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The Top 7 Artworks That Surprised Me: Seeing Art in Person

The Mona Lisa: reproduction vs. in person.

Reader question: “Art has been a big draw factor in choosing where to go. What I have learned is seeing art in a book vs see art in person is a whole other thing. I never really got Rothko until I saw it “live”. Then whoa. It sucked me in and I had to fight to get out. My two kids and husband were also captive to it. Anyway, if you had to make a list of “Art that Surprises in Person” Or “Art you Have to Be With to Believe”, what would you put on there?”

This is actually a comment that is often made about Rothko’s work! Mark Rothko was an American painter who is generally identified as an Abstract Expressionist. His most recognisable art style consists of large rectangles set on top of each other within a coloured field.

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Orange and yellow (1956), Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas.

Why is this comment so frequently made about Rothko’s work in particular? Well, his art was supposed to be enjoyed in person. His works are large and he worked hard to make his colours luminous in a way that is hard to convey unless you’re seeing them in real life. The viewer is supposed to feel engulfed by the work. Seeing a reproduction of his work loses this quality. So when you see it in real life, you may be surprised and, as you describe, feel like you suddenly “get it”.

Seeing art in person and seeing art in a book or on the Internet – as reproductions – is different. It’s different in varying ways and with varying effects. I’ll explore a few different examples of this in my list.

However, in conjunction with this list, I also want to explore the question: is it always better to see an artwork in person rather than as a reproduction? Do we always understand the artwork better when we do?

Top 7 Artworks that Surprised Me in Person

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The Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Photo by Victor Grigas.

1. The Mona Lisa (La Giaconda) (1503 – 1504), Leonardo da Vinci. See it at The Louvre, Paris.

I’m sure many of you have had the same experience: you get to the Louvre, you’re excited to see the most famous artwork in the entire world, but when you finally get to it, you’re completely underwhelmed. It’s smaller than you expect. It’s behind glass. There’s a crowd of people around it that makes it difficult to get a proper look. This was definitely my reaction when I first saw the Mona Lisa as a teenager. Seeing this widely recognised masterpiece in person can be surprisingly anticlimactic. It doesn’t always quite line up with what we have in mind after years of being exposed to it in various forms.

At the same time, you can get a new appreciation for it. You can experience the intriguing effect that the painting has of following your gaze as you move around the room. It’s famous for a reason, after all.

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View of Waterlilies at L’Orangerie. Photo by Jason7825.

2. Waterlilies (Nymphéas) (1840 – 1926), Claude Monet. See them at L’Orangerie, Paris.

A cycle of large Monet paintings depicting waterlilies is on display at L’Orangerie in Paris, and seeing them in person is a pretty spectacular experience. As with most of Monet’s work, the rapid Impressionistic brushstrokes and colour distribution means that the paintings will change depending on the distance from which you look at them. Up close, they’re just a collection of colours and brushstrokes, but from afar they form a beautiful image. The sheer size of the paintings at L’Orangerie means that viewing them makes you feel completely enveloped by the colours and textures of the works.

Seeing these works for the first time overwhelmed me in a way I wasn’t prepared for, and was the beginning of a serious engagement with art and art history.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

3. The Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508 – 1512), Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. See it at the Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

This is a space that I did not understand the artistic impact of until I saw it in person for the first time. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is, of course, the ceiling that Renaissance artist Michelangelo painted for Pope Julius II in the Vatican, featuring nine scenes from the Book of Genesis.

Certain individual parts of the ceiling – such as the image of God giving life to Adam – have been widely circulated, but the entirety of the space is hard to convey through reproductions. The overall effect in the physical space is that art seems almost three-dimensional, coming out of the ceiling in a pretty fantastic way.

The Jadeite Cabbage in Tapei National Palace Museum. Photo by Peellden.

The Jadeite Cabbage in Tapei National Palace Museum. Photo by Peellden.

4. The Jadeite Cabbage (19th century), artist unknown. See it at Taipei National Palace Museum, Taipei.

I included this one because of how profoundly a museum visit can shape your experience of an artwork. This work surprised me, but not because it didn’t live up to my expectations of it. In fact, I had never heard about it before I visited the museum. It surprised me because I just didn’t expect it: I didn’t expect such a long line and so much enthusiasm over a piece of jade carved into a cabbage (accompanied by a rock that looks like a piece of cooked pork). I didn’t expect the palpable excitement in the crowd. I didn’t expect how beautiful and small the jade turned out to be.

The sculpture was first exhibited in the Forbidden City in China before moving to the museum. The insect on the cabbage has been ascertained to be a Chinese bush cricket, a species often used in the Qing dynasty to entertain guests at the palace.

5. Weak in Colour but Strong in Blood (2013 – 2014), Yhonnie Scarce. Seen at the 19th Sydney Biennale exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

(Go here for photos of the work.)

This artwork exemplifies the idea that the materiality of an artwork is uniquely experienced when seen in person. The glass objects that the artist has created are especially beautiful when you see them up close. The work involves you moving around the “laboratory” space, taking in the various parts of the display. Seeing it in person is a slow, thoughtful process of discovery.

