Oversaturated With Meaning

Errol Morris responds to some of the letters he received about his characteristically excellent seven-part piece "Bamboozling Ourselves" (scroll to the bottom to start at the beginning), about the Vermeer forgeries of Han van Meegeren during the World War II era. The whole thing is full of provocative ideas and well worth your time, but this caught my eye:

I was standing in the Mauritshuis on a visit to The Hague. And there it is, hanging on the wall, one of the most famous paintings in the world, "The Girl with the Pearl Earring." O.K. It was something of a letdown. (I had a similar response to the Mona Lisa and the Botticelli Venus.) It was actually – at least for me – impossible to look at the painting as a painting. Clearly, it has been singled out for a reason, but I am no longer sure of what that reason might be. It is such an iconic image – reproduced hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times – that it is unclear what I am responding to. Is it its transcendent fame; its ubiquity – to the point of kitschiness; its real or imagined value, $100 million, $200 million? Or its provenance? The feeling that I am in the presence of Vermeer. But one thing I know for sure: it is impossible to respond to it as just another painting.

Who hasn't had this reaction before one famous piece of art or another?

6 thoughts on “Oversaturated With Meaning”

  1. Livia Llewellyn

    The Mona Lisa – I laughed when I saw it. After a lifetime of seeing it reproduced and redrawn in virtually every way possible, it seemed so inconsequential and mundane.

  2. Looking at the Mona Lisa–rather, looking at all the people who were looking at the Mona Lisa–reminded me of being at Mass. It was kind of neat.

  3. Yeah, I rushed here to say Mona Lisa also. But I was all, “Dang, that thing is small!
    I bet if the dude had known it was going to be so big, he wouldn’t have made it so small.””

  4. i’ve found myself consistently underwhelmed by picasso’s paintings. if they aren’t too small they’re too large. seeing things reproduced in books and prints changes them; shrinking larger works condenses the space and color, enlarging them “corrects” their flaws in the printing. i have to keep reminding myself that there were the first of their kind, or find some other significance for their taking up wall space. no other painter’s works do that to me.

  5. I am always awed when I see them in the flesh and find that all the nonsense, the crummy reprints, and the parodies evaporate before the real one. But perhaps I have been fortunate enough to stand and study the paintings more or less alone and not be herded through the gallery with a hundred viewers. It was just me, Mona and Leonardo.

  6. Charles N. Brown

    The real paintings have a vibrancy that no reproduction can match. I’ve never been disappointed by seeing a famous painting or sculpture. They show the reproduction can never fully capture the original.
    Charles N. Brown

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