Forget About the Price Tag: Engaging with a Masterpiece

Written by Mike Murawski

This past November, the art market grabbed headlines around the globe with the record-breaking auction purchase of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” With nearly 500 news stories (and counting), this trio of canvases has garnered nearly Miley-Cyrus-level media attention — a frenzy obsessed with auction prices and billionaire collectors. When it was announced that this series of canvases was going to be on view at the Portland Art Museum as part of our Masterworks series this winter, I immediately began thinking about how one can get past the media craze and dollar signs in order to dig deeper into the core significance of this ‘masterpiece.’  How might we address the complexities of how visitors would experience a work like this?  What are some ways in which we could bring audiences into a closer connection with this work?  How could I, myself, have an experience with this work in a meaningful and personal way?

Standing in front of this triptych myself for the first time in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum, I was initially overwhelmed and distracted by the news stories that have provided so much baggage for this intriguing portrait.  What was I going to have to do to dig deeper — to start discovering this ‘masterpiece’ for myself? As I stood there, I thought of the words of British philosopher and art historian John Armstrong, who in his 2000 book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art writes:

“If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.”

Perhaps the best way to start tackling this painting was to actually deal with the fraught idea of a ‘masterpiece’ and how that determination effects the experience we can have with art.  For me, this type of exploration is best done with others.  So early in the New Year, I invited our docents to spend some time with me in front of the Francis Bacon triptych to do some close looking, to connect with some of the scholarship on the work, and to start the process of digging deeper into the work’s significance.  With only a few days notice, we had about 60 docents show-up for these open explorations of teaching with and experiencing a modern masterpiece.

Visitors crowd around Picasso's
Visitors crowd around Picasso’s “Desmoiselles D’Avignon” at Museum of Modern Art in New York,

What Exactly Is a ‘Masterpiece’?

Across the country, visitors consistently flock to museums to see noted masterworks (whether through traveling special exhibitions, celebrated groupings of masterpieces, as part of some museums’ collections).  Yet, an artwork’s prestige can create a situation (like the insomniac) in which the pressure to ‘get’ the famous work prevents us from having any type of valuable experience at all.  This situation is more common with modern and contemporary art, which might not always meet the traditional or popular criteria of a masterpiece.  So what do we mean when we say a painting is a masterwork or ‘masterpiece’?

This question is a weighty one and comes with a lot of historical, cultural, and political baggage — yet I began my sessions with our docents by directly addressing this very topic.  Faced with defining the characteristics of a masterpiece while seated in front of the Bacon, our group of docents and I discussed how a masterpiece traditionally has “stood the test of time,” or is a particularly iconic work within a major artist’s career.  In our conversations, we also touched a bit upon the individual experience we have with a masterpiece — something that draws us in and keeps us thinking, questioning, wondering.  In my own experiences visiting museums as well as teaching with art, I do find that certain works of art continuously draw us back in for repeat encounters, offering new challenges and insights each time we sit in front of them.  We questioned the idea of who gets to define a ‘masterpiece,’ proposing that perhaps we as individuals get to make that determination for ourselves.

However, people frequently look to experts or scholars to help us determine which artworks might be considered masterpieces, so I thought I’d bring in a few of their ideas.  Back in 2010, the Los Angeles Times interviewed a series of art scholars and experts about this very question posed by the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz entitled “Masterpieces?”.  Here are a few responses:

“For me, masterpiece connotes a work of art that manages to work on multiple levels: impact, art historical importance, and an elusive quality that lets it be meaningful to a wide audience, rather than only specialists.” -Stephanie Barron, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“I believe in the transformative power of art; I do believe that. And the paintings that move you so much words fail you — those are the masterpieces.” -Michael Kareken, artist

For our engagement with the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum, it was important for our discovery to push past monetary value (which, of course, remains the elephant in the room) in order to see how this painting might appeal to us in a more complex, meaningful,and perhaps elusive way. We began to unknowingly take the advice of a quite terrible but catchy pop song as we proceeded: “forget about the price tag.”

Aaron Doyle and Evan Tewinkel, preparators at the Portland Art Museum, install the Bacon triptych. Jamie Francis/The Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com

Engaging with a Masterpiece: Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969)

Moving past the auction price and the weight of this work being a ‘masterpiece,’ we were now faced with looking at this immense triptych of 6-foot-tall canvases and making some meaning of our own.  But how to do this?  How to begin to dig deeper?  I immediately went back to John Armstrong, and a recent book he co-authored with writer Alain de Botton entitled Art as Therapy.  Probing at the larger purpose and relevance of art (and quite critical of the art market, itself), Armstong and DeBotton offer philosophical strategies for approaching art in a new way, beyond the normal historical or stylistic concerns toward a more personal, human approach:

“Getting something out of art doesn’t just mean learning about it — it also means investigating ourselves. We should be ready to look into ourselves in response to what we see.” (p. 72)

murawski-teaching-with-baconWhile I generally gravitate toward this type of approach, it seemed particularly appropriate as a framework through which to view this visceral and intensely human set of paintings by Bacon.  After briefly talking about Armstong and De Botton’s ideas, the docents and I spent much of our sessions with quiet, guided looking followed by small group conversations to talk about what we were noticing, thinking, and wondering with the Bacon portraits.  I acknowledged that this would only be the beginning of our experience with these paintings, and read a few quotes from Bacon himself to help us peel back more layers of meaning in these portraits.

“In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person.”– Francis Bacon

“When I look at you across the table, I don’t see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.” – Francis Bacon

Before we left the Bacon triptych as a group, I invited each docent to return to this painting at another time, sit with the work alone on a quiet afternoon, and spend about 20 or 30 minutes doing some sketches and open reflective writing.  For me, the most powerful prompt for this type of written response has simply been “What is this to me?” — a question directly inspired by John Armstong and one that I have used repeatedly in my own gallery learning as well as teaching with larger groups.  And I feel that if we can begin to answer this question for ourselves, we can also begin to open up a new type of experience for our visitors with great works of art.

The sessions I led with the docents in front of the Bacon triptych were by no means the type of neatly packaged, “transformative” experience we sometimes strive for. I had to remind myself that there was value in simply opening up a process of discovery and not ending in some grand culminating moment of clarity.  After all, this was a complex artwork filled with a shifting sense of energy, fragility, violence, and deep emotion that would reward a more sustained and circuitous path of learning. In her chapter entitled “Intense Looks” in Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham discusses the deep journey of contemplation, research, and gallery teaching that can often lead us, as educators, to our own transformative experiences with art. As she aptly writes:

“As museum educators, we must never forget that in every gallery dialogue we lead we must strive simultaneously to discover both the artworks we look at so intensely and the process itself of discovering artwork…. As teachers, our own difficulties in making sense of art, the experiences of frustration, the long detours and false starts, all chart a terrain whose exploration expands our capacity for empathetic listening and responding, for encouraging intense looking, and for moving dialogue forward.”

It may be these cumulative, layered experiences we have with masterpieces that allow us to change the way we see art as well as ourselves.  But these types of experiences take time and repeat encounters with a work of art — they don’t happen in the seconds or minutes that we typically spend glancing at a painting such as the Bacon triptych, and they also often don’t necessarily happen when we’re leading a guided experience with an artwork. As I concluded my session with our docents in front of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” I encouraged them all to see our collective experience as simply the beginning of a deeper process of looking at this work; a process they would need to culminate on their own, in their own personal way, and in collaboration with future visitors to the museum.

Francis_Bacon-triptych

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