All of us at some point, in conversation with someone who uses our services, must have wondered, “What are they seeing?” We hear remarks that seem so much at odds with what we as conservators see, be it the insistence a painting has never been touched since it left the artist’s easel (despite the array of patches on its back), or the suggestion that it is much better to replace original, hand-made architectural features with mass market manufactured.
So I decided to look into this phenomenon and see if one could find substance in it and if there was anything we could learn from it. One thing I found early on is that as a conservator I may have the wrong qualifications to do this enquiry any justice; a psychologist should have taken the task on. But I hope you will forgive my shortcomings in the psychiatric region and remain interested in my findings.
Six photographs were selected for this study, all of them parts of paintings, and they were emailed to 95 people. These people were divided into three categories:
1) members of the general public with no conservation or art training but just an interest in art,
2) members of the art world such as dealers, artists, architects, etc.,
3) conservators from a wide array of disciplines within the field.
These photos were accompanied with instructions that asking people to join “an experiment in looking”. The request implied that sufficient time should be allocated to the experiment. The guinea pigs were not asked what the photographs represented but rather what they saw and essentially, what could they GLEAN from looking at them.
Glean. It is a verb. It has two meanings; to gather (something) slowly and carefully in small pieces: to glean information from the newspapers, or to gather (the useful remnants of a crop) from the field after harvesting.
I considered bullet pointing the instructions but felt this may make the task appear more onerous. Not everyone responds to bullet pointed instructions; they look more like orders and knew I was not going to be able to control the way my guinea pigs looked at the photos and I just wanted them to respond and give me their feedback. I received 45 replies back; of these 17 were from the general public, 11 from the art world and 17 from conservators, (8 paintings conservators, and 9 from conservation scientists). Altogether this represented approximately a 43% response, thus I had a fair amount of data. But how was I to analyse it?
Well, the medical profession is a useful place to start. They have looked at how different professions within the medical field look at x-rays in order to cut down the incidence of miss-diagnosis - which is encouraging to anyone who has recently spent time in hospital!
When gathering information from the images, this paper used the medical profession stage classification, dividing the search process into four stages:
Stage 1. Global impression - the initial, very short search using mainly peripheral vision
Stage 2. Discovery search - uses information from stage one and involves a detailed inspection of the image
Stage 3. Reflective search - gathers evidence by cross-referencing other images
Stage 4. Post-search recall - which covers the period when the image is no longer available, and is recalled from memory.
In my study two sorts of answers were received. The one-liners (“Swirls of impasto”, paintings conservator), and then there were those that wrote more, a paragraph, be it a short paragraph (“Impressionist or post-impressionist, don't know why. Circa 1880. Possibly French. Either a cityscape or more likely a mountain village with a parish church on the horizon. Could be during a storm or after a storm - the colours are vivid and lowering, and the clouds are full of movement”, fundraiser).
The ‘paragraph’ people had, of course, gathered more information from the images than those that answered with just one short line - which leads me to wonder how far the one-liners had got through the search stages.
The greater majority of the one-line answers came from the general public, whereas the responses from the members of the art world were divided roughly 60:40, with more one-line responses. Interestingly, most of the paintings’ conservators gave one-line answers whereas conservators in other disciplines gave much more fulsome, wider ranging responses. Following are some examples of responses from conservators:
Raised impasto, possibly over-paint. Paintings Conservator
'Little Fluffy Clouds' - a picture of a cloudy sky over a village in the countryside. Possibly Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century. Thick oil on canvas or wood, brush and flat blade applied. Condition appears sound, but subject to areas of surface loss possibly due to flaking from drying out or delamination from impact damage. Conservator of architectural materials
Perhaps non-painting conservators felt more relaxed about commenting on something outside their discipline or conversely the paintings conservators were less inclined to engage with a photograph that was not actually a painting, or, dare I say it, they weren’t really looking and thinking. Either way I was surprised!
I will now pass on to other ways of looking at the data.
Museums are keen on looking at how we view their exhibits; the debate focuses on the difference between the structured display that enables visitors to understand the historical development of an exhibit and the less structured display with less information intended to encourage a more direct engagement with the exhibit’s aesthetic qualities.
Museum educator Phillip Yenawine has drawn on the work of the cognitive psychologist, Abigale Housen, who has researched the behaviour of museum visitors. As part of her doctoral thesis she developed a well-documented theory of how aesthetic thinking progresses through five stages:
Stage 1. Accountive viewers
Stage 2. Constructive viewers
Stage 3. Classifying viewers
Stage 4. Interpretive viewers
Stage 5. Re- creative viewers.
In order to obtain a useful structure to interpret the study, I have considerably simplified Housen’s theory, for which I apologise to her. Re-creative viewers have a long history of viewing and reflecting on art. Time is key and allows them to know a work of art intimately; its history, its travels, its intricacies. They combine personal reflection with universal concerns. However, as none of our guinea pigs knew any of the paintings, none of them could get to that stage! In Housen’s Stage 1, the accountive viewers are the storytellers. They seek a narrative. What is the picture of? Constructive viewers look more for a structure to their viewing and technique and knowing how the work is made can help them do this. Classifying viewers classify the work of art. They want to identify a place, school, style, date and provenance for a piece. Interpretive viewers allow a personal emotional response to a work to bring out underlying meanings. What is the verdict?
