This blog post was written by IMA Public Affairs intern Sarah Miller (pictured below). She recently earned a Master of Arts Management with a Visual Arts Concentration from Columbia College Chicago and currently works at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, Illinois.
I recently traveled to Spain where I had the pleasure of re-visiting a favorite museum, the Reina Sofia, in Madrid. I trekked to the museum district for what I believe are two must-see works—Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Salvador Dali’s Muchacha en la Ventana. It has been my experience that even if art museum visitors don’t understand what a piece means, most can at least appreciate what great works like these mean to art history or to an artist’s career. For me, taking pleasure in the viewing experience of these paintings comes very easily as well. Guernica’s scale alone (over 25 feet wide and 11 feet tall) begs for a few extra minutes of consideration, not to mention its iconic, violently contortioned figures and the work’s importance to Spanish history. I enjoy Muchacha more for its peaceful, contemplative nature but also because of a personal memory I associate with the work—a reproduction was sent to me from my brother while he lived in Spain. (The painting’s ‘girl’ is Dali’s sister.)
What made my museum experience particularly memorable this time around was not my enjoyment of these two works, but instead how disturbed and confused I felt after seeing another work—a film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali called Un Chien Andalou (which you can view here—warning, please view it before showing your kids). It was bizarre and crazy and I didn’t want to understand it. Though my museum companion explained that it was a Surrealist masterpiece and pivotal film studied and known by any film buff, I didn’t and wouldn’t like it. Even after I learned that its shocking opening sequence—a man slicing open a woman’s eyeball with a razor blade—is one of the most recognized moments in film history, it did not matter, I could not take pleasure in this piece. All I could do was reluctantly appreciate it for its place in film history and its creators’ reputed genius. Because this visit left me feeling unusually more out-of-touch with the art than other visits, I was determined to find a reason to like Un Chien.
Surprisingly, it took three minutes of research on the trusty web to find that 1) my uncomfortable response was exactly what Bunuel and Dali intended for me (according to Roger Ebert and many other critics) and 2) my aesthetic interests in other art works can be loosely connected right back to this very film. In my defense of #1, I am aware of the Surrealist affinity for shock and non-sense, but the required 15+ minutes of weirdness made possible by the film medium (versus the limited seconds I would have to spend with surrealist paintings to “see” it in full) made this work seem particularly off the wall—sorry for being slow to figure that out, Mr. Ebert. And in regard to #2, please allow me a quick ‘degrees of separation’ exercise. Un Chien has been (more than) rumored to have influenced David Lynch, the director of the Twin Peaks series and several cult classic movies. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet directly influenced Gregory Crewdson, a photographer of large-scale, highly orchestrated, strange and dream-like images. Crewdson was a major interest of mine during my undergraduate study of photography and inspired the aesthetic of many of my projects, including my thesis show. And there you have it, a reason for me to be thankful for Un Chien Andalou. It seems the IMA can claim similar thankfulness, as it boasts Crewdson’s Untitled (1998) in its collection.
So, I’ll charge you with the same task I assigned to myself—the next time you stumble on a piece of art that offends, frightens, discourages, enrages, or plain annoys you, try not to dismiss it. Instead, let it be that much more of an inspiration to find a reason to relate to it. You might find that you can alter your entire experience of it.