have been really affordable if not free, save for the suggested donation. So it’s not the money. And every one I’ve ever visited has been a beautifully designed facility. So it’s not the architecture either.

So what restrains our excitement about a day in a building full of art? May I suggest it is the art? I don’t mean to suggest the art is bad. Of course it isn’t. The apprehension many of us feel is due to the fact that art is demanding. It hangs on the wall with its amigos calling “look up here, look up here.” A day in an art gallery will wear you out and you’ll wonder how the simple act of looking could be so exhausting. The answer is, of course, that there’s nothing simple about really looking at art. If you let it, a great painting can demand as much from you as reading War and Peacein one sitting.

Maybe many of you have read this far and have no idea what I’m talking about. You love Art Museums. You’d spend every chance you could happily browsing the galleries, going from ancient China to the European Renaissance to the impressionists to the moderns without a care in the world. If this is you, you may stop reading and go to the museum. This isn’t for you.

If, however, you are a person who needs to gear up to visit an art museum—if you feel anxious about the way these hallowed halls of priceless history and beauty leave you feeling–how should I say it–a little dumb, read on. I’m going to tell you how to walk into an art museum like you own the place. I’m going to liberate your conscience, affirm your intelligence, give you focus, and teach you how to develop a lifelong love of not only art but of the museums that house it.

In High School, I had the good fortune of having an art teacher who loved art. She wanted us to love it too. So she introduced us not only to great works of art but, more importantly, to the people who created them. She broke out the old projector and filmstrips so we could tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” from our classroom in Tipton Indiana. She impressed upon us the role of math and dimension by taking us on the trip that is M. C. Escher. She broke our hearts with the sad and beautiful story of Vincent van Gogh by making us watch the wonderful Technicolor Kirk Douglass film from the 60’s, Lust for Life (which is based on Irving Stone’s book by the same name—a great place to start with Vincent).

Every year she took us to the Indianapolis Art Museum. There I learned how exhausting art can be. She’d turn us loose for the afternoon, and I’d meander from room to room trying to look at everything—you know, to get my money’s worth.

But I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the room with the van Goghs after I had learned about his story. His canvases struck me in such a way that I had to sit down and just look. In fact, I spent most of my time in that room that day, just looking at van Gogh. I checked the dates: 1887—this one was earlier in his career. He was still trying to find a way to be a commercial success. 1890—that year he painted close to a canvas a day and that summer he shot himself in the heart and died. These late paintings, with their thick, vibrant colors looked urgent–desperate.

That day with van Gogh shaped the way I would approach art museums thereafter. I developed a strategy that was simple, find van Gogh, look long, and if there’s any time left, wander around and look at other things.

That’s how I found Rembrandt. When I was younger, I looked down on Renaissance realism. I don’t know why, except that I suppose I figured it couldn’t be too hard to paint what you saw as you saw it. (I was an idiot.) But then I found myself in front of a Rembrandt, and the figure in the painting was looking harder at me than I was at him. It creeped me out and drew me in.

I discovered that Rembrandt’s peers regarded him as The Master even while he lived. And I learned he was a man who loved the Gospel. That opened up a new wing of the museum for me. Now I was looking for Vincent and Rembrandt. Well, before long Rembrandt introduced me to Caravaggio and van Gogh introduced me to Gauguin, Seurat, and Cezanne.

In more recent years, I’ve come to think of visual artists like artists on my iTunes. I have my favorite musicians and they have a body of work I return to over and over again. For those I like the most, I welcome every new song they release. I think about the visual artists I love in much the same way. I regard their works like songs. I’m not interested in hits. I’m interested in the body of work. Vincent’s “Starry Night” is great, but I don’t love van Gogh because of that canvas. I love that canvas because it came from van Gogh. I love the story he told through that work—the tragic tale of his hope of glory locking horns with his disillusionment toward the church (the only building whose windows are dark and lifeless in Starry Night—which you could argue is as much a painting of a church as it is the glorious sky above it.)

I want to see anything Rembrandt etched, drew, or painted. Each new piece is a part of the puzzle of his life and a window into his vision, theology, artistry, and burdens. Same with Vincent. And now, all these years later, same with Rodin, Caravaggio, Chagall, Hopper, Rockwell (as in Norman), Delacroix, and Picasso.

