The art of seeing - and the seeing of art

I suppose it's the fruit of a misspent career. It's certainly the result of looking at a good deal of art.

If I see a magpie perched on a five-bar gate in a snow-filled but sunny landscape, I just can't help thinking of Claude Monet.

If I see billowing clouds scudding across a blue summer sky, I think of John Constable.

If I see a man in a bowler hat (though I admit this is a rarer sight these days than spotting a coelacanth, unless you happened to see the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair"), I think of René Magritte.

An enigmatic smile - Leonardo da Vinci. Irises - Vincent van Gogh. A long waterfall - Hokusai.

I am not trying to name-drop; I'm just stating a fact. It's merely a description of something that has happened to me. I'm fascinated by art - by pictures and prints, sculpture and photographs and drawings. Some people leap into song unexpectedly, moved perhaps by a June moon or a blackbird singing in the dead of night. Some hum symphonies whenever possible. I've known people who can recite lines of a poem at the mere prompting of a first word or two. Me, I keep noticing art everywhere in the mundane visible world. I can't stop myself.

I am not apologizing for this strange trait, although I am aware of the need to keep it to myself a lot of the time. I wish I didn't have to. If art isn't something shared or sharable, most of its point vanishes. When I am on common ground with some other art enthusiast, we have a ball.

This is one of the best reasons for art galleries and museums. They are forums. Discussion shops. Places of mutual enjoyment or debate. People who never visit them, almost it seems on principle, like to imagine they are crusty, dusty, and virtually empty places. I have been going to them for years and have never been in a deserted one yet. Today, more than ever, they appear to offer people rare and rich experiences.

When the Tate Modern opened in London, it became, quite astonishingly, a fashionable place to visit. You could hardly move around it for the other people - and it's a massive former power station. It was very far from quiet. Loud discussions and arguments on every hand. I kept bumping into people who said they had never been near a museum before and had thought that "modern art" was simply mad. They were having second thoughts, and were not ashamed to say so.

But when I am talking to a stranger anywhere other than in a gallery, I try a gently insinuated mention of a well-known artist if the conversation turns in that direction, and watch out of the corner of my eye for a hint of recognition or interest. If there isn't, I steer the subject elsewhere.

There still seems to be a lot of inverted snobbery about art. The media, eager to achieve what it thinks is the common touch, too often reflects this attitude. If you mention art, or an artist, except perhaps as a joke (Van Gogh's ear is ideal), you may find yourself accused of giving yourself airs. It is as if we believe that to be educated is to be socially divisive.

The idea dies hard that art enthusiasts and collectors, dealers, curators, and even artists themselves are pretentious, incomprehensible charlatans. Some undoubtedly are. But many whom I have met and known are not. Instead, they find the world of the imagination a rich exploration; and the world of observation, informative. To them, the investigation of color and form, shape and pattern, structure and abstraction is endlessly intriguing - and surprisingly accessible.

To me, art seems to deal with a vivacity of seeing and looking. About noticing. About not taking things for granted. About how we see the world around us.

That's the crux of it. Each artist, looking at an apple on a table, for instance, uses distinct and characteristic eyes. A difference of perception. The painter's hand is used to depict an individual and unmistakable apple that is unlike any other painter's apple. If it is still, in the painting or drawing, recognizably an apple - a Cézanne apple or a Chardin apple, a Picasso apple or a Matisse apple - such recognizable and separate visions of an apple become as revealing as the apple itself - or even more revealing. The apple remains a shared object. But the real subject is the artist and the artist's vision and hand.

And if the apple virtually disappears and becomes color and dimension - the starting point for a painting that has its own life and rules - then these elements are there to be enjoyed on their own account. Why not? The apple has been translated into something else, that's all.

How many ways are there of looking at an apple? It could be an object of sale. It could be a meal. It could be a triumph of horticulture. It could be a home for a bug. A computer. A slogan. A big city. A temptation. It could be a make-do ball to throw for a dog. It could be raw, or cooked, or covered in toffee, or made into a pie or served up as a soufflé. Its aroma could be distilled into a perfume. Or it could be a scientific discovery that falls, with a thump, from the tree.

All these different views of it are different functions for it. All of them are art forms. So, uncomplicatedly, I don't see why it shouldn't also be a painting, a sculpture, a drawing, or a photograph - a Rembrandt, a Rodin, a Renoir or a Rothko. The versatile apple.

To Magritte, an apple was not necessarily an apple

Either René Magritte's painting " La Chambre d'Coute " ("The Listening Room") depicts a very large apple - or a very small room. It is the kind of visual ambiguity that the Belgian artist liked to explore.

The objects in his pictures seem plausible, recognizable, even uninterestingly familiar. He suppresses any attempt to make them his objects, to invest them with his personal vision or style. In this way, he is different from many artists. And yet, his paintings are always full of mysteries, transmutations, and disjunctions of scale.

So convincingly ordinary do the objects in his pictures seem - an apple, floorboards, a window, a plaster ceiling - that Magritte felt the need to point out that what we accept as "real" is just ... our unquestioning acceptance. We willingly believe what we see!

Thus the paradox of one his best-known paintings. It is a scrupulous image of a pipe on a bland background. Immediately under this image are the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" - "This is not a pipe." If it isn't a pipe, what is it? (Especially when all the evidence suggests that Magritte has taken enormous trouble to convince us that it is a pipe.)

Practically speaking, the pipe can't be smoked. It is merely a painting, an image.

Magritte's art persistently questioned, with a kind of disturbing humor, the conventions of painting. One such convention is the way viewers consent to be taken in, to be agreeably fooled into playing along with the artist's game of so-called "realism."

Magritte never went so far as trompe l'oeil, where the eye is, if only temporarily, completely tricked. Instead, he cajoles us into questioning the complicity between artist and viewer. Into asking whether the "objects" our eyes see, in or out of paintings, aren't, after all, mere make-believe.

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