Paintings to see before you die

by Maria on October 30, 2006

The Guardian has a lovely new arts blog that leads off with a piece about the 20 paintings to see in the flesh before you die:
“van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c.1435, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Caravaggio, The Burial of St. Lucy (1608), Museo di Palazzo Bellomo, Syracuse, Sicily
Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1654), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
San Rock Art, South African National Museum, Cape Town
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves (1904 – 6), Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Michelangelo, Moses (installed 1545), Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome
Leonardo da Vinci, The Adoration of the Magi, (c. 1481), Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Mark Rothko, The Rothko Chapel (paintings 1965-66; chapel opened 1971), Houston, Texas
Vermeer, View of Delft (c.1660-61), Mauritshuis, The Hague
Matthias Grünewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1509-15), Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, France
Hans Holbein, The Dead Christ, (1521-2), Kunstmuseum, Basel
Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (1333-1323BC), Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (c.1427), Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937), Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid
Titian, Danaë (c. 1544-6), Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
Raphael, The School of Athens (1510-11), Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Rome
Parthenon Sculptures (“Elgin Marbles”), c. 444 BC, British Museum, London
Henri Matisse, The Dance (1910), Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.”

The comments unfairly criticise Jonathan Jones’ selection as too European, but he says himself it’s a subjective list of paintings so serious or affecting as to be worth travelling to see. And he invites readers to suggest their own. It’s an interesting take in the age of mechanical reproduction. The suggestions so far lean heavily on the 20th century, with the odd old master thrown in. I hope the Guardian’s commenters take up Jones’ challenge to broaden the field.

I’ve seen maybe a quarter of Jones’ list (if we allow ‘seen’ to include works I have shuffled past in the Louvre). But I’d still add to it Chagall’s stained glass windows in the Hadassah Hospital in Israel. They are deeply moving and can only be properly experienced by going there. You haven’t experienced Chagall till you’ve experienced him with light coming through (although the Chagall gallery in Nice comes close). Secondly, I’d add Monet’s Nymphéas which have been specially hung in curved rooms at the Orangerie in Paris. A recently attempted visit confirms the Orangerie is still impossible to get into, so this addition to the list is really wishful thinking.

The Guardian’s arts blog also reminds me to post a link to a wonderful stage interview of Gael Garcia Bernal at the NFT a couple of weeks back. The character GGB most identifies with is the sweet but irresponsible Julio from Y Tu Mamá También, but his thoughtful comments about politics and inequality in Mexico show this actor has more to say for himself than your average horny teenager.



astrongmaybe 10.30.06 at 10:06 am

Seeing as Tut, Moses, the Elgin Marbles and the Chagall extend the criteria a little beyond painting, I’d throw in the Pergamon Altar Frieze in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. It raises all sorts of questions about colonial art-robbery, etc., but aside from that (and maybe because of that) the experience is unforgettable.


John Emerson 10.30.06 at 10:14 am

No Van Gogh, no Breughel, no Goya, no El Greco. Screw him.


ed 10.30.06 at 10:21 am

I’ve also seen about a quarter of these paintings, but most of the ones I’ve seen are unmemborable. Presumably if you “shuffled past” a painting at the Louvre, but can’t remember whether you’ve seen it or not, it shouldn’t be on a list of paintings you have to make a special trip for!

Its simply a bad list, relying much to heavily on European 20th century art and old masters. Note that the “San rock paintings” in Capetown are thrown in to give the list some impression of balance. I’ve actually been to the South African National Museum and these are not the highlights of the collection. They are safely obscure enough and far enough away that no one is going to call the compiler on them. No Chinese or Japanese paintings make the list at all, nor do any of the ancient Greek vases, no Indian or ancient near eastern art, no Byzantine art or Russian icons, there is nothing produced by Precolumbian Indians. San rock art is on the list but nothing produced by the Inuit.

Even viewed from the twentieth century European perspective the list is bad, most people would include Monet’s waterlilies. There is nothing by Braque, no Dada, the only Picasso is Guernica.

Only the last three items listed, and maybe “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” really belong on a list of artwork to see before you die. I also agree with the above commentator on the Pergammon Altar.


