Viewing art

How do you approach viewing art when visiting an art gallery?

Do you find the whole experience exhausting and disheartning?

Do you suffer from visual overwhelm?

The author Tracy Chevalier in her TED talk about the hidden stories in paintings, in which she talks about coming up with the idea for Girl with a Pearl Earring also mentions what she calls the affliction of gallery fatigue. This can come on after about fifteen to twenty minutes walking around a gallery, when the realisation dawns that she’s not connecting with the paintings and then feeling guilty about it. (1)

My tips to avoid gallery fatigue is as follows:

  • Give yourself enough time – arrive at least two hours before the gallery closes 
  • If not attending a temporary exhibition, don’t attempt to do the whole permanent exhibition space, particularly if in a large, national gallery for instance – just choose one or two galleries to look at. 
  • If looking at a temporary exhibition, get an initial overview of the show by doing a quick walk through, find out how many rooms there are to cover 
  • Go back through the exhibition, and pause to study the pictures which appeal to you. 
  • Linger longer in front of those which are particularly pleasing to you. Take advantage of available seating – sit in front of a work of art which draws your attention 
  • Remember that is is not obligatory to look at everything. I don’t waste time looking at pictures I don’t like. 
  • Skip the works that are crowded with viewers – go back to them later when the crowd has dispersed 
  • Read the wall labels – they often give further background information about a piece 
  • Take a final look at your favourite pieces before leaving. I usually play the game (introduced by my mother when I was a very young child) of choosing which painting I’d like to take home 
  • There is also the option of visiting the gallery shop for buying the exhibition catalogue or a postcard. Though in my experience my favourite works aren’t reproduced as postcards. Nowadays, though many galleries allow smartphone use so you could always snap it instead.

Alan Bennett appeared in a tv documentary about Leeds City Art Gallery in 1994; there was an accompanying temporary exhibition and book ‘Mr Bennett’s Pictures’. He was straightforward in his attitude:

        Other than ‘These are pictures I like’ I’m not sure I’ve much         else of  consequence to say about the actual paintings.                 What I did in the programme was to advertise my own                 ignorance in the hope that it  would encourage people with         similar feelings of inadequacy where  art is concerned to             come into the Gallery nevertheless. (2)

His response to the inevitable walking and standing involved in gallery visiting was that:

        My ideal gallery would be transversed by a narrow guage         railway where one could be shunted into a siding in front             of  the pictures one likes. (3)

He also remarked that:

I often feel that even the grandest galleries could afford to         put up a notice saying ‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIKE                     EVERYTHING’. (4)

Tracy Chevalier’s solution to gallery fatigue is that she does her own curation by walking fast and pinpointing the paintings that slow her down.

I also particularly like her analogy of the restaurant menu approach to visiting art galleries – you are not expected to order everything from a restaurant menu.

Whatever your preferred approach to viewing art – remember to enjoy your visits to art galleries.

Do you have your own tips for viewing art?
Let me know in the comments below.

  1. See the section on her website ‘Video and radio interviews’, third video down
  2. Mr Bennett’s Pictures: a selection from the collection of Leeds City Art Gallery (Leeds: Leeds City Art Gallery, 1994) p.4
  3. Ibid p.5
  4. Ibid p.28