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Lock-down Labels: Giving Galleries That Personal Touch

Elizabeth Walsh on the importance of art becoming a more collective conversation.

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Image Credit: York Museums Trust

It was the lack of people that first struck me when I arrived at the York Art Gallery. Having pre-booked my ticket, I had the privilege of sharing the exhibition room with only a handful of others. Prior to the lockdown, the last gallery I had visited was The National Gallery in London. I clearly recall having to fight my way to the front to get even a glimpse of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. However, this time was different. Without the crowds gathered around each piece, I was more able to appreciate the art : given that I could actually stand in front  of it and snatch more than a fleeting glance.

One of the paintings I admired most was Portrait of a Man Reading a Book by the 16th century artist Parmigianio. Aside from the work itself, what also caught my eye was the label. Instead of the usual factual description setting the scene by giving the time and place in which the work was produced, it provided me with an even greater insight. The thoughts of someone else.

The description began,“this is a character study, not a mere portrait”. A statement which I thoroughly agreed with. The subject's pensive stare into the distance made me want to know more. What book was he reading? What had caused him to be so deep in thought? Glancing back over to the description I was interested to find out that the person behind the label had wanted to know the same thing.

Usually in a gallery, unless you overhear their lively discussions, you don’t often get to learn what other people around you are thinking. Whether the painting you are intrigued by catches their eye in the same way or if they notice the same aspects as you. The personalised labels written by members of the public and  included in Your Art Gallery- Paintings Chosen by You made the exhibition feel far more intimate.

I was able to  consider my own reactions to the paintings all the while comparing and being inspired by the thoughts of others. It was like having  a conversation with a fellow art- appreciator while remaining in the comfort of my own thoughts. A whole new  dimension was added to the experience in this sense. Often, viewing paintings in a gallery is an individual rather solitary experience. This time I felt much more connected to others. Part of a shared experience, despite there being fewer people physically present.

I would go as far as to say that the labels written by the public, as part of the interactive initiative, were in fact the most memorable takeaway from the exhibition. Many tended to view the art through a pandemic induced lens, seeing their own experiences in the paintings or being reminded of how they felt during the depths of the isolation of lockdown. Whilst making my way round, I was left wondering whether art would ever be viewed as it once was again post-pandemic.

The label that accompanied Barbara Mackenzie-Smith’s The Birdcage was especially moving. The elderly author who revealed that she had been shielding, likened her own experience of the lockdown to that of a caged bird ; suffocating and lonely.

Another comment, albeit one that took a different angle, which moved me further was attached to an abstract Bridget Riley painting. The author of the description concluded, “This feels hopeful.” With the uncertainty of recent times, I find comfort in the fact that art can be viewed as a stable source of hope no matter what else  is going on in the world around us.

Despite being painted in 1948, Barbara Hepworth’s creation Surgeon Waiting was the most relatable. Crafted using oil and graphite on paper, it aptly captures the role of the surgeon, gloved up and ready for duty. Painted the same year as the NHS was founded, it was more deserving than most to feature in the current exhibition. The anonymous description ended with this thought provoking reflection: “ He crosses the timelines, with so many visual references, to his present-day colleagues- masked and ready.” Art truly is timeless. The fact that this piece captures the essence of current events over 70 years later is awe inspiring.

Art is something we should be able to experience together and I feel it needs to become more of a collective conversation. Through interactive initiatives like this one, that have evolved out of  the lockdown, we are moving in the right direction. A lot of art may be priceless but you can certainly put a (personalised) label on it. In doing so the appreciation of artistic genius can be much more widely shared and considered.

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