Chris Bertram 10.30.06 at 10:53 am

Hmm, we have one thread about global warming (reduce your carbon footprint) and another about seeing lots of paintings scattered around the world before you die (lots of recreational jet travel)….

So in the interests of seeing things that are more or less local, may I recommend Hans Hobein’s “Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling” in the National Gallery to my fellow Brits (and Europeans).

Giovanni Bellin’s Madonna and child triptych in the S.Maria Gloriosa dei Frari would also be on my list as would something by Velazquez.


jaywalker 10.30.06 at 11:59 am

I am the last to find an excuse for cultural tourism but given excellently lit reproductions in books or online, many originals often are not impressive. The Mona Lisa is tiny, as is Dürer’s Hare. Da Vinci’s dull and dark Last Supper was a major disappointment (at least pre-restoration).

Go see them, but lower your expectations. We are too used to Photoshop effects.


dearieme 10.30.06 at 12:00 pm

Lascaux: I wanna see Lascaux.


Ginger Yellow 10.30.06 at 12:03 pm

No Turner? Pah.


Chris Bertram 10.30.06 at 12:15 pm

Jaywalker …. sorry to say that even excellent reproductions cannot substitute for the real thing because the relative luminance of colours on your screen will probably not be the same as in the original.


Tom Womack 10.30.06 at 12:21 pm

I have always been a little curious as to why you can’t get, if say you’re a museum, high-quality copies of all the other works of Leonardo da Vinci costing a thousand pounds each to hang beside their one original da Vinci.

I know that prints tend not to come close to the original, but it seems odd that there’s nothing between the £20 print and the £20,000,000 original … I’m thinking of machined-plastic backing in the shape of the front paint surface of the original, onto which you ink-jet a high-resolution copy using a wide range of inks to try to get the spectrum right.


JRoth 10.30.06 at 12:29 pm

I’m too ill-informed to judge the list, but I’ll note that there are lovely Chagall windows in Zürich, a bit more accessible to most CTers than Israel (if not necessarily as good an actual work).


bbartlog 10.30.06 at 12:34 pm

For non-painted works, I’d include the primary stained glass window in St Peter’s Basilica – not a very original choice but very impressive.

More personal nomination I’d have to recommend Caravaggio’s ‘The Calling of St Matthew’. Goya too, though I’d have trouble recommending one specific piece…


Doug 10.30.06 at 12:39 pm

Does the Guardian’s link to the slide show work for anyone? It didn’t work for me…


MQ 10.30.06 at 12:50 pm

As I see it, what we’re talking about is what works of art must be seen *in person* for the full effect. Not necessarily the “best” works. Large scale sculpture and architecture would dominate that list. To take an obvious example, one can hardly begin to appreciate the “David” until you see it in person. For a more recent example, Frank Wright’s “Fallingwater” is rather ho-hum in photographs, but overwhelming and breathtaking in person.


eugene 10.30.06 at 1:45 pm

I don’t understand the whole “do X before you die.” business.

Once I’m dead it won’t matter how many paintings I saw or how many times I bungee jumped, etc.


Matt 10.30.06 at 1:57 pm

How could they leave out Sargent’s Madame X? Bah. By the way, a poster of Madame X is now in print and for sale in the Metropolitan’s store, after too many years of unavailability.


JL 10.30.06 at 2:28 pm

it seems odd that there’s nothing between the £20 print and the £20,000,000 original

There are different levels of quality and price to printed reproductions. While inevitably there’s a limit to conveying textures and accuracy of colors, one can certainly get something better than a cheap poster–it’s just a matter of a museum (or whoever is selling the print) having the incentive to have higher quality reproductions made.

As for reproducing all of Leonardo’s work for an exhibit, consider this show of high res photographs of Caravaggio paintings that’s been shown at various small museums. It’s not a common practice, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see other examples–a lot easier on the shipping and insurance budget, that’s for sure.

On a separate note, as much as I like Madame X, I’m not sure I’d rate it among Sargent’s top five, let alone as a painting that had to be seen before dying. I’d rate Lady Agnew, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, El Jaleo, above it, just for starters. After that, probably one of his Venetian paintings.