When I enter an art museum now, I have a plan. Find my friends. I know it will wear me out. Art is a lot to take in. So I don’t try to reach too far. Its not a race. I have whatever time the Lord has ordained for me to be a lifelong patron of the arts. So I’m taking it slow. I’m returning as often as I can. When I do, all I need is a map and time—and both are free. See. I own the place.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


13 Comments

  1. CyndaP

    I, too, started with van Gogh, but not because of an art teacher, because a French teacher insisted that we learn something of the French culture. Why she let me study Vincent is beyond me since he’s really Dutch, but I did and have been a fan ever since.

    I think the best advise I ever got was to walk into a room and let the painting/drawing/sculpture draw you in. Look at the one that interests you. Spend some time with it. Don’t be afraid to sit and stare at it. Look at it from different angles. Then, read the placard/information and see if you agree with the description.

    Thank you for encouraging those who are intimidated by museums to give them a try. It will be time well spent.

  2. Beth Brendle

    What a great post. “Find my friends”. That really is freeing. I love so many kinds of art for the pure emotion it evokes. My friends are Kandinsky and Hofmann and Pollock and Chihuly and Cezanne and Degas and Wyeth.

    I also learned to love art museums when my first child was tiny. He happened to have a lovely mild, responsive personality (I could never take my second or third children in an art museum without extra security). I would let him respond to the artwork and follow his lead. Seeing the works through his eyes and watching him interact with it was some of the most fun I ever had.

  3. Dan R.

    “The apprehension many of us feel is due to the fact that art is demanding.”

    Well said. At the risk of over-spiritualizing, overextending the metaphor, etc. I’d like to see what you (all) might think about something. I wonder if a similar principal might not apply to our spiritual transformation and learning to see ourselves the way God sees us (seems to be a theme around here lately) – that is, as the beautiful art He is making us. I wonder if many Christians, myself included, shy away from dwelling in that recognition because of the perceived effort and involvement that it requires just to “appreciate” it, for lack of a better word. Like I said, it could just be my tired brain playing tricks with words, but it felt like there was some subtle truth there that rang true; like that missing piece of a puzzle that might just fit.

  4. Elizabeth B.

    Thank you for this post. I was blessed to have a sister-in-law who was working on her master’s in art admin when I began homeschooling 15 years ago. She made the artists and paintings come alive for my two oldest when they were very young. Now we are in different places, and my life is full of new things, but this was a timely reminder that I need to continue with my second two kids so that they will love art, artists, and art museums. It is so exciting for kids to find great art that portrays stories they are familiar with from the Bible and to get to know the artists as people. Again, thank you for the reminder.

  5. elijah

    “Art is demanding.” Yes. I’m never so tired as when I spend a day in an art museum. I call it aesthetic overload.

    You really ought to read Kathleen Powers Erickson’s At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. In the book, she traces van Gogh’s spiritual journey through his life and argues that van Gogh never really gave up on Christ even if he did reject the church that had rejected him.

  6. Julie Silander

    Russ – Your post made me smile. We just returned to NC from a trip to Philly this weekend that was largely planned around visiting the Rembrandt “Faces of Jesus” exhibit. I love your picture of “finding friends” – and struck that as with any friendship, it requires time, energy, and perhaps most of all, a sense of curiosity. Our family has spent the better part of the fall getting to “know” Rembrandt – not just know facts about him. When we finally visited the exhibit, we greeted the first painting “Woman Taken in Adultery” with a a sense of finally meeting a friend face to face.

    Thanks for inviting/ encouraging others in to meet your friends…

  7. Evan

    I grew up overseas and had great opportunities to visit many art museums all throughout Europe– and I guess I’m blessed for that. But I wish I had been older, because for me all it meant was standing around, walking around, and waiting for hours. And it still can be that now. Sometimes I wonder if I’d enjoy it more if I could sit and have the art parade around me. (I love finding those rare benches and resting my feet.) But when I think about it, it’s physically exhausting and one should stand to see the work in a similar way we stand for the President, or when we read the Scriptures in church– these works have something within them that is worthy of rising to attention.

    And Russ, thanks for sharing the way you enjoy music and arts. I’m glad I’m not the only one. I know some artists want their work to speak for themselves, but I love their work because I’ve grown to love them. (Which is why I liked the Hutchmoot, why I like autographs, why I like audiobooks read by the author– it’s more personal, they put even more of themselves in it.) I even want to extend the mystery of getting to know an artist by postponing hearing/reading/seeing all their art- I still have albums of Rich Mullins I’ve never bought because I like stretching that friendship over more time.

