During a recent trip to Ottawa, I toured the National Gallery of Canada’s feature show – Gauguin: Portraits. I was with my 14-year-old son and we were both impressed. Not only did the exhibition invite us to re-consider what can be considered a ‘portrait’, especially in the context of Gauguin’s artistic project, it featured engaging new presentation strategies that re-made the museum experience for us. Afterwards, we had lots to talk about.
Whitestudiolo [WS]: Can you tell me what part of the Gauguin show you liked?
Finlay [F]: I really liked the detail that they put into [researching] that sculpture, and all the effort that they put into showing the history behind it. They had videos, and 3-D models of it.
WS: I thought that was interesting too. There were lots of different ways to explore that one sculpture. Do you remember much about the lessons that you learned about the object because of those methods of explaining it? Did you look at the object in a new way?
F: Yes. Before I wouldn’t think to look at how there is so much different paint on it. I didn’t even know that the artist would put wax on it to make it look better. But after I looked at the digital representations then I saw it with a different perspective.
WS: That digital representation is – from my point of view – a different way of thinking about art. I am used to thinking about art in terms of metaphor, and symbol, and colour, and the other elements and principles of design. But that was science. That was looking at the object under a microscope.
F: They looked at it in a more physical way.
WS: Right. Have you ever experienced that way of looking at art before?
F: Well, not with all those different kinds of details pulled together. But I did see something kind of similar when we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see a different exhibition [*Impressionism in the Age of Industry]. There was a view of a bridge in Paris in some paintings by a few different artists, and at the gallery you could look at the different perspectives of the actual bridge.
WS: Wow – that’s a good connection! In that case it was the same kind of effort made to show us new ways of looking at a scene. We have touched on that topic already, about using different media to enhance to experience of looking at the artworks. What do you think of that as a strategy being used in museums?
F: I think it’s pretty successful. I think it was a good idea.
WS: If you were to tell other kids your age about the show, what would you tell them?
F: I would say that it was well done, and it made me look at art in a whole new way. Also, there was a free ap about the exhibition that I could download onto my phone and listen to while we walked around. That audio tour gave me more information about the paintings and I was able to learn more about them. It was helpful.
WS: Towards the end of the exhibition there was an activity area where people could take some paper and make a drawing to display. Did you participate in that activity?
F: No. But I think that it was effective for other people because the exhibition was all about expanding the way we think about portraiture, and I guess that you could use your newly-gained knowledge to draw a portrait of your own while that is still fresh in your mind.
WS: I like that Idea of using that hands-on area as a place to test out new ideas in a visual way. Have you ever thought about portraiture in any of your art class experiences?
F: My teachers have introduced portraiture in the past, but not the way I learned about it in the show. In art class I have done more caricatures, where you take something that you are interested in, or a key feature of someone’s face, and exaggerate it.
WS: Did Gauguin do anything like that?
F: Kind of – there is one piece with sort of a devil-ish image, so maybe that could represent how he feels about himself or something.
WS: Is there anything else that you want to talk about, or any questions that you have for me?
F: I found it interesting and good how they had all of his vacations and travels on record and they were able to link those travels to the paintings. You could walk along and see how a painting was influenced by his trip to, say, South America.
WS: That’s right! I remember a map and a timeline that referenced his travels – so that was another way to communicate and visualize that information.
F: There is so much to think about in that exhibition.
WS: Thanks for talking with me today and sharing your insights!