Matt 10.30.06 at 2:40 pm

Well, FWIW, Sargent thought Madame X was his greatest work. I read somewhere that part of the scandal of the painting requires some familiarity with Victorian underwear– the knowledgeable viewer will recognize that the lady isn’t wearing anything under her dress.


Rob St. Amant 10.30.06 at 2:54 pm

As I see it, what we’re talking about is what works of art must be seen in person for the full effect.

There are lots of interesting reasons why seeing a work of art in person is different from seeing a reproduction. A few examples:

It’s hard to get a feel for the impact of a large painting like The Night Watch from seeing a book-sized version. If nothing else, it’s impossible to see the piece in its entirety in a single glance (if I remember correctly), and the way your eyes traverse it affects the impression.

I don’t know how good reproductions of surface texture are these days, but they’d have to be extraordinary to capture the patterns in the impasto of van Gogh’s paintings. The thick swirls make you want to reach out and run your fingers over them.

I hadn’t realized before seeing the collages of artists like Braque and Piccasso how impromptu some are, with paint and glue smears, wrinkles and torn edges, and so forth. Some of the immediate quality of such pieces is lost in a photograph.

Along similar lines, I really enjoyed seeing a collection of Rembrandt sketches and ink drawings once (though I can’t remember where), at least partly because some are recognizably his style and yet obviously were produced very quickly, without hesitation, as if they wee effortless. Again, because of the detail of reproductions, it’s usually harder to tell about such things.

I think the most important thing, though, is color. I’ve seen probably a dozen reproductions of van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace, and I have a small reproduction at home. They all look slightly different. When I saw the piece in person a few years ago I was floored by the actual colors and contrasts. Very different from what I’d been expecting. (This is probably true of the best Impressionist painters in general.)


Tim McG 10.30.06 at 3:11 pm

Why are we hung up on the notion that reproductions have to be photographic? What about the practice of having painters copy, with paint, paintings? Hell, many of these works were painted by “the help” and not the master himself.

If inspired translation is a good enough methodology for the Septuagint and the Vulgate, it’s got to be good enough for true believers in Art.


BruceR 10.30.06 at 3:18 pm

Vermeer’s Delft is a classic example of what I and #13 read this list as being about. I’d seen it a hundred times in books and prints. Meh. Saw it in person: beyond perfection. Probably not one of the greatest 20 artistic works of all time, but honestly worth a side-trip to The Hague to grasp what all the fuss is about.


JL 10.30.06 at 3:22 pm

Well, FWIW, Sargent thought Madame X was his greatest work.

True, and I’d agree with him (and you) that it’s a terrific painting. He’s also the fellow who thought it would be a good idea to spend the latter part of his career largely painting landscapes, though, and I don’t know anyone who agrees with that. So there’s only so far I’ll take what the artist thinks. Madame X has always been known for her revealing attire, though I’m not sure about the underwear story (in the catalog for Americans in Paris, for instance, Erica Hirschler refers to her as “sophisticated, perfectly groomed, elegantly dressed”, which suggests a different view.) She did formerly have a strap of her dress off the shoulder until Sargent repainted it. I’m more inclined to the view that the scandal over the painting was a sort of perfect storm, building on resentment toward both the painter and the sitter (which had been expressed in the contemporary press long before the painting was shown), as well as other factors. In any case, scandal is no measure of a painting’s quality.


ed johnson 10.30.06 at 3:48 pm

This old post from is relevant.

Once upon a time, museums proudly displayed reproductions. Galleries of casts were integral to museums’ mission of education and enlightenment, allowing visitors who might never have a chance to travel abroad to behold everything from Roman reliefs to canonical masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture. Most museums have long since sold off their casts, but one of the greatest collections is still intact in the Victoria & Albert’s Cast Courts.

I’ve seen the casts at the V&A and I thought they were way cool. I think having museums display high quality painted reproductions makes a lot of sense, too. I confess I don’t quite get the modern ideas about authenticity that made us reject this model.


Alan K. Henderson 10.30.06 at 4:01 pm

The city of Guernica deserved a better memorial than the one Picasso coughed up.

Can someone tell me why Pollock’s One: Number 31 is considered great art? It looks like 1970s-era wallpaper.

