In Köln (Cologne) I visited the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the amazing Impressionism exhibition: “Painting Light: The Hidden Techniques of the Impressionists”. (Wie das Licht auf die Leinwand kam). Not only the topic of the exhibition but its layout as a research project and educational undertaking combined the best of European and US-style exhibition work. European exhibitions rarely provide extensive technical background and are geared at an educated visitor who has read multiple books, know the topic from all aspects and possibly has multiple degrees in art history. US exhibitions all too often strive to compete with theme parks in their entertainment value.
Many of the impressionists explored light and worked extensively with all aspects of light. They used technologies based on light from perspective frames to early photography. The researchers and curators used light to discover underlying information within the paintings – from infrared to X-rays. Vincent van Gogh’s Drawbridge at Arles, 1888, oil on canvas, 49.5 x 64.5 cm,
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corbou, shows in the right half an Infrared reflectogram of the under-drawing including the guidelines of the perspective frame (in red).
The exhibition being about images and visualization attracted a highly diversified public and it was very interesting to follow the comments and reactions of different people – almost as in one of the interactive theater productions of the 70s where the public followed
the actors across the stage in an artistic environment that knowingly had positively differentiated itself from a mechanical reproduction of nature. What else to do than take photos of this setting? Being a well-trained museum visitor, I asked the officially looking warden and he responded: “Grundsätzlich nicht” [On principle not] – so it’s illegal to take photos. But why on principle? Did he know what he was talking? Did he understand the impliocations of photography on the impressionists and was worried that any posthumous influence may have a negative impact of some sort?
This means that these photosÂ don’t exist and offer only a rough idea of the exhibition and it’s settings. I considered to run a software filter over the photos to make them look “painted”; one of the many paint programs I had used to have an “Auto-Van-Gogh” feature that instantly would turn everything you selected into a Van Gogh painting.
This good man was not aware how much educational value his unfriendly and disinterested statement contained and how much more interesting the study of the different pieces became.
The catalog is available and recommended even if you cannot see the exhibition. And next time your grab your underpowered cameraphone or overpriced dSLR – think: On Principle Yes.