Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. The museum is dedicated to the life and work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.
The Composition of Art and Sight
by Lilli Cavey
The first time I went to an art gallery I was about fifteen years old. I didn’t know what to expect, how to act, or what I was going to visually consume, and I didn’t really care enough to find out before I went inside. My family dragged me into this trip to this gallery in the middle of San Francisco, a trip that I had no interest in going on and no intention of enjoying. Although, as I walked into that museum, it’s like I could see for the first time. Huge paintings with blues and golds and filled with immense and intense emotions filled the walls. Patterns and colors and creativity and passion filled the canvases and were engraved in every layer of paint. My eyes filled with tears as I had never been moved like this before in my fifteen years of life. The things I was seeing were so beautiful and visually compelling. This kind of visual overload changed me as a person and put me in contact with the world of art, a world I never wanted to leave, but didn’t know quite how to enter either.
The visual effects art can leave you with, like it did me, can be quite amazing. Viewing art can inspire and provoke an incredible emotional response in us, but it can also have immense health benefits. A study was done in Norway that asked more than 50,000 men and women about their participation in attending galleries and museums. The study shows “a definite correlation between participating in cultural activities—like viewing and creating art—and having increased rates of good health, satisfaction with one’s life, and lower rates of anxiety and depression in both men and women.”1 Participating in the group we identify with by attending visual representations of composition, value, space, and color can open our minds to creativity and can help our mental and physical health overall.
Art has been known to impact students and their level of cognitive retention. Think about when you take notes or when you annotate an article or reading, when we add images and color to our work, we tend to retain it more. A survey was done at the University of Arkansas in 2014 after students from the school took a trip to an art museum. The study showed that 70-88% of the students remembered facts from the tours they took and “students also displayed improved critical thinking skills as well as gains in tolerance and historical empathy following the trip.”2 This study alone shows the benefits that art has on our development as students and the advantages it can add to our cognitive abilities.
Viewing art can make us want to become involved in the communities within the art world and this can help us feel more like we belong. I personally identify with the group labeled “art-lover” but this has many meanings to it. It means I create art, but it also means viewing, analysing, identifying elements of art and time periods/movements from which a piece came. This aspect of art isn't the most fun part, but it makes me understand the world around me with a more clear lens. The visual representations of emotions from different cultures from different times in history help me make sense of the art styles that came from that era. The subjects and depictions of wealth and class through portraits, the depiction of scenery through landscape pieces, the complex biology of the human body through nude sculptures and paintings, all visually have an effect on the many changes of art throughout history. These depictions and differences can be identified when analyzing art within a group and the discussions that can go on can be very passionate and intriguing.
Art that can be viewed in museums and can be consumed in galleries is curated to create a culture in which there is one shared aspect, perception. The way we take in art and interpret it is a very important factor in the visualization of art pieces. After reading “Installation Art in the New Millennium”, a book by Jonathan Crary, I realize that true art lies in the viewer's capability to experience it. To view art is one thing, to actually perceive it, analyze it, and discuss it within the group you belong to is another. “...art is a genre of media that is entirely directed towards the viewer…”3 Crary writes of the genre of installation art. This type of art sets a scene for the viewer to digest, it often involves the composition of space and the significance of viewpoint. It also often involves audience participation. This means that the viewer has to be willing to engage with art on another level, a level past visual consumption.
Edvard Munch, "The Scream" (1893), oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 91 x 73 cm, National Gallery of Norway, Oslo, Norway
There are also many limitations to the ability to perceive and analyze art. Viewing art is subjective and is based on personal understanding of the intertwining of vision and experience. These capabilities and understandings though, are sometimes out of reach for someone. There are people outside our personal groups who can’t identify emotion or color or make connections between art and their life. There are people who have cognitive blocks or too much mental preoccupation to think of a piece of art as anything more than paint on a canvas. There are people who live in communities where art and galleries are not available to them. The ability to contemplate and challenge ourselves creatively is a process that some people are fortunate enough to have, and some are left without this opportunity. But being open minded to those outside of our tight-knit communities who don’t or can’t understand art on a level outside visual consumption is very significant.
