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Looking at pictures.

Some Notes on Gallery-Going.


CONSTABLE’S PAINTING WEYMOUTH Beach: Bowleaze Cove and Jordan Hill shows a sweep of beach, a low hill rising in the distance with clouds fountaining up behind it and, to the left, a stretch of sea. ‘The sand is represented by the unprimed canvas’, reads the label next to the painting where it hangs in the National Gallery.

In the centre of the painting is a tiny, distant figure with a stick, accompanied by two dogs. Sea, land and sky –  the figure unites them, pulling them together. Sitting at my desk, I’d imagined setting out across the city as if to a  rendezvous. The distant upright figure is like an I in the centre of a page. It somehow manages to sustain itself in all that space, inside the peculiar silence that a painting makes. The landscape, patched with its browns and its greens, wraps itself around him like a coat. If it were me, I would be trying out phrases. What I find frustrating is that I can’t tell whether he is moving towards me or moving away. Or is it the landscape moving him towards me while just in front of me, littering the foreground, the painter has placed this assortment of untroubled boulders?

Looking back, I don’t quite understand what impelled me to undertake these expeditions. Nobody suggested I should. There was no history of interest in such things in my family.

As a solemn, solitary teenager gazing at paintings – those trips on my own to the National Gallery,  the Wallace Collection, gazing at one of Claude’s sunsets,  waiting and wanting for the thing to mean. A sense of longing seemed to be implied. Looking back, I don’t quite understand what impelled me to undertake these expeditions. Nobody suggested I should. There was no history of interest in such things in my family. What you get nowadays is reassurance in the form of information, lots of it, from captions on the wall or, better still, through earphones. Going into an exhibition the other day I was just behind two visitors one of whom said, gazing at the vista of rooms stretching ahead of them, ‘It’s a big exhibition. We’d better get a move on.’

The Tate Gallery at St Ives is built out over the beach. The huge curve of glass silences the sea beyond it. I look out over the empty January beach bathed in brilliant sunshine, watch the advancing crash of waves and think of this going on all afternoon while behind me are Peter Lanyon’s paintings, a line of them on their curve of wall. and I am caught  in here between glass and  glassed-in canvas. Lanyon’s family worked in the tin mining industry, and what he did when he painted was his way of being there. He was passionate about gliding until the day he fell out of the sky and into the landscape he’d painted all his life, suffered a cracked vertebra, and then a blood clot that tricked the brain and that was how he died. ‘The process as I see it’, he wrote, ‘is this; identification with a place by walking or climbing, in fact moving in a dancing sense within that place. . .  there is in my case a certain amount to be obtained in the drawing or scratching in the presence of the place. Second – approach of the place from different aspects. Coming on it unawares. Disturbing one’s sense of being fixed in relation to a place which comes from the static viewpoint of traditional linear perspective.’ As if that is what it was all about – striving to be more there.

There is the oddness of looking at all these paintings. You just have to just stand in front of one and look at it, because old master paintings in particular can be quite baffling things. Travelling, maybe a long distance, to get to this place and gaze at these objects., you can’t take one home with you to have a proper look. You’re certainly not allowed to touch it. You can’t kneel down in front of it, make an offering to it. You’re not even allowed to take your shoes off  in front of it. In the Arte Antica in Madrid my wife took her shoes off and was reproved. ‘It is forbidden to undress in the museum’, the guard said. Unlike going  into a mosque where you have to take your shoes off. In Berlin, my wife stepped carefully over a large flattish metal sculpture by Joseph Beuys sitting unprotected in the middle of the floor and a guard leapt up with a great shout: ‘Das ist streng verboten!

Catching sight of a painting across the Gallery I can sense a pleasure centre opening up very slowly as if somewhere in my solar plexus. To inhabit a surface. A hand holding a brush or pen passes across a blank surface, a void, in a gesture inscribing an absence, and the way the result might reach you into the world.  There is the sheer intensity of attention manifested in what the poet Roger Langley  wrote on a National Gallery Christmas card showing a reproduction of Bellini’s  Madonna of the Meadow.

Here is the Bellini which I have looked at a print of every day since I was 21. Inexhaustible I think. The season when the white birds arrive, feared by the long-bodied snakes. As the Georgics have it. The season of the Passion. Spring. A silvery spring day with a little wind, unlike his more summery pieces. I love that moment at the end of the Quattrocento before Leonardo and Giorgione smoothed it all out and swept it into patterns across the canvas — when figures still stand separate in the perspective grid, like fence posts in the evening light, as Adrian [Stokes] would have it . . .  Bellini, yes when realism was at its best thanks to the oil and the northern influences . . . The time when daylight was the halo without any gold wire round the head.’

Tourism is a form of pilgrimage. You set off on a journey but what do you find when you get there?

