I was face to face with the Abaporu and I barely looked at it

I was face to face with the Abaporu and I barely looked at it

“And what can I do with it if in the room there’s a line to take selfies with the painting, if there’s a bulletproof glass between me and the painting and the lights of the gallery prevents me from seeing the canvas?”

Since a small child I learned in school to recognize and value Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings, but they never put me closer to it, I never got closer to it’s huge idealistic pedestal, I wasn’t even told that I could do it. I speak like that because I know that my formative experience is common to most student who some (if any) contact with arts classes in their earlier years

Mauá Square as seen from the MAR.

And at August 2nd I got myself face to face with two of her most iconic paintings, Anthropophaghy and Abaporu. It would be dishonest on my behalf if I acted like my academic formation and my artistic interests kept me in the same childish level of innocence/ignorance after all these years. When I got the exposition “The color of Brazil” at the Arte museum of Rio (MAR), it’s wasn’t as a layman, much less as a someone who causally deals with art. I went there very interested in studying the involvement of the visitor and the experience museums proportionate to the public.

With Rio de Janeiro about to host the Olympic Games and the city full of tourists, there in the museum I found the same crowd filled with energy, joy and curiosity. Still, few of them were there due to the exposition opening that day with great brazilian artists displayed, many people walked around these works like they were the same as the others, which do not desserve less attention, but this absence of mind or indifference were na extension of environment. Located in the Mauá Square, now part of the Olympic Boulevard, the public divided itself between the MAR and Museum of Tomorrow in huge lines, maybe without knowing exactly what to expect from these institutions beyond the photos they were about to make with the artworks and the exotic architecture of both the museums.

What’s a museum?

Considering only what’s too obvious makes it easy to blame the public for not paying attention, for being too casual and superficial, however, it’s important to investigate how the museum gets involved in this experience.

Rio Art Museum (MAR).

Rio Art Museum (MAR).

An interesting starting point is to observe the image and the expected funtion assumed by museums nowadays. The secularization of the western society seems to be connected with the ascension of the museums as they come to have reverenced and meaningful objects and the religions face a symbolic emptying, therefore part of the value atributed to museums comes from a transference of this deep human need, be it psychological or spiritual, which we want solved by a secular art.

The consequence of this art valorization is the elevated status assigned to museums today as holders of a invaluable cultural patrimony and the obscene pricing of these originals hanged in museums and houses and galleries of certain millionaires. Something so important creates a complicated situation for the visitors who want to get closer and actually understand the importance of art to our lives. Complicated because we revere the museum and the things in it, we treasure all those works and we learn that only a few illuminated people can create those incredible objects, but how can we understand Tarsila if we consider her to be so different and superior? How can we dive in Di Cavalcanti’s paintings if we considers ourselves unable to do it because the essential can only be seen by specialists? In the museums the only help comes from these almost catalographic texts explaining the collection the small plates telling us about dates, artist and material.

At the museum, facing the vibrant colors of the huge cannibal I couldn’t care less about year, ink and owner. I see a huge and absurd creature in a simple, almost schematic, environment, with colors I know familiar to my daily life, but also familiar to everything official and canon about Brazil. And what can I do with it if in the room there’s a line to take selfies with the painting, if there’s a bulletproof glass between me and the painting and the lights of the gallery prevents me from seeing the canvas? I wait until they stop taking selfies and leave, but there’s no seat or something like that also, because apparently they didn’t think any viewer may need more time and confort to do a deeper evaluation of the painting.

MAR isn’t a problem, it isn’t about crucifying an individual museum when in reality it’s a pattern. The exhibitions are risking being only this, art showcases, where the most intelligent visitor is the one photographing the small plates, so later he can research about it and find a digital version to analyse, interpet and really bring it to his life and mind routines.

To talk about art

Before going ahead I have to make it clear that I recognize many functions exercised by museums beyond this one I’m discussing. I understand that the museum is also an institution responsible by reasearch, restoration and many other essential cultural and academic activities which by themselves justify the existence of dedicated entities. But if I’m dealing only with the contact of the visitor with the collection it isn’t due to unawareness or to attack a weak spot, it’s because I want to discuss the layman experience and not the museum as a whole. I understand It’s impossible to think the museum without these other aspects, but I’m leaving them to another opportunity.

This “experience” I’m talking about isn’t necessarily attached to any academic limitation. I consider it openly knowing there’s a multiplicity of manners through which we can relate to art, therefore I’m thinking about how to make it possible, independent of the form. I believe this contact happens when art becomes revelant in someone’s life.

An example of this situation is when we feel sad and listen to depressing music which in principle would only deepen the problem, but in reality it help us, through a momento of introspection, to elaborate that feeling because they guide us and work as a meditative framework for the mind. We understand music because in shows we’re allowed to dance, sing, drink and use drugs, there’s no pomposity or reverence before music, we listen it a tour homes and in the bus. It’s true that it may prevent us from completely enjoying it at all times, but we must admit it’s constant presence and familiarity is better than an overly serious approach.

Complexities, obstacles and a light at the end?

Rothko Chapel.

The museum, like a cathedral,should prioritize the personal experience and the relationship with the artworks before attempting to become a touristic icon. An example of how to do this is the Rothko Chapel, located in Houston, built with the painter to be a contemplative space now displaying 14 of his black paintings. In the chapel Rothko’s paintings work as tools to create a space able to guide reflection and the visitor’s introspection. The investment to create something more elaborate isn’t necessarily a problem, or shouldn’t be, if we consider that only the Abaporu’s insurance costed almost 300 thousands dollars, according to Jones Bergamin, presidente-director of the Rio Art Stock Exchange.

We still have to discover if museums really are capable of making this change since everything is result of a complex conjuncture raging from economic, cultural and political questions. With na international art market breaking records at auctions, a government using art as a spectacle and the lack of mass art education, it’s no surprise that museums struggle being in the middle of the crossed fire, in one side our huge expectations and in ther other the limitating environment they’re submerged.

While these questions remains open, we must occupy the spaces offering some valuable experiences despite the obstacles. To see art not as something to consume but as something alive we need to get hold of so it don’t become only a museum piece, disponible for selfies. In all it’s weirdness the Abaporu still have a tremendous intensity, of roots, of a growing towards the earth and a serenity profound even for such a powerful figure. If there’s something Tarsila do Amaral taught us is how we are able alone and there’s greatnesse even in the smaller things. It doesn’t matter what’s expected from us, we can always create if we’re brave enough to try,