The work is about the continuing colonization of Indigenous Australians. The laboratory theme references the pseudo-scientific eugenic practices that took place in the early 1900s. The work also references the Stolen Generations of the early 1900s, where lighter-skinned Indigenous Australians were separated from their own families. The glass fruits are sorted and separated according to their lightness/darkness.

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In line to enter Marina Abramović: In Residence at Pier 2/3 in Sydney, Australia. Photo by me.

6. Marina Abramović: In Residence (2015), Marina Abramović. Seen at Pier 2/3 in Sydney, from 24th June – 5th July 2015.

I was part of the volunteer team working on Marina Abramović’s work Marina Abramović: In Residence when it came to Sydney in 2015. The first time I entered the artwork, I was both surprised and unsure of what was going on. When you walk in, wearing noise-cancelling headphones, you’re confronted with the sight of other museum goers silently doing a variety of activities – counting grains of rice, walking in slow motion, sleeping in beds. The surreal experience of not knowing what was happening and using my own body as part of the artwork was intense.

This work is part of a genre of performance art/installation art that is, arguably, supposed to be experienced in person. However, keep in mind that this may not always be the only or even the best way of experiencing it.

For more images of the work, go here.

7. The City of Forking Paths (2014), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. See it at Customs House, Sydney.

(Go here for photos of the work.)

This is another work that is supposed to be experienced in person. Cardiff and Miller’s work requires you to wear headphones and use a smartphone to walk around the Circular Quay area of Sydney. Cardiff voice guides you along and you watch the area in front of you play out in a different way on the phone screen. The artwork surprised me because, not knowing what to expect, I wasn’t prepared for such a complete multisensory experience. Being able to follow the artwork as I was actively walking along the same path was a new type of art for me.

As we’ve moved through the list, we’ve gone from famous paintings that are relatively “traditional”, through to more contemporary performance/installation/multimedia pieces that require new ways of thinking about art. We can ask ourselves, here: what kind of reproductions might be necessary for these works? Why create reproductions at all?

Seeing art in person vs. as a reproduction

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Viewing a digital reproduction of La classe de danse by Edgar Degas on the Images D’Art online database. Screenshot from here.

We know that seeing artworks in person is different. But is it better? This debate has been going on for a while, especially considering the increasing digitisation of artworks. It’s an ongoing debate in the museum/art gallery field, too: should museums embrace digital technology and make their collections more accessible online? Or should the museum experience remain focused on face-to-face interaction with objects and artworks?

We consume just as many – if not more – artworks through digital reproductions as we do in person. Although it’s happening on a larger scale than ever before, however, this is not a new phenomenon. Printing has been around for a long time, and is an incredibly significant art form.

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The great wave off Kanagawa (1829 – 32), Katsushika Hokusai. Woodblock print.

Take woodblock printing in Japan, for example. When it became popular in the 17th century, it made books, scrolls and other artistic endeavours available for mass consumption. Similarly, when printing became big in the West in the late 15th century, it completely changed the way that artworks were consumed. Artworks used to be found either in churches or in the houses of those rich enough to commission art. Only those able to travel could make pilgrimages to see many different artworks, mainly in religious buildings.

When printing became widespread, art suddenly became much more accessible. Genre painting became popular. Those who couldn’t travel could suddenly see artworks from other cities and countries. Those who couldn’t purchase paintings could suddenly have artworks in their own home.

The net-mender (Garnbinderen) (1880), Christian Krohg. A painting of a low-income fisherfolk family from Denmark with prints of artworks on their walls, showing how printing allowed artworks to be owned and viewed by more people.

The net-mender (Garnbinderen) (1880), Christian Krohg. A painting of a low-income fisherfolk family from Denmark with prints of artworks on their walls, showing how printing allowed artworks to be owned and viewed by more people.

Today, it’s easier for many of us to travel and see artworks. However, traveling overseas is still not easily or immediately accessible for the vast majority of people. While movies, TV shows and books can be distributed and translated across the entire world, visual art is still held back by a perceived need to see the artwork “in real life” to fully understand and appreciate it. This attitude makes a lot of people feel like they cannot talk about or access art and art history.

The idea that you can only appreciate art by traveling to see it can therefore be limiting. After all, consuming an artwork in other ways can inspire feelings of awe just like seeing it in person. Our experience of an artwork can be just as much influenced by viewing reproductions, listening to others’ accounts of seeing it, and reading texts about the work and its cultural/historical context.

What has your experience been? Have you had more valuable experiences with reproductions of artworks compared to seeing them in person? Or vice versa? How do your experiences of viewing artworks affect the way that you interpret them?

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1 Comment

  1. Jenna

    This is such a fun blog post – I just saw the Sistine Chapel a few months ago for the first time and my heart still skips a beat when I think about it. While I get to hang out with incredibly smart and creative people a lot of the time, it’s so rare to be able to have such a direct experience with the masterwork of an artist who seemed to have been in complete control of his immense talent at the time the piece was made. Truly breathtaking.

    Also, Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. The expression on the soldier’s face. Just wow.

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