Tourism is a form of pilgrimage. You set off on a journey but what do you find when you get there? When I was eighteen I went on a ‘gap year’ to Pakistan where I was attached to a school. I travelled a good deal but became more and more preoccupied with what I was missing. I went to Banaras and while there took a trip to Sarnath a few miles away. This was where the Buddha preached his first sermon. I hired a cycle rickshaw. The cycle rickshaw man was slightly built and looked professorial.  By this mode of transport,  intimate and incongruous, we proceeded through a bleak landscape dotted with stupas like little water-towers. We arrived at our destination, a larger circular stone tower said to contain some relics of the Buddha. Monks were circling it, going round and round and round. It made me think of the cycle rickshaw man as I sat behind him watching his thin calves pumping up and down. It felt as if I had come all this way to encounter a sort of emptiness. Famously, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 far more people came to look at the empty space where the painting had been than had visited it when it was actually there.

But what  about not getting there at all? A. and I were in Lisbon and one morning we set off to visit the Guggenheim Collection. We got there but was it open? We went downstairs into a sort of office, people working quietly at desks, a space that breathed money. No it was shut, our guide book was out of date,  so we went back outside and ending up spending a long time in the very fine garden with a couple of interesting artworks in it and a nice cafe. What I found was that when you get there and it’s closed, a space opens up. It felt quite special. Partly perhaps a sense of being relieved of a small burden.

‘Toucher c’est salir’, they say in French, ‘To touch is to soil’ — which is more graphic than the  slightly wheedling English institutional equivalent, ‘Even clean hands damage surfaces’.  If you touch the artwork, you soil it. But the sacred and the taboo may be two sides of the same coin and touching is very important. In Berlin’s Altes Museum of classical remains they have made a hole in the ground. If you kneel down on the floor and reach your arm in you can run your hand over part of a piece of classical sculpture. This hole has an oracular quality? The foot of the statue of Peter in St Peters in Rome has been quite worn away by the touch of generations of pilgrims.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click ‘full screen’ option. ‘Esc’ returns you here.

Some years ago, I went to an event at Tate Modern where the poet John Cayley was showing some of his cybertext pieces projected onto a screen. The event took place  after the gallery had closed and there was no screen available. We walked the galleries looking for a suitable space and found ourselves in the room that featured minimalist works. One of these could serve as a suitable screen and Cayley started to set up his computer. But the curator became extremely agitated. This was out of the question. But it was hardly going to damage the artwork. But projecting his images onto it for a few moments seemed to represent an unforgivable intrusions into a sacred space.

Going into an exhibition I sometimes experience this negative force field, a curatorial miasma coming off the walls as expressed in the information posted on the walls. The paintings of Rothko, for example, tend to evoke a breathless religiosity. It’s the overwrought rhetoric and I have to get to the point where I can say to myself ‘This is nothing more than a piece of cloth with some marks on it’ before I can start to really look at it. ‘Past Painting’, an exhibition by the artist Jeff Gibbons at Art Space gallery in Islington –  there’s a repeated motif, a bottle and two glasses. Self-medication? Is there a choice? Drink this one and see what happens like in Alice-in-Wonderland. Or is it an invitation – two people, you and me? The way the paint ‘flows’ into becoming a landscape. Casual but so well-judged, that swirl, that river of red, as if it were a single movement or gesture briefly interrupted by a sort of table-horizon and the bottle with two glasses. If you buy one of these how do you treat this unprotected scrap of cloth tacked to a bit of wood? The thing is, the paintings are not framed. The canvas is not even stretched, simply nailed to the surface  of the stretcher. If you buy one of these . . .

There are artists who only want to show in ‘good’ galleries. One says, ‘O she’ll put her work up anywhere’. In such a gallery it will actually look better, in the same way that the same food will taste different if eaten off expensive, heavy cutlery from the way it tastes if eaten off cheap plastic.

PASSING A WEST End gallery, as you look in through the window and once inside, surfaces smelling of money. But money signed by the artist? This is what did happen in the fifth century BC. Greek dekadrachms, from Syracuse in Sicily, were minted with the name of the artist on the coin as part of the design –  the principal artist featured was a man called Kimon. A few years ago one of these coins sold for three and a half million dollars, at the time the highest price achieved for any coin at auction. They are spectacularly beautiful  and are said to have been produced, appropriately perhaps in this context, mainly in order to pay mercenaries

As a writer you can find yourself envying the sheer physicality of painting. Phillip Guston’s comments:

A stronger contact with the thickness of things.

A third hand does it.

Make the shit stick (or was it simply Make it stick?)

It looked too much like a painting.

It’s just wax museum.

It’s got to be like a life lived.

