Monday, February 3, 2014

ArtSmart Roundtable: What’s With The Wall Colors?

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.

Sistine Chapel, the prophet Daniel before and after Restoration, 1505, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sistine Chapel, the prophet Daniel before and after Restoration, 1505, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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

Christ Enthroned, folio 32 verso. Ca. 800. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Enthroned, folio 32 verso. Ca. 800. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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14 Responses to “ArtSmart Roundtable: What’s With The Wall Colors?”

  1. 1

    Pal — February 4, 2014 @ 6:15 am

    A really valid point, something that changes everything without the observer even realising it. Alas, if you don’t reflect over it actively, like you just pointed out.

    For instance the recently re-opened Rijksmuseum here in Amsterdam did a fantastic job with creating the right contrast, it’s really making the artworks pop out. Also not long ago we’ve been to an Edvard Munch exhibition at Kunsthalle in Zurich, where the job done was great as well. Or my favourite photography museum, Fotografiska in Stockholm, they’re almost experts at getting the job done perfectly. And so on :-). On the other hand, we’ve seen Klee at Tate Modern recently and now I know, I think, why I wasn’t that crazy about it.
    Pal recently posted..Art Against the Established NormsMy Profile

    • ehalvey replied: — February 4th, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

      I interned at a museum that was designed by Michael Graves, and seeing the galleries redone by the new curators made all the difference in appreciated Egyptian mummies and Roman busts. The colors helped the art stand out instead of competing with it.

  2. 2

    Lesley Peterson — February 4, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

    i really enjoyed this post, Erin. I am so interested in color. It’s not just colors that were popular during different epochs, it’s that the materials used to make certain colors are no longer used, therefore the color no longer exists. I’m with Pal, the Rijksmuseum is a stellar example of color being used to highlight the collection. I can only wonder at the amount of time and effort it took to arrive at that specific shade of charcoal grey.
    The Uffizi, too, has created a series of new color-themed rooms; I’d like to see those in person.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..An auld tale of Scotland on Robert Burns NightMy Profile

    • ehalvey replied: — February 5th, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

      The color-themed rooms at the Uffizi sound intriguing!

  3. 3

    Lydian — February 5, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    Very interesting read this post. Colours can indeed do a lot to how you perceive things, making things more shiny, dark or bright, colours do make a difference, also in museums. I’ve often walked through museums thinking that the lightning and decoration could have been better, but never considered the colours that much. Now when I read your post, I started to think and our visit to the National Gallery in London crossed my mind. Somehow the paintings didn’t pull me in, although there are some great master-pieces in between. Initially I thought it was because of the crowds, but now I realise the dark colours of most of the rooms also didn’t help for me personally.
    Lydian recently posted..Art Against the Established NormsMy Profile

    • ehalvey replied: — February 5th, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

      That’s how I feel about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston. The darker rooms don’t invite me to look at the art closer, except for the medieval stained glass “chapel” since the window is so bright against the dark walls.

  4. 4

    The Wanderfull Traveler — February 6, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

    It’s an interesting topic. It may not be something we think about but it can be something that reflects our opinions of wether the art was truly worth seeing or not. The atmosphere at the Sistine Chapel put a damper on my visit. Security kept yelling No Photos! while tourists kept on snapping images. We were being herded through like cattle and people kept pushing or running into your ankles with their strollers. To top it off, as you explained, the lighting is very dim so I couldn’t experience the art like you would in a well lit gallery with only a handful of people (without the threats & complaints).

    In Dublin, I had a much better experience with only a few elbows here and there.
    The Wanderfull Traveler recently posted..A Piece of Paris in Canada: Learning to make Macarons with Sandrine French Pastry and Chocolate {Video}My Profile

    • ehalvey replied: — February 7th, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

      Ugh, that echoing “NO PHOTO!”.

      Dublin is always great for the smaller crowds. I’m glad you had a better experience there.

  5. 5

    Christina — February 9, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    What a really interesting topic! You highlight one of the hidden challenges for curators: how to present a work of art in the best light – figuratively and literally!

    The National Gallery of Art redid the Dutch Masters galleries maybe 5 years ago and put up wood wall paneling in all the rooms. I love it! You really pick up the subtlety just you describe in the post and the painting loos very natural and at home. I’m also a big fan of seeing religious are in churches. The lighting, stone, space, etc. is more appropriate than seeing a triptych in a bright gallery.

    So how does this work in practice and how did this play out at your work? Do you try and rate different schemes to find the correct one?
    Christina recently posted..Artsmart Roundtable – Pablo Picasso: Creative ChameleonMy Profile

    • ehalvey replied: — February 9th, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

      Because it’s a house museum, we cannot change the wall colors. We’re about to put a small exhibit up in our Great Hall which has ornate pink wallpaper, but it’s north facing so the light is dim enough to keep it from really competing. Plus all the photos and pales are on moveable pedestals covered in a dark red felt.

  6. 6

    Ashley — February 13, 2014 @ 5:06 am

    I love when museums move past the white-walled galleries and experiment with color in the galleries. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen uses really vibrant wall colors in its galleries of French Impressionist paintings and it was amazing! The colors worked so well with the artworks and really made for an exciting environment (okay, probably not exciting for everyone…haha…but I was really impressed).
    Ashley recently posted..Yayoi Kusama and NaoshimaMy Profile

    • ehalvey replied: — February 13th, 2014 @ 9:37 am

      I wanted to see the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek but didn’t have time (made it to the Carlsberg Brewery though).

  7. 7

    Jeff Titelius — February 18, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

    How fascinating indeed that most of us don’t even consider the backgrounds when we view art in the museums. Personally, I am drawn the works and hone in on those immediately but stepping back to see the big picture as you pointed out above makes a whole lot of sense. From this point forward, I will always consider how the works are presented and if their settings can be improved. Very enlightening post my friend.
    Jeff Titelius recently posted..ArtSmart Roundtable: Danube river cruise – contrast in scenery, architecture and timeMy Profile

    • ehalvey replied: — February 20th, 2014 @ 8:58 am

      Thanks! The museum on campus was redone on the interior when a new classical curator started. It made all the cream marble pieces really pop instead on blending in.

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