It’s time again for ArtSmart!
It’s been a hectic few weeks for everyone, so check back often for updated participant links.
This month, we chose a rather open concept: contrast. I was going to write about the beautiful geometric tile work found in Islamic art, but then an issue popped up at work that made me think of another form of contrast. The contrast between artwork and museum/gallery wall color. It’s something that a lot of museum goers probably never think about, but I think that the contrast levels can really affect a viewer’s visit and perception of a piece.
I’m going to highlight a few levels of contrast that you might encounter at some of the most popular museums to visit around the world. Some are things that can’t be changed, others are poor design choices, and others are a compromise between preserving the art and allowing the visitor to see it.
The Sistine Chapel
Because the frescoes cover the entire ceiling and walls, you’re at the mercy of the lighting in order to see the scenes painted all around. Is it an ideal set up? No. But it’s the intent of the work, and it keeps true to the context. Also, because the lighting is limited to preserve the art, DON’T BOTHER SNEAKING PHOTOS AND DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT USING FLASH. Your photo will be pretty crappy so just stop.
Due to the recent cleaning, the colors are far brighter which help you pick out details. The contrast between the vivid colors and muted background help the subject matter pop and allow you to see more details such as the putto holding Daniel’s book or the figure behind him in the image above. However, you can also see that the cleaning reduces the contrast of the vault ribbing because the raised details blend into the background rather than the grime highlighting the different depths.
Also, the cream-colored stone ribbing on the ceiling help break up scenes to make them easier to focus on. The lighter colored backgrounds employed by Michelangelo help the figures stand out as do the faux architectural frames used. If you’re easily over stimulated, it can be hard to really look at each scene since the entire room is competing for your attention. I would highly recommend studying individual scenes ahead of time so you’re familiar with the subject matter before entering such an overwhelming space. It’ll make your visit more meaningful, especially if you’re going to wait in line that long.
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Ever wonder why you often see modern and contemporary art against white walls while older works are usually hung on muted blues, reds, beiges, and grays? Because contrast!
If you put a bunch of ancient Roman marble statues against a stark white wall, you lose the contrast in color between the two making the statue’s details hard to see. You’ll eventually give up on the room because it’s too much effort to create contrast from walking back and forth to see the piece. The same goes for darker, varnished oil paintings like Rembrandts. All the dark colors against such a bright wall create too much contrast which also causes your eyes to lose the ability to make out details. You just see a dark rectangle with a few pops of any strokes of light paint in the image.
This is the dilemma that Ruchard Meier and the Getty Museum faced. Meier’s structures are almost entirely white, but the Getty’s collection is encyclopedic and can’t use a standard stark white. Meier developed a special shade of white which he believed would work for any art collection, but the Board chose a different designer, Thierry Despont, to select the colors and finishes for the galleries. I personally think the Board made the right choice. You can see the colored walls in this video about paintings at the Getty. (MOMA also chose to paint their early 20th century galleries a putty color because white didn’t suit the works).
Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin
Certain gallery spaces purposefully decrease the contrast in the room in order to preserve the art such as the Book of Kells exhibition at Trinity. The Book of Kells dates from around 800, and the delicate nature of the pigment on vellum requires a low light level to prevent fading. This is also why pages are rotated out on a regular basis. The curators have to make a compromise between preserving the pages (they’re best kept out of the light) with displaying an incredibly beautiful and popular work for the public. So they keep the lights dimmed, use spot lighting for labels and text panels, and use muted colors that won’t reflect light back onto the pages. In other spaces, the light is on demand and limited to a certain length of time, or there might be a cover that you have to lift to see a piece if it’s in a room with other less light sensitive objects. There’s a handy tool that measures the brightness of the light that exhibition crews use to hit that perfect balance between being able to see a work without damaging it. Remember why a room my be dim the next time you’re struggling to see a page or print at a museum.
Of course there are far more examples, but the next time you’re at a museum, I hope you look at the contrast of wall colors and light sources. It’s part of what makes an exhibit work, and it’s something that can often be ignored during a visit. You might realize that you love a particular piece or museum because it’s bright and airy or dark and moody.
What is ArtSmart? A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling. At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers. Interested in joining the Roundtable? Check out our Facebook page or email me.
This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:
Christina of Daydream Tourist: Pablo Picasso: Creative Chameleon
Jeff of EuroTravelogue: Danube River Cruise: A Contrast in Scenery, Architecture and Time
NEW TO ARTSMART! Pal and Lydian of Art Weekenders: The French Impressionists Challenge of The Salon: A David and Goliath Art-Tale