Observing with Wieteke van Zijl

There is a lot to see and do in Museum De Lakenhal. During a visit to a museum, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the large number of works and the enormous amount of information. This applies both to people who are used to looking at art and to people who do not visit many museums. In collaboration with art editor Wieteke van Zeil, we have therefore come up with a number of viewing tips in order to make your visit a success. Don’t forget to pick up the free viewing guide (including drawing assignment) she created at the register!

Tip 1 - Observing starts with ignoring

Drieluik met het Laatste Oordeel
Drieluik met het Laatste Oordeel Lucas van Leyden

The museum is full of works of art, which are all bursting with valuable details. To be able to see everything, you sometimes browse through everything as if it was a magazine – and that’s way too fast! Because if we consciously remembered everything that we saw, we would be overloaded quickly.

Luckily, the brain is efficient and they only pick up what’s relevant to us. The rest goes to a kind of ‘external memory’: the unconscious. What you don’t need to see, you won’t remember. On a full train platform during rush hour, you will pay attention to the train information on the board, but the colour of the coat of the man next to you is not important enough to notice. There have been many studies on conscious and unconscious perceptions. These make it clear that we do not consciously register and remember the vast majority of what we see. Our attention is limited; it can be overloaded, just like a muscle. After that, it needs time to ‘charge’ again. No matter how much there is to see, if you run out of attention, you will notice less.

How can you make sure that you still discover amazing details in paintings? And how do you prevent that overwhelming feeling in a museum because of the sheer number of works of art? By ignoring things. To be able to pay attention to something, you have to make choices. The quality of your gaze will improve! In Lucas van Leyden’s ‘Last Judgement’, you may finally notice that quietly reading devil if you leave the rest aside for a moment.

So start with making choices. For example, choose one work of art in each room on which you want to spend a little more time – and, sure enough, the unexpected details will start to stand out! For many people this feels liberating: you don’t have to look at everything. Or you can decide that you’re only looking at two halls today, and at two more the next time. This prevents overstimulation. Another helpful tip is to first look at the work of art and ignore the description sign for a moment; you will look more consciously if you don’t let any information bias your viewing. After that, you can read the information or listen to the audio file, and then look at it again.

Tip 2 - Look outside your own bubble

Liberty: pest en honger tijdens Leids beleg
Liberty: pest en honger tijdens Leids beleg Erwin Olaf

The eye goes to what it knows, like a magnet. If you like fashion, you will notice the gold brocade and satin in a painting. If you’re a nature lover, you’d probably look at trees and plants. And, subconsciously, we often first look at the people who look a bit like us. We notice what we (unconsciously) recognise. Our attention is largely guided by previous experiences; the brain compares what we see before us with something we’ve seen before that resembles it. That’s the first thing we notice. These earlier experiences also influence the meaning we give to what we see.

Cultural historian Ernst Gombrich called this the ‘beholder’s share’. Compare it to reading clouds, he said: you can see a ship or a lion in a cloud, but only if you know what a ship or a lion look like in reality. In art, we will therefore mainly notice what we know from experience.

Once you know this, you’ll also know that there’s a lot that escapes your attention. Such a shame! But there’s something you can do about it. A museum is the perfect place where you can learn to see the world from new perspectives. For example, go to a museum with someone who has a completely different background or interests. A biology student, an architect, a fashion lover, a plumber or someone with a different religion. You can point out to each other what you see. The works of art offer enough to notice more than you would (unconsciously) expect!

Tip 3 - The context provides the point

Piskijker Jan Steen

When we look at something, we judge it almost automatically. We understand what we see by what’s around it, as something can have a totally different meaning in one context than in another. Think of a picture of someone crying; only when you look at the surroundings can you understand whether they are tears of sorrow or joy.

Psychologists call our tendency to build understanding of a situation based on the various details we can see the ‘context effect’. We use visible context as well as invisible context, namely our memory. The unconscious memory is many times larger than the conscious one, and that is also what we draw from when we look at something.

