by Jeanne Beck
This is the first in a series of monthly posts responding to Terry Barrett’s book, Interpreting Art: Reflecting, Wondering and Responding, chapter by chapter. You are welcome to read along and add your ideas to Barrett’s (or mine!) or relate how the ideas in the book influence your reactions to your own or others’ works.
Chapter 1: About Interpretation: Renee Magritte
Terry Barrett, an art education professor at Ohio State University, guides the reader through an examination of Renee Magritte’s (1898-1967) painting “The Postcard” (1960).
Barrett investigates this painting in relationship to the imagery in some of Magritte’s other works, the Surrealist movement of this time period and Magritte’s personal history and ideas about his art. Choosing a widely known artist and richly symbolic piece of art helps Barrett raise questions and gather insights that aid in interpreting a work of art. Throughout the chapter the author emphasizes that thoughtfully interpreting and responding to a work of art are what make it meaningful.
I won’t restate the detailed observations from multiple sources that include Barrett, writer and art critic Suzi Gablik and French philosopher and psychologist Michel Foucault. However, a brief summary of important basic points from each chapter can help us carry the important points the author makes with us as we observe and respond to other artists’ works.
According to Barrett, we engage in the process of making a working of art meaningful by direct observation of the work and observing the elements it contains. We broaden our engagement with the work by exploring and placing it in a variety of contexts: the time period it was created, the artistic movements of the day, the artist’s whole body of work, the relationship of this one work to the others, the artist’s personal history and philosophy and other artists that have or had an influence on them.
When we view a work of art, our tendency is to take quick look, decide whether we like it or not and move on. In order to truly interpret a work of art, we need to spend time with it. We can then engage in a conversation with it and study it fully and carefully for the clues that reveal information about its composition, materials and references as well as the intentions of its creator. Interpretations may be both objective and subjective, as long as the subjective responses relate back to the work.
Here are some questions we might ask to help us begin to interpret an artist’s work. You are welcome to post additions or revisions to this list.
- What are my initial reactions to this work?
- Does it stir an emotional response in me? If so, what emotion and why?
- What are the elements within the composition and how do they relate to one another?
- What do I know about this artist’s other works?
- What do I know about the time period the artist lived in and other artistic movements the artist was involved in or may have been influenced by?
- What historical events were taking place during this time that may have impacted the work of this artist?
- Why did the artist make these choices at this time?
- What ideas did I discover in spending the time to get to know this work?
- Do I feel differently about this work now that I know more about the artist, the time period, the piece itself and its meaning?
Even though Barrett’s first chapter focuses on a particular work by one particular artist, he makes sure to include a variety of sources and opinions other than his own in the discussion. He does this to highlight an important point about interpreting works of art — there is no one definitive interpretation, no matter how exhaustive or thorough, that can be accepted as an ultimate authority on an artist’s work. From high school students and museum goers to professional authors and art critics like Suzi Gablik, who lived with the Magrittes for eight months as part of her research for writing a 1970 book about the artist, each observation and response to the work adds to our understanding. As we become more aware of artists and artistic movements, our observations of one assist us to become more observant of the next. In short, we develop a more sophisticated way of viewing and responding to the artists and work that we see and become engaged in the ideas and philosophies behind the actual work.
If you want to take this further:
1. Spend some time making lists of every observation/attribute mentioned about Magritte and this specific painting in this chapter.
2. Select another work by a different Surrealist artist. Make a list of similar observations/interpretations about this piece.
3. Observe and jot notes down about how reading this chapter influences your own perceptions as you view other art works, including your own, this month.
Next month: In Chapter Two, Barrett introduces Edouard Manet’s painting, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” and the idea of multiple interpretations and reactions, both positive and negative, to a particular work.
(Jeanne Beck, www.jeannebeck.com, is an artist, writer and teacher who lives in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.)