(Note I said “great art,” not “attractive art.” Aesthetics and artistic talent are not the same thing. I’ve seen a lot of homely and adult-looking Baby Jesuses in otherwise well-painted Madonna-and-child paintings such as this.)


JL 10.30.06 at 4:21 pm

Plaster casts of statues are indeed way cool. Readers in or around Connecticut, or passing through, should check out the Slater Museum at the Norwich Free Academy. It has an extensive collection of casts after ancient (and some later) sculpture, including the Parthenon frieze, the Nike of Samothrace, the Gigantomachy from the Pergamon frieze, and loads of others. You can check out images from the collection online, too.


soubzriquet 10.30.06 at 4:25 pm

I’m trying, but I can’t imagine a better memorial for Guernica than the one Picasso `coughed up’. What did you have in mind? It’s not only an important painting, but I’m quite certain it’s also the reason so many people know the name of the town. Granted, probably more people know the name of the painting…but that doesn’t change anything.


Henry (not the famous one) 10.30.06 at 5:05 pm

Book of Kells.
You can get a decent copy of the book, but that doesn’t diminish the excitement of seeing the original, one page at a time; it may even add to it.


nick s 10.30.06 at 5:53 pm

Presumably if you “shuffled past” a painting at the Louvre, but can’t remember whether you’ve seen it or not, it shouldn’t be on a list of paintings you have to make a special trip for!

Not really: it’s just that there’s a lot of mediocre stuff packed into the Louvre, even with the Richelieu wing open, and you need to arrive early, move with purpose and know the layout well to appreciate the good pieces.

Nothing from the National Gallery, though? The Ambassadors is over-analysed — thanks, Greenblatt — but it’s well worth going to see, not just for the easter egg. The Van Goghs in Orsay and Amsterdam really hit home when you see the texture of the paint on canvas. The scale of The Night Watch, or Las Meninas is hard to understand from reproductions. Etc.

But I don’t like seeing the Parthenon sculptures in person. Even with their dedicated gallery, and their sensitive presentation, they feel out of place in a way that doesn’t quite apply to the other bits of Ancient in the British Museum. (Perhaps it’s that the room is rented out for receptions?) Even the lions in the Great Court look fairly content with their surroundings by comparison.


nick s 10.30.06 at 6:01 pm

Oh, and going-to-see is interesting for the going-to-see-ers. I’ve got a couple of nice photos of people crowded round the Mona Lisa, as well as one of the Venus de Milo’s rump, while visitors jockey to get into the picture-postcard spot for their photos.


Bondbloke 10.30.06 at 6:04 pm

The Elgin Marbles????? I thought this was ‘paintings to see before you die’ The last time I looked the Elgin Marbles were NOT paintings!!!!!


bad Jim 10.30.06 at 7:31 pm

Wow! I’ve seen exactly half of those listed!

I’m with Nick S. on the entertainment value of other museum-goers. I remember a tour group in the Uffizi clustering around a Michelangelo drawing, then breezing past Titian’s Venus with barely a glance (not that I minded having her all to myself). It seems that, for some, the appeal is the fame of the work or the artist, rather than the work itself.

Then there are paintings you see wherever you go. I think some of the Caravaggio’s I saw in Rome in ’02 were in London last year and in Amsterdam this spring.

There’s not much point in specifying a Goya, since so many of them are in the Prado.


onymous 10.30.06 at 8:14 pm

“Oh, and going-to-see is interesting for the going-to-see-ers. I’ve got a couple of nice photos of people crowded round the Mona Lisa”

My favorite part of seeing the Mona Lisa several months ago was overhearing someone say “if that’s where the Mona Lisa is, then the curator’s body must have been right over here!”


Leland 10.30.06 at 8:35 pm

Christmas present to myself this year. I will be taking a couple of weeks just before and after Christmas to go to The Hague. The main reason for going there is the Girl With a Pearl Earring.
The Van Gogh’s in Amsterdam are beautiful.

Also, there is a fantastic Teapot exhibit in Norwich England that should be on that list.


bob mcmanus 10.30.06 at 10:21 pm

“…latter part of his[Sargent] career largely painting landscapes, though, and I don’t know anyone who agrees with that.”

Yo. Here.