Walking  to Tate Modern across a processional way, the Millennium Bridge: The Bridge was intended to go straight into the building, plunging through its side. But the architect objected – this would compromise the structure’s integrity – and so now it stops just before the building and takes little twist round and down to the ground level. Inside is the sun. A disk diffusing a bland light onto the worshippers. People lie sprawled on the ground and see themselves in the mirrors miles above. they move their arms and legs and watch themselves. It’s a Saturday and the place is filling up. The atmosphere is good-humoured, a sort of mild wonderment. Here and there are other video installations, side-chapels flickering with images not candles. As for the paintings once you get in the galleries, they begin to look like afterthoughts.

‘Don’t stare, it’s rude’. An infant’s steady all encompassing gaze, it can be quite unnerving. The artist has a licence to stare at the model, and we have an unrestricted entitlement to gaze at the result. That longing to simply be able to gaze, an appetite for looking that feeds on itself. Sometimes I realise I’ve stopped looking at the paintings and am looking at the people instead. Now my looking is surreptitious  silently peering, bobbing about.

 The large upstairs room at the Victoria Miro Gallery in Islington is a remarkable space, entirely sealed with glass, affording an all round view of the surrounding streets. A place to watch clouds from – why not a gallery for just that purpose? I started to wonder whether what I retain sometimes from some gallery going was not so much the works themselves as the view from inside the gallery looking out. In some places, the view is very constricted, a crack through which you can see  traffic glinting in the sunshine. Being unable to access the sunlit balcony was frustrating. Walking home from there, I sit  on a bench by a large stretch of water,  like a spoiled priest inspecting the effects of sunlight, not knowing quite where I am. I’m gazing at a wedge-shaped tower block whose sole function, seen from here, appears to be to interrupt the sunlight.

Looking out of a gauze-covered window in the National Gallery what I see is a section of the adjacent stone building, classical in style. Because it is framed by the window, I find I’m looking at it quite differently. It is an arbitrary collection of surfaces, some protruding, part of a highly wrought head of a column, in places the sun shining on the whitish stone creating interesting shadows. After looking for quite some time, I turn back to the paintings and, for the first few moments, they appear faded and drab.

I’m standing at the bus stop by the roundabout on Lea Bridge Road, looking back at the roundabout itself which has been thoughtfully planted. In front of some conifers are some stone shapes and I start to think of a painting by Poussin. There are elements in his work that people have compared to Cezanne. Standing here in bright early December sunshine what I am looking at now, something one would as a rule simply ignore, appears very beautiful. Perhaps it is because I’ve spent sixty years looking at paintings that I am able to see it like this.

A whole wall of Moroni portraits, in the National Gallery. They look at you looking back at them. Moroni’s work has a kind of restrained modesty. The artist stayed where he had grown up, in this relatively modest provincial town. And all these faces gravely looking out at you, too, feel as if  they are asking you for something? Redemption? Forgiveness?

After his death Francis Bacon’s studio was, a quasi-sacramental act, dismantled and delivered in its entirety to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin to be reassembled there. His studio does have an excremental quality, lined with strata of impacted waste matter, scraps of photographs, bits of oil smeared rag, old newspaper cuttings. To make something out of these scraps, art as recuperation of the abject,  this smearing of paint across bits of cloth which are then  hung up on a wall  Making art is paradoxical. You have to create something that is quite separate from you and able to exist by virtue of its own inherent structure, but at the same time is most intimately you.

John Richardson, art historian and biographer of Picasso, describes visiting Braque’s studio: ‘His studio had become the centre of his universe. It was also the primary subject of his work. If the light was curiously palpable – what Braque called “tactile” – it was because he kept his studio skylight veiled with thinnish whitish material which filtered and seemingly liquefied the light. In this penumbra the artist would sit as hieratically as Christ Pantocrator in a Byzantine mosaic, his great big Ancient Mariner’s eyes devouring the paintings set out in front of him . . . on my first visit to the artist’s studio I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting. I never quite lost that feeling.’

John Welch has lived for the last half century in east London, married to the painter Amanda Welch. He helped run the South Asian Literature Society, an organisation that promoted interest in the literatures of the Indian Subcontinent and worked with the Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan, and more recently the Iraqi poet Abdulkarim Kasid, on the English versions of their poems. In 1984, Oxford University Press published his anthology Stories From South Asia. This body of experience contributed substantially to his previous Shearsman collection Visiting Exile, published in 2009.

Other work: Collected Poems (2008) and Dreaming Arrival (2008), personal reflections on the writing life set in the context of the experience of psychoanalysis.

A collection of poems, Its Halting Measure, appeared in June 2012 from Shearsman Books. The collection covers a range of themes but there is a constant preoccupation with the problems and ambiguities surrounding the making of poems, ‘our words like scented gardens for the blind’.

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Anthony Howell
3 years ago

Wonderful essay! And by the way, Dinah Casson’s “Closed on Mondays” – which came out last year – has a whole chapter on windows in art galleries very much in accord with your views!

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