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Zooming Out (A Visit to the Museum)

'Life is a journey not a destination.' I used to have this quote print pinned to my bedroom board in the freshman year but ended up losing it somewhere amidst the chaos of packing my belongings. It was to my surprise that these words constantly popped into my head as I was taking a solo trip to Italy and Switzerland, like a sudden enlightenment dawned on me. A huge amount of time was invested in exploring museums, hopping into the galleries on the streets and looking for mould-breaking artistic inspirations. It was genuinely a journey of rediscovery, as I revisited the masterpieces I had first encountered in my early days as a student of art history. Seeing them in person once again stirred something within me, something profound and vigorous that is incomparable to what the digital copies could merely offer. I had the chance to observe every subtle and meticulous detail by creators’ hands closely, so eagerly as if encountering a good old friend. Then at the last museum I visited, Kunsthaus Zürich, I ultimately found the deepest resonance with Giacometti’s sculptures — those skinny and elongated figures, who often seemed to be fragile and vulnerable, yet walking alone in the world searching for meaning, with a strong-willed mind underneath. With art one can never feel companionless, I undoubtedly believe in this.

Sculpture by Giacometti, Kunsthaus, Zürich.

But my journey wasn't just about me and the art. Zooming out of the scope of sight I was sharing these spaces with strangers from all walks of life across different backgrounds, each with their unique reason for coming to the museum. Either sitting in quiet contemplation in front of the canvas, or whispering to their friends or partners, the viewers are the ones who eventually complete the art. By this I mean that bewitching lines, shapes and colours that are intently composed by the painters, what we would have called “formal elements”, can hardly make sense without the integration of human emotions and experiences. Suspending illusionary effects embellishing the surface, I was acutely moved by the interaction between the audience and artworks, so I began to catch those fleeting moments when people form an unexpected bond with what they are gazing at.

L: Blue I by Joan Miro (1961), Pompidou Center, Paris. R: The Water Lilies by Claude Monet (1918), Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris.

This pair of pictures shows such intriguing coincidences — two young teens wearing clothes that share the same colour palette with the paintings. Not sure if they intentionally do so, maybe for getting an impressive photo to post on social media? Maybe they were well-dressed just to make a stiking connection with the particular works they fancy. Seeing the viewer and the canvas fusing into one plane is an absolute serendipity for me. Also, it made me think about the philosophical appeals towards the notion of colour in the 20th century, that elevate colours from decorative elements to those comprising expressive qualities that shape the work independently. Here blue stands for a person’s spiritual energy, probably in a melancholy fashion as I suppose, representing the boy’s inner tranquility in front of Joan Miro’s Blue I. While the girl, as seen from her relaxing gesture, has been obviously immersing herself in Monet’s panoramic Water Lilies in a delightful manner. As such, colours tell the stories of the wearers, both on and off the walls.

L: Impressionist Paintings at Kunsthaus, Zürich. R: Futurism Paintings at Museo del Novecento, Milan.

Seeing these two meditators in the museum, time ceased to exist, and the rest of the world fell away from them. I could imagine them being absorbed into the painting and transported to an otherworldly realm, where the boundaries of self, dissolved into an infinite end. That’s the magic of white box, I realized, that gives you access to forget the presence and tracing back and forth in the time dimension. Impressionism and futurism, two seemingly opposite movements, were united in this space, and the age of the viewers lost its significance. An elegant young lady and a smart old man, are equally captivated by the eternal beauty of the art.

L: Large Nude with Drapery by Pablo Picasso (1920), Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. R: Third Floor at The Louvre, Paris.

I also observed the museum as a site of companionship. Whether it be two strangers on a first date, or a group of friends engaged in thorough visual study, being accompanied by someone who is open to inspiring and intellectual conversation is absolutely a delight. And there are always amusing stories to be found, like the one about the two girls in the Louvre. All the paintings in that particular room had been removed by the staff for renovation purposes, so as they approached the space where the painting should have hung, they were confronted with empty frames. They read the labels, and their faces displaced confusion. I was lucky to capture this specific scene at a rare moment— how badly a mischievous museum has tricked two serious art historians!

L: Paintings by Ingres, The Louvre, Paris. R: The Fifer by Manet (1866) by Edouard Manet, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Apart from stimulating entertainment, the museum also essentially serves as an educational institution for children, art students and the general public. The above two pictures are evidence of this. In the picture on the left, an old man, is creating an imitation copy of Ingre’s portrait. His demeanor is as calm and phlegmatic as the subject he is drawing. Also, the blue walls surrounding him enhance this sense of solemnity, as if two gentlemen were confronting each other in a dignified interrogation. The second picture shows children and their teachers viewing a Manet painting from an unusual perspective below the bottom of the frame. I used to be curious about how these iconic paintings, which have been inexhaustibly reproduced by the mass media, would look like in the eyes of children. They spread the paper and wax crayon on the ground, doing some random sketches on the silhouette of the figure. Still, not bounded with obscure theories about perspectives and shading, kids are sensitive to colours in the purest sense. The red walls enclose an intimate space, creating a vibrant atmosphere for younger visitors. I was struck by how these two pictures contrast with each other in terms of color, state of drawing, and angle of viewing. Through the lens of my phone, I often saw people in the museum as sitters of portraits beyond the frame of works they are staring at.

L: The Louvre, Paris. R: The Uffizi, Florence.

Not only do exhibited painting attract me, but museum have always held a fascination for me as places imbued with architectural aesthetics, integrating both classical and modern features. The first photo was taken in the Lourvre. The man in black was standing still, scrolling through his phone under Elias Crespin’s kinetic installation, in the middle of imposing romanesque columns. It was interesting to witness how a contemporary auto-programmed artwork seamlessly blended into a space constructed hundreds of years ago, a place that has been a symbol of aristocratic governance. This is where scientific rigour and creative elegance meets. Meanwhile, the man, simply dressed and casually postured, has drawn the picture to a nuanced balance. Another memorable photo was captured from the top level of the Uffizi, overlooking a brightly illuminated bookshop on the ground floor. The image was a departure from the usual extravagant ornamentation associated with the Uffizi, but rather, it was effortlessly outlined with mixed textures. The metallic reflection from the iron bars on the staircase and the warm light projecting from the shelves created a cosy yet sophisticated atmosphere.

Having the idea of museum redefined, the essence of artwork rediscovered, and the profiles of audience reinterpreted, I found an increasing passion for spotting, recording, and reflecting as an art student.

Claudia Zhou (she/they) is currently studying for an undergraduate degree in Art History at the University of St.Andrews. As an inquisitive viewer, she embraces different forms of art, including classical paintings, composite installations and staged performances. With a keen interest in sociology, she hopes to interpret art through a cross-cultural perspective.


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