MQ 10.30.06 at 11:13 pm

Another Vermeer — girl with the pearl earring. This is ubiquitous in reproduction, but in person it is very powerful. It might be that the museum in the Hague where it is hung is typically peaceful and uncrowded.


Christopher M 10.30.06 at 11:20 pm

even excellent reproductions cannot substitute for the real thing because the relative luminance of colours on your screen will probably not be the same as in the original

Yeah, but for a huge fraction of old paintings, the relative luminance of colors in the “original” as it now exists are probably not the same as they were when it was painted, or even when other people looked at it a hundred or two hundred years ago. That said, a lot of paintings look really cool in real life. Someone mentioned Van Gogh above — if you haven’t seen how thick the texture of a lot of his work is, you’re really missing an important aspect of it. Most of his paintings should really not be considered two-dimensional works at all.

Then there are the paintings that still hang in their original locations. These don’t tend to be in the greatest condition, but there are often really interesting effects of light & perspective that you can’t appreciate unless you’re standing where you’re supposed to be standing in relation to the painting.


Christopher M 10.30.06 at 11:23 pm

The single most fun museum that I’ve been to in Europe is the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. A lot of great post-Impressionist stuff, and some achingly beautiful Art Nouveau pieces. Someday I will drop acid or something and just walk around it for hours.


rupes 10.31.06 at 12:04 am

regarding the discussion of reproductions…

The National Gallery in London has had an experiment running in partnership with Hewlett Packard of doing awesomely high resolution photographs (digital photos of a few square cm, then digital pasting them together) and printing them on very high resolution scanners, with a specially wide range of inks.

They had some very interesting discussions on what worked & what didn’t, on the resolution & printing, etc

It cannot do the texture, and, as noted, for some paintings that really does matter. (Although Tom Womack’s point, that could easily be done too: 3D moulding or even 3D printing is cheap).

But the ones I saw were stunning – not just the accuracy but also the vividness. Even to the extent of the patina or cracks in the image.

Part of this is the size: we often think of reproductions as small, but something that is meant to be 50″x70″ will never look the same at 5″x7″ in a book or postcard.


Alan K. Henderson 10.31.06 at 1:33 am

I personally believe that a memorial mural should give the average viewer some idea of what it is that is being memorialized. Guernica doesn’t do that. Heck, the artist never even explained what all the symbols mean.

Never liked Picasso’s surreal paintings. They’re ugly, and they don’t present great painting talent.


astrongmaybe 10.31.06 at 3:15 am

#38 eh.. maybe Picasso was asking something of the viewer. He could have just written something on a plaque, I guess. Maybe something tasteful and deeeeeep like this might be more in your line. You won’t miss out on no symbols there.


chris y 10.31.06 at 3:17 am

I don’t understand the whole “do X before you die.” business.

It doesn’t mean “before you die”, it means “before you become an old fart with nothing to bore your grandchildren about”.


bad Jim 10.31.06 at 5:12 am

Picasso’s Guernika is a really big, messy painting. He did it for the 1936 World Fair, and the exhibit at MNCARS has photographs of its intermediate stages, some of which remain visible. It’s a painting about a war, done while the war was going on, and Picasso was on the side that lost.

Go to Madrid. A day at the Prado (Hieronymous Bosch, anyone? Though there he’s called El Bosco. More works of Theotokopoulos – el Greco – than I could find in a day in Toledo) And the Thyssen-Bornemisza. And the Reina Sofía.

If seeing “Guernika” doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you haven’t understood the twentieth century, or lived through it.

And Michelangelo’s Moses is just around the corner from the Coliseum. If you ever wind up in Rome you owe it to yourself to check it out.


engels 10.31.06 at 11:54 am

The “n XXXs to YYY before you ZZZ” meme is truly fucking annoying.

And I’ve seen more than half of them, s0xx0rs.


Alan K. Henderson 10.31.06 at 4:56 pm


A war memorial is supposed to be for all citizens. It can be minimalist with no symbols whatsoever. If it employs symbols, those symbols should be recognizeable to all citizens contemporary to the monument’s founding – the victory laurel wreath and the American bald eagle at the National WWII Memorial, the bas-reliefs on the Arc de Triomphe depicting angels (symbolizing divine providence), and, quoting Wikipedia, “heroically nude French youths against bearded Germanic warriors in chain mail” – an eccentric choice of imagery, the average French of that day could tell which figures were French and which were the vanquished enemy.