Accountive viewers: with the first photo, 16 out of the 17 members of the public saw this photograph as accountive viewers. They saw a sky, a tree and part of a cityscape. All of the responders from the art world category also saw it accountively.
13 out of the 17 conservators also saw it as accountive viewers. Who among the conservators did not see the sky or the tree? They were paintings conservators!
Constructive viewers: not surprisingly all 17 of the conservators referred to techniques and perhaps here is the heart of our communication problem. We think just a little too much in terms of technique and do not consider other ways of viewing and communicating. Only 3 of the 7 paintings’ conservators saw both the narrative image and the technique it was painted in. Most conservators saw the image only in technical terms. Of the art-loving general public only 2 mention technique, but by referring to textures and basic composition.
Only 3 members of the art world referred to technique and when they did, they did not have anywhere near as detailed an engagement technique-wise as did the conservators.
Classifying viewing: As you progress through Housen’s stages, as you would expect, the numbers of responses in the upper categories diminishes.
4 of the 17 members of the public tried to put a date, school, artist such the example from the fundraiser used earlier in this paper.
3 of the 11 members of the art world tried assigning a date or a school or an artist – Van Gogh was the main candidate although the painting is from a different artist working in the late 19th and early 20th century in a post-impressionist style.
3 of the conservators suggested dates, Van Gogh again as the artist and mentioned ‘impressionist’ as the style. None of the paintings conservators did!
Interpretive viewing: Here my inexperience as a psychologist comes out as I found this view harder to assign to answers. I tended to apply it if someone said they liked the image, gave it a title, used words like ‘stormy’, ‘tumultuous’, or referred to the tree as a “gash of dried congealed blood”! At any rate I think an interpretive response looks like this:
“Keep out ... don`t touch!” - Architect.
“A traveller pauses ......reassured to see the all-important landmark ahead”. Architect
“First impression was a nice aerial shot of a coast line, with graduations in depth of water then I noticed the black/red gash which looked like a bit like a bit of artery but with dried congealed blood on it – changed the perception to not comfortable. Then looked at it again and realised it was a cloudscape with an urban roof-line and a big tree and felt much happier. Not sure whether it was the poor quality of the computer image that resulted in initial mistake.” - Architect.
The second photo, followed closely the pattern of the first image scoring highly in accountative viewers responses.
The third photograph was taken under ultra violet light and was included as it is often cited as an infallible way to tell the condition of a painting, particularly by non-conservators.
However, only one member of the art world recognised it as a UV photo, none of the general public did, and surprisingly 10 out of the 17 conservators knew it was a UV photo. One particular response read:
“Pure abstract - various shades of blue, first streaks of cobalt over ultramarine (maybe), then transparent over opaque”. Paintings Conservator.
On the other hand I, personally, cannot see how this image could have been interpreted narratively – that is until I got back the replies!
12 members of the general public interpreted it as a mask, a face or a lake:
“It appears to be a translucent curtain through which you may glean an ephemeral boat on a lake: again, viewed from afar it could be part of a dress”. Gilder.
Photograph 4 – again how could anyone interpret this other than technically – right? - Wrong!
It was seen as bark, a gravestone, and an ancient rock face on a sandy shore. It shows us the persistence of narrative viewing! The art world and the conservators did view it predominantly in technical terms, though one conservator mentioned that ‘the image is nearly indecipherable’ indicating they may have at least tried to see it in narrative terms.
This is not altogether bad as narrative viewing, we now see, is the predominant way of viewing.
Photograph N.5. This is an oblique view of a building painted by Maurice Utrillo. I am telling you this because its interpretation proved rather Freudian – it never occurred to me to see the windows as phallic symbols!!
“Phallic symbols on an old stone wall part of an archaeological dig” Historic Monument Owner.
“Erect male members”. Fine Art Shipper.
Finally photograph N.6; among the public this image was seen as an object, a box or a book. Conservators saw it technically as a collage, discoloured varnish or an oil layer. Nine art world responses were technical with only four spotting that the writing might be Cyrillic hence it might have something to do with the Russian Avant-garde. The original reason I took this photo was for the presence of bubbling paint. One member of the general public flagged it, but none of the art world and only four conservators noted the bubbles.
This is a superficial study. I cannot call it anything else and its shortcoming is evident. But even without a more wide-ranging, deeper enquiry it tells us that what one might think is apparent to everyone, that all can see whatever it is, is simply not so. Not even conservators can agree on what they see!
By and large conservators see things in constructive and/or classifying ways, above the greater majority of people who see things accountatively, in narrative terms. We are often simply talking over many of our service user’s heads! We speak a different language to them.
Critical perception is a separate academic field with its own literature and studies.
If we want to raise the profile of the profession we have to take this on board.
• Christopher Lloyd
• Alexandra Gent
• And a cast of anonymous guinea pigs!
All images in this article are from Clare Finn. We are grateful to DACS for their permission to print two of them.