BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 13 SEP 17
Featured in
Issue 190

The Real Thing

The importance of visiting galleries in the flesh 

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 13 SEP 17

When I first moved to London in the mid-1990s, I learnt about the local art scene by visiting galleries and talking to the people who ran them. I also met writers, artists and curators in the friendly, wine-fuelled scrums of private views across this great city. I only mention this because, in recent months, a lot of gallerists have told me that fewer and fewer people are coming to visit their spaces, preferring, they say, to stay at home and look at art online. This year alone, a disquieting number of good galleries have closed; the explanations, of course, are complicated and varied but, almost unanimously, lack of footfall has been cited as a factor.

This is depressing for so many reasons. Foremost, to my mind, is the fact that art is a physical medium: its textures, volume and scale are intrinsic to its meaning. Unless it’s specifically made to be seen online, experi­encing it shrunk and illuminated on a screen is far from ideal. Also, the layout of a show is important: it’s a visual conversation – and, as we all know, fragments of overheard conversations rarely make sense.

Don’t get me wrong: looking at art online isn’t all bad. It’s great that, as more and more museums and galleries digitize their exhibitions and collections, vast numbers of people around the world can now access works of art that they might not otherwise have had the chance to see. But I worry that the internet is becoming a surrogate for the real thing.

The first time I ever saw a painting by Johannes Vermeer in the flesh was in winter, decades ago, at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. I walked through the hushed galleries looking for The Art of Painting (1666–69): the only picture the Dutch artist refused to sell because he kept it in his studio as his showpiece. I turned a corner and, with a shock of recognition, there it was. No one else was around. I sat on a red velvet chair and stared at it for a long time. Having only previously seen it in reproduction, nothing had prepared me for the painting’s luminescence, its enigma and mood of strange tenderness. Despite being almost 300 years old, it was one of the most alive things I had ever seen. Yet, what I recall about that day in Vienna isn’t just the painting. The austere beauty of the museum, the cool grey light and the red velvet chair all added immeasurably to the occasion.

Looking at a work of art is an intimate activity: it’s you communing with, and attempting to understand, the product of someone else’s mind. But it’s also a social one: the conversations and debates around the significance (or not) of a work of art keep it alive. A good gallerist’s insights into an exhibition they have chosen to host are invaluable. Why substitute such engagement for something more removed? Scrolling through a website to look at someone’s latest show is like reading a restaurant menu online instead of turning up to taste the food.

A lack of intimacy is also one of the problems I have with some of the enormous exhibitions we’ve seen this year in Athens, Kassel and Venice: their sheer size can create another kind of distance. Despite the prestige of being selected for them, in many ways, these mega-shows can be bad for art and artists. Even the most hardened of art professionals can’t remain sensitive to the nuances of a film or a painting or a sculpture if, on the same day, they’ve looked at a dizzying array of other films, paintings and sculptures. However interested you might be, there are human limits to empathy and curiosity. As a result, it’s often the art that shouts loudest that gets heard; quieter, more thoughtful work is regularly overlooked. By contrast, a couple of months ago, I visited the Greek island of Samos to see a small group show at the Art Space Pythagorion. Some of the nine exhibiting artists were there, as was the curator. We spent hours talking and had plenty of time to absorb the work on view. We also explored the island, which allowed us the opportunity to get to grips with the show’s social and geographical context. It was one of the most memorable trips I’ve had this year.

In the midst of our non-stop lives, galleries allow us to pause and take stock; they’re venues for daydreaming and debate, idiosyncrasy and invention. In our rampantly materialistic culture, looking at art is one of the few things you can do for free – and the benefits of doing so are immeasurable. Don’t let the internet ruin what could be a great relationship.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.