In contrast, Guernica employs a few symbols of mayhem, and a lot that is indecipherable – and intentionally so:

Picasso never committed to a specific explanation of his symbolism: “…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

On another note, I prefer that war memorials aren’t ugly.

I haven’t seen any of these works of art, BTW. Heck, except for Houston I haven’t even seen any of those cities. I have seen a different painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire (Cezanne did over 70, IIRC), at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum.


engels 10.31.06 at 5:05 pm

Guernica isn’t a “war memorial”. Unfortunately, as art, war memorials generally suck.


engels 10.31.06 at 5:27 pm

And Alan, if you think for half a second about what happened in Guernica, that might give you an idea why Picasso may have thought that building an Arc de Triompe would have been a little inappropriate.


Alan K. Henderson 10.31.06 at 5:32 pm


Bad art doesn’t bring tears to my eyes. I do grieve, but for different reasons…

At least it wasn’t painted by Jackson Pollock.


engels 10.31.06 at 5:41 pm

Alan, my friend: I grieve for you.


Alan K. Henderson 10.31.06 at 6:09 pm


My point was about the use of symbolism in monuments. There are two types of war memorials – victory and loss – and the principle applies to both. Guerinica is in that latter class, along with the Arizona memorial and various Holocaust exhibits.

A mural will have maximum effect if it does not confuse the hell out of people. The mutant bull **, floating head, eye in the sky and the kneeling woman distract from the parts of the painting that can actually be interpreted. Guerinica says more about Picasso’s lunacy than about the attack on Guernica.

(**Yeah, I know that referring to any creature in a Picasso painting as “mutant” is redundant.)

(And no, if I ever designed a victory memorial I wouldn’t depict the winning side as naked youths.)


engels 10.31.06 at 6:44 pm

Alan – If you don’t like Guernica, don’t go and see it. Spend the money on French Fries and gasoline.


astrongmaybe 10.31.06 at 7:00 pm

Alan – you sound like a person who, in a gallery, would be happier reading the signs beside the paintings than actually looking at them – you’re not alone, you can see them in any art museum any day. Maybe like SAT practice tests, an artwork should have the answers at the back of the book.


nick s 10.31.06 at 10:47 pm

Guerinica says more about Picasso’s lunacy than about the attack on Guernica.

Oh-kay. Perhaps the Valley of the Fallen is more your style? Plenty of symbolism there.


Alan K. Henderson 11.01.06 at 5:11 am


I never said anything about planning to go to Spain, much less Guernica, so your comment is just empty snark. Anything wrong with being an art critic?


I haven’t trashed anyone besides Picasso (his “mutant” genre, anyway – not, say, this) and Pollock, so you don’t know my general reaction to art. I like to admire art that looks cool. I like history, too, so reading a little historical background on a painting would be entertaining, too.

My criticism of Guernica focused mainly on its content; the ugliness of its style is a side issue. Because the painting commemorates a piece of history, I believe that it should give the average viewer a sense of what that history was, and I do not believe Guernica accomplishes this. Picasso is an acquired taste acquired by a large minority of humans; for the many who have not, his bizarre style distracts from the general message he wished to convey.

About Pollock…

Art can be divided into two categories, which I will call representative (actually represents something) and ornamental (conveys no message, just sits there and looks cool as the artist defines “cool”).

Up until the 20th century, paintings have always been representative art – people, places, events. Representative art ranges between the realistic and the abstract, and between light and heavy (and common and arcane) symbolism. Surrealism is representative art because it seeks to portray thought.

And then there are the purely ornamental paintings of recent decades. Most people expect paintings to mean something, and are taken aback by a work such as Pollock’s. They also expect paintings to reflect some degree of skill, and a canvas full of splatter doesn’t require much artistic skill.

I see I’m not the only one who used the wallpaper analogy; the Wikipedia article on Pollock states:

Other critics, such as Craig Brown, have been astonished that decorative ‘wallpaper’, essentially brainless, could gain such a position in art history alongside Giotto, Titian and Velazquez.


