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Interview: Susan Woodford's Guide to Enjoying Art

Posted on 10 Apr 2019

When it comes to looking at pictures, where do you start? This is the question that Susan Woodford answers with deft candour in her ‘Art Essentials’ title, 'Looking at Pictures'. We sat down with Susan to discuss what people ‘need to know’ to enjoy art.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, c.1495-8 Tmpera on gesso (post-restoration), 460 x 880cm. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

The beautifully illustrated and endlessly accessible, Looking at Pictures guides the reader on a journey through art from cave paintings to contemporary art, following a well-signposted route and pausing frequently to admire the view.

A Harvard-educated scholar of classical art, Susan Woodford has written acclaimed volumes on Greek and Roman art, including An Introduction to Greek Art and Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity. For Susan, being able to understand art and relate it to the world around us helps us get the most out of looking at pictures. Teaching is important to Susan, so we asked, with Looking at Pictures in their pocket, can anybody become a student of art?

“Although anybody can look at pictures and enjoy them,” says Susan, “Some people are intimidated by galleries and anxious that they may not be able to appreciate what they see, while others are reluctant to go to galleries fearing they will not understand or even like the pictures.” Then there is a third group, who already enjoy looking at pictures, but “suspect there is something more to them than just what meets the eye.” If any of this resonates with you, then Looking at Pictures might just be your skeleton key to some of the world’s most iconic collections.

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814. Oil on canvas, 266 x 345. Museo del Prado, Madrid

There’s only a couple of millennia of art history stretching back behind us – what’s intimidating about that? Where, within that jungle of knowledge, is the best place to start for those who are, in Susan’s words, “interested but scared”?
For Susan, the answer was obvious: “I have tried to make [Looking at Pictures] into the book I would have liked to have had when I first started looking at pictures”. The book romps through the long and lofty history of art, skilfully showcasing the highlights of every artistic regeneration without asking the reader to flick frantically from page to page, wondering when Rembrandt became Renoir and what exactly a Jackson Pollock is. Susan purposefully grouped her images within chapters that were “easy for people to get into and relate to”, such as History & Mythology and Hidden Meanings. A mental datebook of art history will not help a beginner enjoy and understand looking at pictures, believes Susan Woodford, so rather than dragging the reader through art history era by era, the writer demonstrates art’s timelessness. Common themes and methods link artists together through the centuries. The key to looking at pictures is being able to identify and understand the traditions that comprise an artistic ancestry. “Art is constantly being made new and original when artists borrow from tradition”, says Susan, “This is a natural consequence of changing historical contexts and viewers’ perceptions. The reuse and transformation of traditions provides some of the art most exciting and intellectually stimulating ideas produced by artists”.

Like any good painting, Looking at Pictures satisfies an immediate curiosity, supplies the basic facts with an attractive varnish. But this book is much more than a beginner’s guide to looking at pictures. Again like a painting, it asks questions, encourages the reader to explore art through the lens of their own experience, and, as Susan says, leaves them “in the end both thrilled and awed by the extraordinary quality of truly great paintings”.

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842 Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 122cm Tate, London

The “extraordinary quality” of great art is one that does not need to be understood on an academic level to be appreciated: “the most important part of looking at pictures”, says Susan, “is just the looking”. Context, knowledge, and discussion can alter and enrich a person’s experience of looking at pictures but for Susan, “much of the satisfaction, pleasure and stimulation that comes from looking at pictures arises from the feelings evoked in different viewers”. Part of understanding art is understanding why it makes you feel a certain way. In Looking at Pictures, Susan gives the example of Picasso’s Guernica. A haunting hellscape of wartime destruction, the reaction it provokes in the viewer is entirely organic: the distraught mother with her dead baby, the dismembered limbs, and the screaming figures trapped in an endless escape are unmistakable symbols of pain, independent of the context.

‘Guernica’ may be the ultimate provocative picture, but “for pure visual enjoyment, Van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife is hard to beat”. When I ask Susan if one can ever look at pictures simply for aesthetic pleasure, this is the example she gives. Visually rich with colour and detail, Van Eyck’s portrait exists as an example of how a viewer can be ‘thrilled and awed’ without necessarily needing to understand an image in a scholarly sense. Every, and any, viewer can experience a picture like this differently, interpreting it however they choose – or not at all.

Although, Susan points out, enjoyment of the painting “may be enhanced by understanding of the subtle symbolism that it embodies”, hidden in every beautifully rendered detail. For Susan, whether people want to understand the hidden symbols and intentions behind a picture is up to them. Looking at pictures for pleasure is, she says, “perfectly valid”. The important thing is that the viewer feels something when they look at a painting, and the magic of Looking at Pictures is that it helps them to understand the historical, social, and artistic context that creates that feeling.

Still, Susan maintains that Looking at Pictures “is hardly necessaryfor the enjoyment of pictures, but its suggestions of different ways to look at pictures, will, I hope, enrich and enhance the experience.” And that, it certainly does.


Words by Robyn Wilson.