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Newsletter 336

Published May 4, 2020
Vuillard's Maman sweeps the apartment during lockdown

Over the past month I’ve received numerous invitations to view (and review) artworks on-line. The entire gamut includes artist’s websites, solo exhibitions, art fairs and group shows, but none of them feels especially attractive. The fundamental problem is that an image on a screen, no matter how precise or highly resolved, conveys but a poor approximation of an actual work of art. One gets a misleading sense of scale or texture, let alone the smell of oil paint. It’s made me realise, more than ever, that art is an all-body experience – and I’m not talking about VR or wraparound video installations. It’s not just a matter of using one’s eyes – it’s where you choose to stand in relation to a work; it’s how a piece seems to call to you from another side of the room. A painting may attract or repell, but a digital reproduction of a painting flattens out this propensity.

I suppose I’m describing the “aura” of a work of art that Walter Benjamin wrote about. It seems such an ethereal, quasi-mystical idea until you’re stuck with the prospect of seeing shows on-line. Am I being too precious? It’s a fair bet that in the near future more and more art will be viewed exclusively on-line, and sold from the same platforms. When such behaviour becomes the new norm something will be removed from the aesthetic experience, in the same way fruit and vegetables that have been genetically modified to appear large and perfect, prove to have very little flavour or nutritional value.

Eventually there’ll be a ‘real art’ movement, like the ‘slow food’ reaction to fast food, but this will be considered the exclusive domain of connoisseurs and snobs.

Although reading is also becoming a rarefied pursuit, I’d recommend it as a way of adding depth to an understanding of an artist and his or her work – if you’re stuck with looking at art on a screen rather than in a museum. This week’s column is devoted to Julia Frey’s new book on Édouard Vuillard, which I’ve been wanting to read ever since I laid eyes on it. This is partly because I got so much out of her 1998 biography of Toulouse-Lautrec, and partly because Vuillard is one of the most intriguing artists of all time. To look at his pictures is to feel they are full of secrets and private anxieties. Frey’s book provides a key to these mysteries, and suggests we can never really understand an artist’s work unless we have some knowledge of his or her life.

When we know nothing much it becomes a guessing game in which scholars write fiction and dress it up as history, based on their subjective responses to the work. For generations art historians wrote sentimental tributes to Rembrandt, who was seen as a great humanist, a man with an unparalleled ability to look into the human heart. He was thought to have suffered because the cruel vicissitudes of taste turned clients against his mature work. It took Gary Schwartz’s biography of 1991 to suggest that Rembrandt might have been an arrogant, greedy, unpleasant character who alienated his collectors. It doesn’t mean one has to turn against the work but it helps to know that Rembrandt’s supposed saintliness wasn’t an issue. If anything, it makes him more human, more fallible and sympathetic.

This week’s film column sticks with on-line streaming, and with Jewish themes. The topic is Unorthodox, a 4 part German series on Netflix that tells the story of a young woman who breaks away from a Hasidic community in Brooklyn and flees to Berlin. The really gripping scenes are the ones inside the community, showing lives minutely regulated by religious observance, custom and ritual. It won’t make many people feel they’re missing out by not being ultra-orthodox Jews, but it may raise a few twinges of conscience about the shallowness of a life without a strong sense of family and community, and a close relationship with a higher power. The Hasidic lifestyle may not be appealing but it has an undeniable integrity when placed alongside the ‘Jesus wants you be a capitalist’ creed embraced by our Dear Leader in Canberra.