I’ve never been a great one for admiring beautiful views. I don’t know why. They’ve just never moved me. Sunsets… meh. London’s skyline, complete with Gherkin and Shard a-glistening… meh. Snow-covered mountains observed whilst climbing in Scotland… meh. All a bit strange, isn’t it?
And if views have failed to work on me, then you’ll believe me when I say that pictures have moved me even less. I’ve always tended to be more of a words and ideas sort of person. Then, one day, something changed; I had a pictorial revelation!
Picture the scene – there I am (a young man with brown hair, blue eyes and a reflective disposition) feeling somewhat miserable. I take comfort in a sitcom, The Office (original, UK version), which I begin to watch on my laptop. As I half-consciously take in the familiar introduction, I am grabbed rather forcibly by one of the opening shots. (You may recall this montage of misery that opens every episode – a sequence of grey dual carriageways, grey roundabouts and grey, mid to late 20th century office buildings.) I rewind the sequence, play it again and take a screen-grab of a particular shot (pictured above). In it, a road carries the eye out into the dismal distance, a roundabout forms a centrepiece, cars flow down towards one like boats on a murky river and a damp-looking brown wall cuts across the foreground – just to pull us in and make us feel we’re really in this world, not comfortably observing it from outside the frame.
This, then, was my revelation – this dreary picture of provincial, workaday England. And I loved it. I took that screen-grab and set it as my desktop background. And so began my relationship with this picture – I looked at it every day and felt strangely cheered. Yes, cheered, uplifted and comforted.
What was it that was happening to me? This wasn’t a book! This wasn’t words! This was an image – the art form I’d formerly dismissed as concerning merely the surface of life. Ah, but this picture spoke a thousand words! It summarised so many thoughts, attitudes and experiences in one fell swoop. It was an instant communication of a mass of ideas that would take pages and pages to convey in writing.
This, clearly, was what pictures were supposed to be all about. This, was the kind of relationship that I had tried to forge with art, through all those gallery visits, through all those hours spent browsing WikiArt, through all that time spent painstakingly reading Art History and watching interviews of artists. Finally, in this roundabout way (quite literally), I had “got it”!
Why, then, of all pictures, should this one speak to me so? Surely there was something amiss with a man who took pleasure in such a miserable scene? Well… no, not at all. Haven’t painters been painting miserable scenes since the beginning of time? Isn’t the Mona Lisa, one of the best-known pictures in the world, celebrated for its touch of melancholy? Isn’t there a great tradition of the Memento Mori running through the history of art? Aren’t Francis Bacon’s pictures sheer visions of darkness?
The fact is that there is, and always has been, something strangely comforting in miserable pictures. It can be extremely consoling to see that life is miserable.
Of course, time spent with such pictures should, like everything we do, be carefully balanced. I always remember how Foucault, the French philosopher, famously ornamented his room as a student with Goya’s scenes of war and torture. Foucault had a very troubled time as an undergraduate and I’m sure these pictures didn’t help.
But with this warning clearly in mind, I am now proceeding to engage with other pictures and to value art as highly as words. I am excited to see where my interest takes me and would encourage anyone who is yet to quite “get” art, to look beyond the formal art world and realise that any image is a picture – be it a shot in a film, a frame in a computer game, or even the packaging of a Pot Noodle! My pictorial journey continues….