Thursday, 14 August 2014

Mona Lisa smile – please!

Have you ever wanted to take a photograph in a gallery – and found that you couldn’t?

While many museums and galleries do ban any photography, others don’t. Still others allow some – Tate Modern, for instance, will allow visitors to snap the permanent exhibits, but not the special exhibitions.

But the announcement that, in future, the National Gallery in London is to allow photography has inspired indignation from some visitors, and allowed the Telegraph to provoke a small measure of ire, as well as agreement, in an opinion piece on the decision.

In one sense, it’s quite amusing that publicising a quiet decision – made in part because it’s increasingly difficult for staff to know whether a visitor is using an electronic device to photograph an exhibit or look for information about it – might actually increase the likelihood of people now taking pictures in the gallery by raising awareness of it.

The issue, however, is not really about photographing exhibits, but in many ways, about what galleries are for and how we look at art and what we expect or want from art.

There’s nothing wrong per se with photography in a gallery. Allowing photography doesn’t suddenly mean that every painting is going to be obscured by people taking snaps of it – with or without the added ‘selfie’ element.

Some might ask why you’d photograph anything in a gallery.  

I do so on occasion – almost always for later reference. Many galleries don’t have general catalogues or postcards of every single work. And that’s particularly true of smaller galleries outside major cities.

Sometimes I might make notes – on my phone or even (say it quietly) in a little, old-fashioned notebook. With a pen.

But sometimes, when it’s less likely that you’ll be able to find a reproduction online, a might take a snap.

As an interesting contrast, in Paris, photography is banned in the Orangerie and the Orsay, but not in the Pompidou.

On a personal level, it was helpful in July, in the latter, to be able to take a few photos – and I didn’t get in the way of anybody else and nobody got in my way.

I don’t think it made any difference not to be able to in the Orsay, but in the Orangerie, where there’s a specific effort to create a peaceful, almost meditative space around Monet’s vast Nymphéas canvases, it would have been totally out of place.

There is an element of snobbery involved in at least some of the complaints. Nobody, I suspect, grouches about a visitor sitting quietly in a gallery and sketching a work.

That, of course, has a sort of discipline about it – it was one aspect of a traditional art education, so has a certain ‘legitimacy’.

The big problem in major galleries, though, is not photography, but overcrowding. And I mean when it’s 10 deep near a famous work.

Scrum at The Night Watch
Then, as I’ve said before, I do start feeling irritated by the ‘selfie with Rembrandt’ syndrome, as it occurred when we were visiting the Rijksmuseum last year and you had no chance of really seeing The Night Watch and a bloody struggle to get near any Vermeer.

I actually had to get rather rude myself and push through a crowd, pulling The Other Half behind, so that he could actually get to see The Milkmaid, which he loves.

Equally, when visiting the Courtauld in London last year, I was revelling in being alone in the gallery of gothic and medieval works, when the door opened and a group of tourists flooded in and I was pushed out of the way so that people could start snapping the exhibits.

I fled upstairs, only to be interrupted by them again as their guide nearly sprinted them around the place, barely allowing enough time to cast more than a cursory glance at anything – oh, apart from taking pictures of each other in front of Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve, making crass gestures at the picture.

This is not a question of expecting people to genuflect toward works of art, but of basic good manners and a little bit of respect for the others you’re sharing a gallery space with.

In the Courtauld, I eventually sat it out in the Cézanne room. There are worse things in life.

But it begged a question that why people visit galleries – particularly in those sort of groups – and what art is for.

Is art simply another commodity – an attraction to boost tourism, for instance? Or does it have a value beyond that? In our price-of-everything-value-of-nothing world, I suggest that there is clash between these two.

If, as Picasso said, “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”, then that implies the need for some sort of contemplation. In the Orangerie, with those Monets, it could hardly be truer.

I get the sense that, with the likes of that Courtauld group – and others I’ve seen being dragged around cities on tours, led by bored individuals carrying a brolly or a plastic flower aloft to identify themselves – this is tick-box tourism and has nothing to do with really seeing or experiencing what they’re looking at.

At the heart of this, ultimately, is the gross over-commercialisation of our society, with its attitude of instant gratification and the dumbing down that goes with that.

These are problems that spread across all sorts of realms of life, not just art, but one small illustration of it is the use of ‘selfie’ to describe a self-portrait by someone like Rembrandt, effectively removing any appreciation of the skill involved or even what self-portraiture is really about.

Not that this should be any surprise. After all, concentration camps are on tourists trails these days, while visitors stand grinning as they’re photographed next to the statue of Anne Frank outside the Westerkerk in Amsterdam.

And all this works in combination with the technical/digital revolution, leading to a world in which people visit cultural icons – not to look at them and wonder at what made them such, but, in effect, to digitally play a version of I spy, before moving rapidly to the next one.

There is another problem with that. Let’s shrug our shoulders and say that, well, if someone wants to race around a gallery and merely glance at stuff, then that’s up to them and they are free to do so.

Which is entirely true, of course.

But at what point does the sort of behaviour and crowd chaos outlined above become unacceptable where it impinges on the experience of other visitors?

You can ask the same question another way: why should someone have the right to play their music so loudly that all their neighbours have no choice but to hear it too?

Those are the problems: not photographing the exhibits in galleries.


  1. I do wonder if these people who are hellbent on recording every last detail of their daily lives actually 'see' what they are photographing.

    1. Nailed in a brief sentence, Sally. Absolutely spot on.