Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Naked and unaware: art voyeurism





Oh yes, you know home-based voyeurism. In Silicon Valley, it’s hard to avoid. To be precise: the practice of walking or driving around beautiful places and marveling at who lives there. And feeling great if it’s you. To wit: Palo Alto’s Crescent Park or Professorville neighborhoods, the entire walled city of Atherton, and the mansions tucked into hillsides up and down the Peninsula along nausea-inducing windy roads (you know, the estates with their own vineyards / go-kart courses / private hiking trails, etc.)

But there’s something that gives me a special thrill beyond even the most breath-taking, palatial monument to Internet wealth. It’s peeking behind the walls at museums before exhibits are open to the public, or art voyeurism. It’s looking underneath the skirts of the museum. It’s naked art.

Seeing a Matisse lying around on a table, idly, without a rigid spotlight cast on it, produces goosebumps. Absent is the bored-yet-watchful guard circling visitors like a shark, waiting to see who steps too close to the artwork. Nor are there prim, proper wall texts from two common schools of art-writing thought: the “hit ‘em with abstract notions of ‘meaning’ and big, Ivy-League vocabulary until they’re awed” or the “dumb it down for a ‘modern’ audience” type of writing. In fact, there’s nothing. Just the work of art.

Sometimes not even a glass case stands between you and a Mesopotamian jar – not impressed? This thing lay in the Iraqi desert for 7,000 years! – or an Impressionist masterpiece. Gee, without the cage it’s usually in, that canvas is prettier than a postcard.

I had a chance to indulge in a little art voyeurism at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. A new exhibit called “Durer to Picasso” is coming. How dreamy-sounding. I've visited Durer's relatively intact 15th-century house in Nuremberg, Germany and stood silently in his chambers, trying to imagine the master heralded for bringing the Italian Renaissance north at his work.


Naturally, I strove to look in at this installation-in-progress. I peered beyond a wall-like divider and saw a table with a canvas on top. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the work itself. But there was the gallery, a little messy, with objects lying about, clearly neither prim nor proper. I was thrilled. I plan to try to get a better look next time. As I left, a grim-faced man wheeled in a cart with something swaddled in white, gauze-y looking material. Who knew what masterpieces lay below? And right near him, school-kids chatted casually, unaware of the unadorned art rolling past.

Another time, at Berlin’s Bode Museum , some exhibits remained incomplete right up to the press debut – shortly before the actual public opening. Oh, the temptation to touch the tiny sculptures, so bare, so inviting, so casually strewn about! (No, I ultimately didn’t.)

For art lovers, the temptation of art voyeurism crosses class lines. If you love art, you may not be immune to the temptation of advanced voyeurism – namely, walking into an incomplete exhibition and assuring yourself that even when you inevitably get caught, it will be worth it. Witness the immensely polite, proper and wealthy Texan, a friend of President Bush in fact, who took me on a visit to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. She grinned guiltily and suggested we just, um, slip right in here to take a peek at the exhibit under construction. Egads! She led the way and we peered at the paintings, up close, raw and without other visitors or a curator telling us how to think about it.

(Not to slight curators – they do really important work. They pour themselves into making an exhibit special and coherent for a wide range of visitors. And often their wall text is essential and helpful, despite the two less-fun categories of writing I describe above. But there’s just something magical about art, undressed.)

So we strolled through the exhibition, just beyond the roped-off area. And when caught, this Texan queen was charming to the guard. And not penitent in the slightest, I should add. "We just wanted a little peek," she said in honeyed voice.

Despite my Kimbell experience, I couldn't actually endorse entering an unfinished installation, given the risks to the art. What if you stumbled over a Picasso and fell smack down on the Demoiselles D'Avignon?! Could you ever forgive yourself? Casino magnate Steve Wynn accidentally elbowed and tore the canvas of Picasso's Le Reve (1932), interrupting a $149 million deal to sell it in 2006. Nevermind the damage to the poor masterpiece itself.

But it's worth a harmless look, a crane of the head. Try it. Go up to an installation-in-progress and peek around the dividers. Sniff about until a guard shoos you away. Getting a sense of the museum without its starched collar, white walls and disciplined aura is a great thing – a real work of art.



Images Creative Commons licensed.

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