Serious collectors that I know are focused on the art.
They are not looking for a decorative item,
or a good investment.
There is some aspect of the work itself that has hooked them.
1 – Introduction
The first original Dali painting I saw was Seven Apparitions of Lenin on a Piano at the Beaubourg Museum in Paris as it was then called. My Beaux Arts student ID card gave me free entrance to art museums and I made liberal use of it, frequenting them freely. What surprised me the first time I saw this painting in person was the size of the painting. It was quite large and I expected something rather small. Books don’t give you a sense of size and reading dimensions is not the same as standing face to face with the artwork. However what impressed me more than the size was the attention to detail with which Dali painted it. I was studying painting at the time and I could clearly see from the facture that Dali had used small sable brushes, both round and flat tipped. Only such brushes could deliver not only the fine detail but also the smooth paint application I was witnessing.
What I was seeing conflicted with the image of the artist that the media and public opinion had built for me. That image was in conflict with the execution of the work in front of me. While not flawless, the painting I was looking at exhibited the work of someone more prone to OCD than to fits of madness. While it was a surrealist representation, its execution showed planning and carefulness. Instead of being gestural or impulsive the facture was composed and deliberate. Dali may have been mad but if so it was a controlled madness, one that let go when he was painting and made space for a careful, almost artisan-like painting technique.
2 – The Web Is Not Enough
The experience of being face to face with the original painting was so different than the experience of looking at a photographic reproduction of that painting in a book that to me the two were two different works of art. In a book, the painting lived quietly on the page. Its size was not the one chosen by the artist. It was decided by the size of the book. Small or large, all the paintings in the book were sized to fit the layout, either full page or a fraction thereof.
In the book, the painting did not speak to me. It was decorative. An illustration more than a work of art. I remember one of my teachers saying that he had two studios. In one he created fine art. In the other decorative art. The difference between art and decor is not the artist that creates them; it is the inspiration that guides that artist. I experienced the same difference between a book and a museum. The difference was not the artwork; it was how it was presented to me.
This experience taught me that looking at reproductions of art is not enough. This was before the web existed, but it changes nothing. On the web, all art is the same size, that of your computer monitor or the digital device you look at it on.
Fact is you need to look at the original art in person to truly appreciate its quality. Art is a passion that needs to translate into visiting museums and galleries regularly to see real art. It cannot be truly satisfied by looking at representations in books, on the web or on screen.
3 – About Museums
Museums are the traditional places where one expects to see artwork on display. The purpose of a museum is collecting and showing artwork through publicly accessible shows.
Museums make an income by selling entrance tickets, memberships and souvenirs and by receiving donations. None of the artwork shown in museums is for sale. Museums do not generate income through the sale of artwork. In fact, many museums operate as non-profit entities.
4 – Surprises
Museums sometimes offer surprises. Natalie and I had been told when walking in the Phoenix Museum of Art that there was a Georgia O’Keefe in their collection, in a room that the docent described as being ‘technically a basement room’. The directions she gave us were confusing and we quit looking for the painting after several unsuccessful attempts at finding a logical way to navigate the apparently randomly-built array of train-terminal to dormitory size rooms in the museum.
Still, the O’Keefe was on our mind and when we saw a stairway leading downstairs with a sign saying ‘basement collection’ our hopes sprung back to life. The stairway led us downturn after turn until we found ourselves in a large room with paintings of various sizes hung on the surrounding walls.
There wasn’t just one O’Keefe, there were several. They were small and it took us some time to identify them as being hers. Their size was by no means representative of their quality. Hung in front of us, framed in modest frames that had seen better days, were two paintings that were studies in light and form. Color was used as shading rather than visual appeal. Modest in size and unpretentious in facture, we had never seen them before. They had not been published in books, at least not in the books we read.
I suppose those are considered ‘minor works’ by O’Keefe and not deemed worthy of publication so far. Yet to us their modesty and their presence in the basement room made them that much more accessible. There was nothing between us and the paintings, no glass, no velvet rope. A museum employee was at the other end of the room, checking messages on her phone. There were no other visitors. We were alone with the paintings and for a moment time stood still while we lost ourselves in the admiration of art.
5 – Old Friends
A work of art can sometimes become an old friend, one that you go visit from time to time, with the known expectation that the experience will be enjoyable. Museums allow one to see ‘old friends’ unique works of art that are part of a specific museum collection and that one can only see there. Such a piece is this gouache painting by French Artist Fernand Leger, Fernand ‘light’ in English, his name somewhat misleading because of his heavy-handed facture. I saw this work in books while living in France but I had to travel to Arizona to see the original in person.
6 – Be Open To New Forms Of Art Expression
Visiting a museum is also the opportunity to discover and be exposed to new forms of artistic expression.
The digital work of art featured below is projected onto three walls of a darkened rectangular room. The geometrical lines move, transitioning from dots to small lines, medium lines and finally large lines that fill the entire room. As the design changes a soundtrack mimicking rain plays in a crescendo pattern that follows the images.
Although not technically photographic, it did inspire me because it opens the door to a different form of expression. It took my mind away totally, and while it made me think of nature because of the rain sounds, it also let me escape traditional landscape representations. I walked away from this room with fresh ideas for representing nature. I may or may not use what I saw but having been exposed to it I cannot forget it.
7 – Study Facture
Facture is how a work of art is made and how the hand of the artist is present in the work. Facture is difficult to see on reproductions or in books because being three-dimensional it does not reproduce well on a printed page. What this means is that facture has to be seen in person to be appreciated. Seeing original paintings in museums or galleries is a great opportunity to study facture.
The painting below is an excellent example of facture. From a distance, this rather large painting is attractive because of its composition. However, when studied up close, the facture becomes just as interesting as the image itself. In it, one sees the gestures that the artist performed while painting, the mix of colors that he or she used, and the rhythm and the speed at which the painting was created. This is an education in itself and one that can only be had in a museum.
Of course, facture is present in very different ways in photography and in painting. However, a similar study can be done with any medium, simply by studying the work up close and looking at small areas rather than at the entire work.
8 – Conclusion
Seeing artwork in person is a very different experience than seeing artwork reproduced in a book, on the web, on TV and so on. Visiting museums is also an effective way of learning more about art and learning about artists and art movements. Because museums feature a variety of mediums in addition to photography, they are excellent venues to find out not only which artists and movements you like and don’t like but also which mediums you like and which ones you may want to include in your personal collection.
9 – To Be Continued
This is the second essay in this series about collecting art. In the next essay, the third in this series, I will write about visiting galleries and about the role that galleries play in regards to art collecting and art appreciation.
10 – Workshops with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this link.
11 – About Alain and Natalie Briot
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website here. You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
Natalie and I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal
Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website at this link. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.