Often going to a museum is akin to eating my lima beans. Some people visit museums because they are riveted by art or they experience the world through the lens of history. I mostly go because I should. There is of course value in this exposure, but I admit to having to work at it. I’m the visitor who always opts for the audio guide and rarely knows in advance the famous work I will be seeing.
More recently however, I’ve chucked the guidebooks and allowed my interests – photography and art from the last 100 years since the First World War - to direct my museum outings. This is where I stand a better chance of appreciating the creativity of the artist and understanding their cultural context.
This reset has led me to three outstanding exhibits in the past month, two in London and one in Paris. All three exhibits – pop artist Richard Hamilton, photographer David Bailey, and photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson - encompassed an exceptional range of contemporary subjects over a period of many decades. (All three exhibits run through June 2014.) I’m not knowledgeable enough to write a proper review of any of them, but thankfully there are people that can and have already done that. I can tell you however that each one of these left me inspired. It was like walking through someone’s beautifully illustrated storybook of the modern age.
I think of creatives like kettles filled to the brim with water, where the temperature of life causes steam to need to be released. When that boiling water is then poured out over ground up bits of life, something new blooms. The finer the grind and the slower the pour, the richer the output. The creative must filter – leaving words and frames on the cutting room floor – so only the best stuff remains.
I for one am glad that these three men did not leave their kettle on the burner. Un-poured-out kettles risk reaching a boiling point where vibrations become louder and eventually sound a whistle. No one likes the piercing sound of a whistle. But neither do we all want a sanitized world filled with only automated coffee machines. We need to record facts, but we also need people who are painstakingly filtering those facts to highlight the unique character of the world we live in.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work brilliantly captures this idea of a “decisive moment.” He once said: “Composition relies on chance. I never make calculations. I perceive a structure and wait for something to happen. There are no rules. One should not try too hard to explain the mystery. It is better just to be receptive, a Leica within each reach.”
If you find yourself in London or Paris before June, you may want to make this one of your decisive stops and be inspired.