Im sure Im like a lot of people; I love looking at art, but Im not always sure whether Im getting it. Am I seeing what the artist intended?
Im going to let you in on a little secret about looking at art. What you see is what youre supposed to see. Thats the reassuring voice of Tamar Avishai, host of The Lonely Palette, an art history podcast that aims to take art history back to the masses, one object at a time.
In the course of four years and just under fifty episodes, Avishai has set up close encounters with objets dart, from the familiar Mona Lisa to Andy Warhols Red Disaster to Katsushika Hokusais The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Each episode begins with the voices of museum goers, whose descriptions and reactions sound much like our own. A child visiting the Louvre, for instance, describes the museums most famous painting: Its a woman sitting... um... (laughs) it kinda looks creepy... shes staring right at you.
And that breaks it down, right there, the mystique around great art. Using the voices of museum-goers to open the podcast serves to make Avishais point that if the art is in a museum, it is meant for everyone.
A degree in art history brought Tamar Avishai to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she gave short spotlight talks on selected museum exhibits. She realised there was a huge audience out there that had a desire to understand art but didnt know where to start and so was born The Lonely Palette. In each episode Avishai expertly leads the listener from the specific piece of art to the larger context within which the art was made, allowing you to look again, with new insight.
The Great Wave
Take, for instance, the episode featuring Hokusais The Great Wave. The story opens to the sound of the ocean: I find that these ocean waves carry me away... simultaneously so dramatic and so gentle, an endless cycle of crest and resolve. The waves continue to wash over us as she leads us to 19th century-Japan, and points us to Hokusais iconic print of the enormous wave breaking over the silhouette of Mount Fuji an enormously powerful image of an enormously powerful thing. She traverses the space between the intensely personal experience of taking in a work of art and a more cerebral understanding of its history. If we stop for a moment and really look, there is so much happening in this print, she says.
A Sunday Afternoon
With each episode, Avishai attempts to connect the work of art to larger social, cultural and political movements of the period.
So when we look at George Seurats A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, we not only understand how he used colour and light, but also his take on class difference. Or when Avishai turns to the work of Georgia OKeeffe or Frida Kahlo, the stories are animated equally by their creative personae as their negotiations with the patriarchy. Old stories for art historians, perhaps, but illuminating for the rest of us.
Although Avishai started the podcast because she wanted to be an audio storyteller, the show has had the effect of making her fall in love all over again with art history. And as she engages with each of her subjects, spinning her own spoken-word art, you cant help feeling some of that love too.
The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.