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.