An interview I conducted with my mother, a licensed healthcare professional, was based on the art that her patients create. The people that my mother takes care of have mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar, personality disorders, and manic depression. The first question I asked her was “Does art create an outlet for your clients?” She responded with “For some, yes, it is super important to a few of them. It depends on the level of their mental stability. . . For a few people that I work with, it is really the only way for them to express some of their frustrations, and some of their thought disorders come out in very creative ways.” My follow-up question was “What does this type of “mental relief” art look like, what kind of visuals are present?” she replies, “Sometimes it can be nonsensical shapes, distorted portraits with lots of colors... and other times it can be abstract, but it's always very raw.” “Their art is nonintentional; it just pours out of them when they need an extra outlet”. These simple questions I asked my mother about her experiences in her profession were very profound to me. They represent the expressive outlets that art can hold for some individuals in very difficult mental states. The visuals in the patients' head that come with the side effects of some of these mental disorders come out onto paper in a perceptible way, and to me, and to her, it is very intriguing and can tell a lot about the inner turmoil that they experience.
Vincent Van Gogh, "At Eternity's Gate" (1890), oil on canvas, 31.5" × 21.2", Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
Some of the most famous artists in the world like Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, and Edvard Munch struggled with mental illness. The visual outcomes that came from these struggles were profound and very much recognized in the world of art and art history. Although these artworks were famous, many do not know about the emotion that is meant to be expressed as a call for help. One piece of art done by Van Gogh that can be visually analyzed is called At Eternity’s Gate (1890). The subject depicts an old man clutching his face in sorrow or frustration. The colors represented are deep blues and browns, making this piece feel somber. The tone is cumbersome and somber, there is personal formal frustrations depicted. The perspective draws your eyes directly to the subject (portrait of Van Gogh), sitting in a chair, in an empty room, forcing you to look directly at the person sitting in front of you. The audience is directed towards anyone who would listen to his cry for help, as he was suffering at this time in his life. The purpose behind this painting is to inform those who were viewing his work that this was the end of his life. The genre of this piece is an impressionist self-portrait with intense emotion. Finally, the context of this piece represents the mental and physical health struggles that Van Gogh had at the end of his life. This piece was done in 1890, so there is very much a historical aspect to it as well. Analyzing a piece of art using these techniques will help us understand the artist's intentions and help us organize the components of a painting that go beyond just the visual aspect.4
Viewing art and analyzing what it represents can help us better understand our place in this world and in the group we identify with. There are many benefits, both physically and mentally to viewing and creating art and it can have profound effects on the quality of our lives. Mental illness and the inability to receive messages that are portrayed in this world are also aspects of art that must be recognized. Art creates a complex culture through perception and experience and can spark analysis and intellectual discussion within the groups that we find ourselves involved in. My advice to anyone is to go to as many galleries and museums as you can and immerse yourself in cultural activities to benefit yourself and your health. Create art as often as possible to let out the inner turmoil's that life leaves on you and find art that moves you. Find a community that finds beauty in the same experiences you do and hold on to that group until you can navigate yourself through life and the world of art.
Lilli Cavey – First-Year Art History major, studying at Sonoma State University, involved in extensive studio art and art history courses. She has received many scholarships for her art works and writing. She aspires to become a gallery owner or museum curator as her passion for historical art and artists drives her to achieve her goals.
1.& 2. Park West Gallery, “Art and Health: The Real-World Benefits of Viewing Art.” Published by Park West Gallery, December 14, 2020, https://www.parkwestgallery.com/art-and-health-the-benefits-of-viewing-a...
3. Oliveira, Nicolas de, et al. Installation Art in the New Millenium: The Empire of the Senses. Thames & Hudson, 2004.
4. At Eternity's Gate, 1890 by Vincent Van Gogh, https://www.vincentvangogh.org/at-eternitys-gate.jsp.