Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


H.R. Rookmaaker - Learning to See

Learning to see

H.R. Rookmaaker
Too often it seems that ‘people’ have a kind of inferiority complex about the visual arts. One often hears a person say, ‘I do not go to museums or exhibitions because I do not understand them anyway.’ As if art were created for an elite group who do understand it, a sort of esoteric fellowship of connoisseurs! Certainly it is true that the more you understand about art, the more you will see in it. The question, however, is whether that increased knowledge also results in a more intense experience and a greater enjoyment.
It can happen that knowing more about a work makes it more problematic; the questions can wedge themselves between the observer and the image, hindering the enjoyment. But in general we can say that the quality of a good painting will be evident in the fact that even the ‘unschooled’ observer will get something out of it. Explanations of and discussions about the problems of composition etc. can make a piece of art more accessible but will never be able to turn a poor piece of art into a good one or vice versa.
Besides, the greatest works of art hardly allow themselves to be ‘explained’. Who can really say why The little street of Vermeer is so stunningly beautiful, why it is one of the greatest works of all times? By giving in to feelings of inferiority and refusing to visit art galleries one guarantees that one really will never understand art. Just as one needs to be taught how to read a novel, one needs to learn how to view a painting – it is just as hard, and just as easy!
So my advice is: do not miss any chance to go to a museum – the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam or . . . whichever museum is nearest to you. And do not be afraid to be led by your own tastes. Concentrate on the pieces you enjoy. You do not have to see everything. If after wandering through the first few rooms you are tired and have had enough, go home and come back another time. You may be sure that every piece you see in the museum is of at least good quality and worth looking at; experts have already sifted through the art of the past to ensure that what is presented is of high quality.
Above all, take your time. There is nothing wrong with spending a long time in front of one painting, especially if it turns out that there were still more beautiful and important works that you missed at that visit, because if you do not appreciate the small things, you do not deserve the greater ones. But it is by observing a small number of artworks intensely that one can learn to see. Do not pay attention (or not much) to the year or to the artist’s name. The work itself is what matters, not the period of art history. The quality of a piece of art is not determined by the year in which it was painted.
Once you have become somewhat familiar with the paintings you may want to know more about the artists and the period in which they worked. I would strongly advise you to make a habit of buying a catalogue – it will supply you with all the information you could want: not only the names of the artists but also the highlights of their careers. And the descriptions of the various pieces in the catalogue will draw your attention to details that may have escaped you. The subject, which you perhaps did not immediately understand, or peculiar characteristics that you were not aware of, will be explained or described. Let the catalogue, together with your own growing taste and understanding, be your guide.
Especially do not neglect to visit the special exhibitions often organized during the summer which are also widely advertised in the media. These are usually collections of artworks which are related by a common theme; they will broaden your vision and increase your understanding. Do not forget: those exhibitions too are not intended for a small group of experts but for people just like you – exactly like you! Here too you will find the most important information in the catalogues. By purchasing a catalogue you will be taking home reproductions that you can use later to bring back to mind the pieces that especially moved you.
In closing: if a specific piece (or group of pieces) does not appeal to you for some reason, if it turns you off or repulses you, be honest with yourself and feel free to pass by. The specialist or the connoisseur may not have that freedom, but that is your great advantage, the privilege of being a ‘layman’. Finally, one more comment: do not ever be ashamed of your own opinion. There is nothing shameful about being mistaken once in awhile.
Leave the professional questions (e.g. whether this work truly was painted by that master, whether it really was produced during that century) to the professional art critics – that, after all, is their task as they toil under the sun. But the questions concerning whether a piece is beautiful or ugly, enjoyable or not, acceptable or unacceptable, those are not questions for the experts. Those are issues about which you are entitled to have your own opinion, and there is nothing wrong with missing the mark occasionally, with having to change your opinion once in awhile. After all, it is only by falling and getting up again and again that one learns to walk!
Originally published in Dutch in Stijl 2, 9, 1953.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.