Heh, a memorial to the fallen in a Fascist vs. Communist conflict. Since both sides attacked civilians, the appropriate response to visiting that site would be to grieve the civilian victims of the fallen soldiers.

As for symbolism – we have a sculpture of a fallen person, which fits, and a giant cross, which is waaaay out of place at a memorial concerning a war where evil triumphed over evil.

Now a triumphal arch commemorating the end of fascist rule in Spain would be worthwhile.


engels 11.01.06 at 10:05 am

I never said anything about planning to go to Spain, much less Guernica, so your comment is just empty snark.

Yeah, pretty much. But seriously, the topic of this discussion is “20 Paintings to See Before You Die” so I think it’s fair to assume your arguments were addressed to the question of whether you (or anyone else) should go and see Guernica. That’s assuming that you weren’t just trying to hijack this thread to use it as a platform for your “deflationary” views of modern art. But you wouldn’t do that, would you?


Alan K. Henderson 11.01.06 at 2:36 pm

Hey, I was criticizing art on Maria’s list (with an aside comment about not-so-modern Madonna and child portraits, to illustrate the distinction between great art and arttractive art). Picasso and Pollock are hardly the sum of modern art.

Since the list has several non-paintings, let’s see if I can come up with a piece of modern art to add. One comes to mind right off bat:

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali (1931), Museum of Modern Art, New York City


engels 11.01.06 at 3:04 pm

Well, I’ve seen that one too, as it happens: I have to say that IMHO Dali is not a great painter. But it looks like we can agree on something: de gustibus non est disputandum.


engels 11.01.06 at 3:09 pm

(And I know there is a rather unpleasant political implication in rubbishing Guernica and praising Dali at the same time, but I will take the charitable interpretation that it was not intended.)


Alan K. Henderson 11.01.06 at 3:37 pm

One more thing: it would be well within the topic of this thread to question why certain paintings belong on such a list. One tends to assume that the inclusion of Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 in such mostly-distinguished company implies that it great art. (Or maybe he was thrown in for comic relief, or for some other reason.)

I asked in comment 23 why people consider him a great artist, and nobody attempted an answer. Maybe such an answer is not possible. With regard to this medium, greatness tends to be self-evident. Someone who is not partial to Dali or Titian can see the skill present in their works. Pollock’s “pour” method (yes, I read the Wikipedia article) defies the historical method for appreciating portrait artwork; explaining its appeal as great art may simply be impossible to put into words.


Alan K. Henderson 11.01.06 at 3:58 pm

Frankly, I think The Persistence of Memory is borderline kitch, but it looks cool. Best I could do modern-art-wise on short notice. At least I didn’t suggest Andy Warhol.

Actually I was thinking of The Persistence of Memory as a replacement for Pollack. Gotta wonder why Pollock and Guernica belong on the same list.

(Political implication? Consulting Wikipedia…Ah, I see that Dali belonged to and was expelled from a Marxist group. Guess I won’t suggest adding Frida Kahlo.)

Recall that I attacked Guernica *as art*. It was defended on this blog on the basis of its historic subject matter, not on its own merits.

If one composes a must-visit list on the basis of cultural influence, Guernica would certainly belong, along with the Dali and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.


engels 11.01.06 at 4:24 pm

Guernica was Picasso’s response to the Nazi’s terrorist bombing of the town of Guernica, which marked their entrance into the Spanish Civil War on the side of Franco’s fascists. Dali was later a supporter of Franco and, arguably, a fascist.

(Dali flirted with Marxism in his youth, but then so did David Horowitz.)


Alan K. Henderson 11.01.06 at 8:35 pm

Being in the same room with Dali and Picasso would definitely have been an experience.

One wonders if Dali’s sucking up to Franco was genuine or simply a means of self-preservation. He wouldn’t have been the first European artist to blindly support autocrats, or to feign such support, whichever the case may be. Would be interesting to find post-Franco interviews of Dali. Too bad Picasso didn’t outlive the Generalissimo.

Not especially shocking to see a member of the European intelligentsia supporting bad political causes, especially in a country where at the time there weren’t any good ones (with any real measure of power, anyway).

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