The Half Hour Hold: Subjective Stare-Downs with Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

December 23rd, 2017  |  Published in December 2017

How long do you regard a singular work in a museum or gallery? Here are two different approaches:

Supposing we made a pact with a painting and agreed to sit down and look at it, on our own, with no distractions, for one hour. The painting should be an original, not a reproduction, and we should start with the advantage of liking it, even if only a little. What would we find?
—Jeanette Winterson
“Art Objects,” Knopf, 1996

Trained by movies, we can take in a huge amount of visual information at once…. so a lot of the time three seconds is plenty. Sometimes it’s too long. Sometimes if you looked at something for four seconds you would have to go over and punch the artist.
—A.S. Hamrah
“I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette,” Paper Monument, 2009

These quotations are, of course, ripped from their original context: A.S. Hamrah, prolific mainly-film critic, refers specifically to etiquette at crowded art openings. Jeanette Winterson, a British writer known best for her novels and memoirs, goes on to concede the difficulties of such intimacy in the ensuing essays. (Both collections are highly recommended.) But I can’t resist putting them together. Art is the impetus for us to share the museum or gallery space together, but how often is it the object of our undivided attention? And even if we can devote our gaze, what amount of time is necessary to gain a greater intimacy with a work?

I decided to take Winterson up on her hypothetical challenge and visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), with the goal of staring at a painting for an hour. I didn’t research much beforehand—why would I? Surely it’d be simple enough to find a fine painting to stare at for an hour.

“Self-Portrait” by Ellen Day Hale (American, 1855-1940), 1885. I would have liked to look at this one for an hour, but there was no place to sit.

But this proved to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. There were common-sense logistics that I should have anticipated: bring a sweater. Eat first. But I hadn’t realized the wrought politics of where benches are placed. I suppose I could have stood for an hour, but I wanted to avoid “museum hips,” where your lower back is suddenly creaking under the weight of a much heavier person, your shoulders fall asleep, and the arches in your shoes dissolve. The absence of seats predetermines which paintings will be handily glossed over.

This is, of course, by design. The vast majority of MFA patrons are not at the nation’s fourth-largest museum to concentrate on one painting, besides art student sketchers. But in their Marc Rothko exhibit, on view through July 1, 2018, the introductory placard does explicitly instruct the viewer to look at the works for at least 30 seconds each.

So much has been written about Rothko, though, and the importance of looking at him; after regarding “Untitled” (1955) for about two minutes, I wanted to meet someone unfamiliar.

I didn’t expect that I’d afford my uninterrupted gaze such a weirdly large amount of currency. If I was going to apply the full force of my attention for an hour, I wanted it toward an underrepresented demographic of artist. The MFA, with its bent toward antiquity, was probably not the best place to seek that out.

On the first day, I couldn’t devote an hour because I wandered around searching for the perfect painting for too long. On the second day, I forgot to bring a sweater. Ultimately, 30 minutes was the compromise.

“Chamonix” by Joan Mitchell (American, 1925 – 1992), 1962

Abstract Expressionism would be, I guessed, the best approach to this exercise: lots of room for interpretation. What made me stop at “Chamonix” was the motion of the dark mountain range pouring, choppily, toward the viewer.

At first glance: it’s an artist’s dirty paint-catching sheet, the crumpled aftermath of some other work of art.

After a few minutes: the mountain range begins to emerge more clearly, thrust more fluidly from the white powder landscape.

After 15 minutes: I fell in love with the painting.

Over time, landscape elements become proper landscape

become a nervous system

become a neck and spine

become faces with a wisp of a fairy flying above them.

I was startled, after several minutes, by how much blue is in the painting. The gray, black and white instantly dominate, and something as simple as finding a new color moved new shadows and dimensions to the forefront.

I was angry that I might have missed it if I’d hurried by.

“The Triumph of the Winter Queen: Allegory of the Just” by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), 1636

On my second visit, I already had plans to return to the contemporary wing to hopefully repeat the success of “Chamonix,” but wanted to give a Dutch master a chance. I passed by “The Triumph of the Winter Queen” once, not particularly gripped by the pale wall-sized figures in a Renaissance processional. But the story behind the painting interested me long enough to linger: it depicts Elizabeth Stuart and her family, members both alive and dead, entering the Hague from Bohemia to escape the 30 years’ war.

As a pretty consistent anti-formalist, I thought the story would counter my initially lukewarm reaction to the work itself. A commission for legitimization by a frightened, displaced monarch proved irresistible.

Honhorst elevates Elizabeth to mythic proportions in a carriage drawn by lions: her youngest son is Cupid, while her youngest daughter flits overhead on fairy wings. Her eldest son, who had drowned, welcomes her to The Hague along with his deceased father, while Neptune and Envy (a medusa-like creature) writhe beneath her carriage’s wheels. What I like is the piece’s exercise in self-preservation, eroticization of the present as an act of survival. And, of course, self-aggrandization on a royal scale.

Despite the background, though, I grew increasingly irritated with this painting. I didn’t want to punch the artist, but I did want to punch myself for picking “the wrong one” in a museum full of masterpieces. I began to hate their masterfully painted, expressionless faces. I thought I would start to see the subtle emotion of each figure, but found their calm unnerving and, worse, uninteresting. The youngest boy shows a sweeter sense of purpose, and I found myself studying him most intently. Despite its grandness, or maybe because of it, it was difficult to revel in the finer points of detail.

Cupid detail

What I found myself focusing on, instead, were correlating figures from my own life with Elizabeth’s family. Who is waiting for me in the heavens? What majestic beast pulls my carriage? What symbols do my family members hold? Who is crushed beneath my wheels? I thought, also, of how social media has made us all into marketers for ourselves, putting our most photogenic faces forward and only sharing the good experiences. If Elizabeth had Instagram, her photos of her kids would always be #blessed, no matter what war was at their heels.

“Conjunction 15-214” by Ha Chong-Hyun (b. 1935), 2015

I thought immediately of paintings by Analia Saban when I saw the burlap canvas of this piece by Ha Chong-Hyun,a leading member of the Korean movement Dansaekhwa. The interplay of textures in her show is the same technique that caught my eye here. In a room themed “Process” in the contemporary wing, its piled oil paint bleeds through and stands in scraped-up hurdles on its simple, rough vehicle.

Like “Chamonix,” it was the motion of this piece that stopped me. Chong-Hyun’s process for this piece was to apply paint from the back side, allowing it to bleed through and pool before scraping upward. It was definitely the most minimal piece I’d devoted half an hour to, but its textured columns did start to tell different stories. They became strictly sectioned waves made orderly on a burlap shore; upside down waterfalls; marble skyscrapers; bird shit under a steamroller.

Close examination accentuates, also, the oil bleed into the canvas, a shadow of the paint’s impact on its absorbent host, almost like tear stains. Have tears ever fallen onto your white cotton shirt? The oil from your body is sometimes enough to make a lasting mark. All of Chong-Hyun’s paintings have been called “Conjunction” since the 1970s; with the oil shadow, we clearly see the aftermath of this meeting.

The idea of “Conjunction” is also perhaps a tidy way to package the idea of prolonged art-staring in a public place: conjoining your attention to a living work, letting the visual residue linger on your conscience, making a connection to an artist who continues to live through her work that is not static, but always rushing to meet someone.

The only universal advice here is to bring a sweater, and make sure to eat first. Make sure that the elements and your own physical hunger is no match for a work in motion.

–Joelle Jameson is a writer living in Boston, MA.

 

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