A Clarion Call for Daylight in Picture Galleries by Kirk Richards

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A Clarion Call for Daylight in Picture Galleries

by Kirk Richards

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Foreword by Kirk Richards

A recent visit to a major American museum of art resulted in great frustration for me. I was attempting to view a full length portrait by John Singer Sargent which I had never seen before, either in reproduction or in person. I found, however, that no matter where I stood, I could not see the head adequately without glare from the track lighting. I also noted to a friend that it was indeed a shame not to be able to see the colors as they appeared in Sargent's studio, under natural light. The intense yellow light from the bulbs totally neutralized the cools in the painting, and exaggerated the warms. All of the harmonies and color relationships were destroyed by the warm intense light leaving the observant viewer to wonder what the real look of the piece would be as the artist saw it, and to settle for an image not much more satisfactory than an image in a book. I can attest to the incredibly negative effects this sort of lighting has on my own work which is accomplished under natural north light.

Practically every well-made picture painted in the European tradition was produced by daylight, and the artist took it for granted that his work would be displayed under similar conditions. So, he organized his color relations with that in view. Consequently, art museums regularly equipped their picture galleries with skylights, which distributed unadulterated day evenly over the walls on which paintings were to be hung. This form of picture illumination was rapidly standardized and was adopted by first class commercial art galleries everywhere. The contrivance fulfilled its function so perfectly that any infraction of the principle involved drew immediate protests from painters as well as from discriminating picture-lovers. The octogenarian painter who writes these lines can testify that only a few decades ago the internationally recognized able painters who still guided the art would have condemned artificial illumination promptly and categorically. In those not so very distant years, a single publicized gibe from one of these eminent figures would have sufficed to dismantle an offending electrical light fixture overnight and simultaneously to discredit the philistine functionary responsible for its installation.

The preposterously phony electric lighting that currently disgraces all too many leading art museums constitutes a profanation of one of mankind's noblest achievements. The triumphs of Western painting have provoked the wonder and admiration of the civilized world for centuries. Yet we are now aghast to see the very substance of their thaumaturgy pretentiously invalidated and vulgarized by custodians whose primary function should be to demonstrate the dignity of great art to the public. Meretricious lighting is omnipresent. Electricity is sometimes combined with daylight, dappling its pristine purity with orange glints vivid enough to distort the color scheme of a painting. We also find pictures exhibited in semi-obscurity, dispelled here and there by amber colored beams that brighten random areas of the canvases. Elsewhere, paintings flash gaudily in the glare of powerful lamps that emphasize details that would be subdued in the daylight ensemble, and that establish a bright gamut undreamed of by the artist. It is by no means uncommon to encounter a celebrated masterpiece disfigured by the dazzling reflection of an electric bulb, which obliterates the beautiful workmanship of key passages and throws the overall pictorial scheme completely out of kilter. Perhaps the most devastating damage of all is caused by frames, whose cast shadows often reduce the visible area of the enclosed painting by several inches. Before, one supposed that the special relations of every effective pictorial composition were based on enclosing lines carefully calculated by the artist.

The artistic mayhem currently perpetrated in many of our leading museums boggles the mind. It makes abundantly clear how little those in charge comprehend the nature and aims of traditional Western painting (as distinct from the modernist idioms) that flourished from the early Renaissance until well into the nineteen thirties. Its eminent practitioners gave enduring vitality to remarkably diversified messages of the spirit by the intrinsic quality of the pictorial language whereby they voiced their emotional or intellectual intents. Its life giving magic resides in knowingly calculated alliances of shapes, tonal values and colors. Degas defined the gist of the mystery succinctly: "a picture" he used to reiterate, "is an original combination of lines and colors that set each other off." The consequent enchantment stems from those mysterious relationships. By negating them, ill judged lighting breaks the spell and the magic evaporates. Furthermore, this egregious aberration on the part of museum directors has jeopardized the very survival of traditional painting itself. For centuries each rising generation of aspiring art students has turned to the masterpieces of its great predecessors for guidance. Pictures whose high repute has survived many successive studio fads and erratic caprices of fashionable taste establish a norm that exerts a stabilizing influence. These works of art are the fixed stars whereby maturing artists should chart their course, especially in chaotic periods like ours. By displaying such great exemplars transmogrified by bad illumination, the museums falsify the guideposts and lead our talented young astray. The effects of this unconscionable gesture are all too evident in the work of contemporary painters.

A time honored studio adage likens exhibiting fine paintings in bad light to playing great music on instruments that are badly out of tune. How then should we account for the fact that museum visitors accept the conditions I have described so much more meekly than music lovers would tolerate their musical counterparts in the concert hall? Surely the audience reaction to the first bars of a Beethoven symphony bleated by untuned instruments would be swift and strident. Must we conclude that people endowed with a musical ear greatly outnumber those responsive to fine paintings?

Kirk Richards studied with prominent American painter and teacher Richard Lack in Minneapolis from 1976-1980 after earning his BFA and MA degrees in art from West Texas State University.

American muralist, portrait painter, art teacher, and writer on art, was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1893. In 1911, he enrolled in the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was there that he made contact with painters who had been trained in Europe, particularly with William Paxton, who had himself been a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme's at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.