In works of art, details often give an insight into the whole, and vice versa. The visible context can, for example, help to understand the (symbolic) meaning of a dog in a painting; dogs often symbolise something very different in different depictions. We associate the animal with what we see around it and with the context of our large memory and can thus assess the meaning. For example, a dog may be a symbol for faithfulness (faithfulness in love or faithfulness to God) or of evil (the hell-hound) – you will be able to figure it out by means of the context. What, for example, could the white-brown furry friend in Gerrit Dou’s Portrait of a Couple in a Landscape symbolise? Guessing a painting’s meaning by looking at details is an interesting puzzle. Why, for example, are there rats in the Triptych with the Lamentation of Christ by Cornelis Engebrechtsz, and what is that key doing there on the back wall in Jan Steen’s The Physician’s Visit?

Choose a detail, and then zoom out to view the whole painting. What does one detail say about the rest? Is there perhaps a symbolic meaning next to a literal one? Does this detail provide more insight into the whole? It’s a game that the artist presents to you; a puzzle about beauty and meaning.

Tip 4 - Those who draw, see more...

Drieluik met de kruisiging van Christus
Drieluik met de kruisiging van Christus Cornelis Engebrechtsz.

When was the last time you drew something? For most children this will have been not too long ago, but many adults have gradually stopped drawing. But why? Looking can start with a pencil, and the museum is the perfect place to practice. Because someone who draws something looks more actively at the subject of the drawing. The brain stores what you see better and you will notice more and more small details. You will become aware of the fact that there is a process of creation behind every work of art, and that the materials contribute to its meaning. Every detail has been a conscious choice of the artist, and has been represented with attention. And more importantly: you will experience a bit of what the artist did when he or she made the work.

Choose a work of art and look for a detail to copy in your drawing. It’s no problem if it’s small. Before you start drawing, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What material is the detail made of in reality as well as in the work of art?
  2. From which angle does the light fall on it? That way, your perception is already ‘switched on’. Then go ahead and draw the detail. Scratch, erase, mess around, wipe; anything and everything is allowed. And remember: it doesn’t have to work out right away, just make sure to enjoy the exercise!

TIP: this drawing assignment can be picked up free of charge at the information desk.

Tip 5 - Put away your smartphone

Vanitas-stilleven met zelfportret van de schilder
Vanitas-stilleven met zelfportret van de schilder David Bailly

When you see something interesting, an understandable reaction is that you want to ‘save’ and share it. You can save it by taking a picture of what you see, and then sharing it. You were a witness to the beauty and you are proud to show it! Artists have been fascinated for centuries by depicting what they see around them; in a way, they are also ‘saving’ what they see. The painter Jan van Eyck, for example, was the first to write his name on his paintings in the fifteenth century in order to show that he was a witness: ‘Jan van Eyk fuit hic’, literally: ‘Jan van Eyck was here’. Of course, a painting is an illusion of reality, but the effect of experiencing, saving and sharing can also be seen here.

For a number of years now, almost every museum has allowed you to take pictures of what you see. This enhances the joy and makes fascinating works of art known to an ever wider public. There is only one small problem: the presence of a smartphone disturbs your concentration. You pay less attention, and researchers have discovered that even a phone that is turned off affects your attention! In order to be able to look at art with attention, it is good to do so first without having your smartphone at the ready.

Works of art are made to have an impact on the beholder – as they have been for centuries, and by many cultures. Just think of the awe that totem poles or icons in the Middle Ages incited. The impact of art can be so great that you may feel scared, comforted or even enraptured by what you see. That’s what it is meant to do: the work of art should feel real for a moment. You can only get that experience if you look at it yourself, physically, up close with the work of art. If you put a screen in between, you will break that ‘magic’ and destroy the personal experience. On average, we look at a work of art for 28.63 seconds. Isn’t it a shame to give 5, 10 or 15 seconds of that to your screen?

Allow yourself to experience a work of art without the interference of a phone. This will enable you to see what people have experienced for centuries: that a work of art has an effect on you that can be so strong that it almost becomes real. Every work of art is like a window to another world. If you want to save that experience, you can always return with your phone afterwards and take a picture then!