  8. JayDeeJaye

    When my husband was courting me he planned a trip for us to the Boston Museum of Art when they were showing a special exhibit of the works of Claude Monet. I had liked to visit art museums before then, but until this trip it had been just a fashionable thing to do. What touched me most were not the finished paintings that I could see in desk calendars and prints everywhere, but the “sketches:” the unfinished “tries” that were abandoned and somehow not burned. I remember one work in a study that would have been one of the Lily Pads series, where Monet had basically painted the bottom of the lily pond, with the (I suppose) intention of painting over it the surface of the water. That blew my mind: a 2-dimensional artist created a scene from the bottom up.

    Now, when we go to a museum, my husband and I always gravitate toward Monet and his contemporaries. While in Paris, we jeopardized dinner reservations because we couldn’t leave le Musee d’Orsay without paying our respects. We have an artist that is Our Artist, just like we have a song that is Our Song. Thanks for reminding me and letting me connect the dots.

  9. Rachel

    When I come to the Rabbit Room, I read Jason Gray. I don’t wander into other rooms or spend a lot of time reading people’s comments. I just want to hear what Jason has to say. I said this recently to my sister (coincidentally… an artist) and she said, “That makes me so sad! There’s so much more there!”

    But I like Jason. His words make sense to me. I find it ironic that a man who struggles to speak says things that resonate inside, things that I struggle to say. He is honest and vulnerable and his words often find critics, but he responds with kindness and humility. He challenges me and expresses my heart in words.

    “You see, I’d really like to be known. But I’m not quite as strong as the fear that you won’t understand the fool that I am… So I screen I calls, I don’t answer the door… Building a wall so no one can bother me, living my life in isolation, opening up to only those close to me. Nobody’s close to me…”

    (Yes, Jason… if you read this… I took your words out of order. I meant to. Sorry!)

    This is me. I spend most of my life in the basement of my house. I hide from the world because I’m afraid. I want so badly to be known, to be understood, just to be noticed… but I struggle to speak what is in my heart…

    This is what is so moving about a Master. They take something complex and it becomes simple in their hands. And in doing so, they give you a piece of themselves. A piece they only get back if it connects with you, if it finds in you a similar place. It’s a scary thing to do. Surrender a piece of yourself, not knowing if the individual you give it to is capable of giving it back or of even understanding what you gave them. A good book, a beautiful work of art, a song… a life.

    Surrendering to a Master will make you think. It will make you examine yourself and be honest in a way that is uncomfortable and, yes, exhausting. How often do I sit in church and I get captured by a line and I long to go into a closet and write and lose myself until I get it back out. And then the service ends. We move and start talking to people, “fellowshipping”… chit chat… We get in the car and we negotiate lunch and by the time we get home… It’s gone. It’s a quick line written on the back of the bulletin that never becomes a complete thought. And I avoid that line… because I know if I go to it, it will exhaust me and I will lose myself in trying to find what I am looking for. And so my heart closes again and those thoughts just gather dust under the surface until a Master can come and dust it off and make it beautiful.

    In the end, I love the work of a Master. Whether it’s a craftsman, a woodworker, an architect, a songwriter, an author, an artist… I love watching people do what they’re good at. I see it as an expression of the individual, and if you can connect to it… You will find a piece of yourself and come away understanding your own heart better.

    I’m thankful for guys like Jason, who speak what is so hard to say. I’m overwhelmed by those who so mastefully give you a piece of themselves and take what you can give them in return… whether it’s Van Gogh, Mozart, Dickinson… or the homemade chocolate chip oatmeal cookies of the grandmother down the street who is grateful because you made her computer work.

    I don’t know if all that makes sense to anyone but me. I guess it all means that this post makes sense to me on several levels and, in my opinion, has some universal truth and a great deal of honest expression in it. And I appreciate that.

    So Jason… thank you for your words. Please keep saying them and speaking them for those of us who struggle to speak.

    Russ… thank you for the post. Perhaps I have found a new “friend”…? I hope so. I’m glad I diverted from my usual path today.

    Now… I have to go do what I do best. What’s that? I talk… on the phone… customer service. And I’m really good at it. Hopefully, I will give myself today and I will do good and I will touch somebody and glorify my Master in the process.

  10. dawngreen

    What a great reminder of the power of art! I can relate to the feeling of finding a friend to visit in the great museums of the world. On my first visit to the Art Institute in Chicago I had the opportunity to stand in front of my very first actual Matisse work. I had seen books and prints but was unprepared for the realization that his hands had been right there. I have no idea how long I stood there, too close for the security people, I’m sure. I wept for the privilege of the experience. It created in me a connection that expanded just as you described.
    Over and over this year I am reminded that art enriches us.

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