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On Looking at Paintings

Over a decade ago, a British nun with an overbite and a vocal inflection slightly betraying her South African roots became an unlikely celebrity by presenting a series of acclaimed art history documentaries for the BBC. Sister Wendy Beckett, a self-taught art connoisseur, became something of a television sensation as she approached the onerous canon of art history with rare child-like wonder and unassuming vivacity. Her approach was simple: art should be looked at, she argued, there is something there everyone can respond to. In a beautiful and humble way, Sister Wendy has helped many people discover and rediscover the joy of looking at paintings through a willingness to look at art – to pay more attention to the world the artist has created on the canvas than the words that art historians and critics have written about the painting. Her musings, while articulate and informed are never ostentatious. Her thoughts are the modest offerings of one deeply seeped in the experience of looking at art.

One of my biggest challenges as an art history teacher is giving students tools for understanding art which do not prevent them from looking at art. E.H. Gombridge in his famous introduction to the “Story of Art” talked about the danger of acquiring enough knowledge about art to know what label we should be looking for. Remembering, for example, that Baroque art is often described using the term tenebrism, an Italian word that describes the dramatic effects of illuminated figures emerging from darkness, we may look at a painting by Caravaggio and mutter something about his distinctive use of tenebrism so that we may move on, confident that we have accurately and succinctly captured what it most characteristic about his work.

Art can be easy to pigeonhole in this way, and art history texts and museums often provide us with enough tools to sift and shift our way through each carefully demarcated school and movement with loosened tongues but closed eyes. But the history of art is not as clear and succinct as textbook editors might have us imagine and the process of walking through a gallery is not a scavenger hunt for matching the right artist to the right label. I have seen well-meaning students stroll museums comparing the information in the catalogue to the numbers on the wall beside the painting, content that they have successfully located all the Matisses and Gauguins. Knowing the history of art can be a valuable thing – it can help us to understand some the reasons why an artist made a particular choice and it can give us a richer language for describing subtleties of difference, but it can also have a negative effect on how we see a work at art. The interpretations and commentaries by historians, curators, philosophers and even the artists themselves can discourage us from developing independent engagements with the images by placing artists and movements into closed philosophical and artistic contexts.


Perhaps, one might argue, this is not a problem. We allow experts to interpret medical results, financial statements and weather forecasts for us; why not allow experts to look at art for us? Nelson Goodman, a philosopher of art, once asked this very question. While science and art, he argued, can both give us knowledge and insight on the way the world works, we need to personally engage and explore the work of art if we are going to gain insight from it. This is
because, unlike weather conditions or biology, works of art are imaginative responses to the world in which emerge. They require us, on some level to imagine with them. This is where looking at art becomes rather daunting for many, because art requires us to engage it if we are to understand it.

At some point many of us have entertained the question of how to make sense of art in the modern world, but have found it difficult to draw meaning from the amazing diversity of art forms, styles and movements. Perhaps we may argue, that we can appreciate the classic pieces, the Da Vincis, Michelangelos, and Rembrandts, for they are "realistic", or rather "naturalistic"; that is, they exhibit at least something "commonsensically" recognizable in their depiction of the subject matter, but how do we look at paintings without the visual “hooks” of familiarity? I would like to suggest that looking at paintings for what we recognize, or think we think we recognize, can often be a smokescreen for really seeing in the way that Sister Wendy suggests we try to see. It is easy to mistake familiar subject matter with the subject of the painting – what it is about.


What I would like to do is suggest three approaches to looking at visual art, in particular paintings, which, in isolation, can limit our scope of engagement. Each of these angles or approaches can provide knowledge and insight on how a painting communicates, but a full and fair approach to looking will recognize that these approaches are interdependent upon one another. Understanding art, I will argue, does not insist on a single perspective but a
willingness to accept the friction between approaches.



In an introductory art exercise I ask students to pick a painting that interests them from a selection of images and then explain their choice. Inevitably, a number of students will pick works that illustrate stories from the Bible because they draw connections between the subject matter and their own faith. As we look at the painting together I explain that there are many reasons historically why artists have used the biblical narrative as a source for material, many of which have little do with faith in the God of scripture.


We can rightly acknowledge that when we look at a painting there is more than the story that is being told. A painting is not just a view from a particular point, it is an image of reality through human eyes -- and all human eyes are subject to what we often call a worldview. The reformed tradition has done a good job of making the point that no theoretical enterprise, including art production, can free itself of a priori religious presuppositions. Many Christians rightly acknowledge the important contributions of Hans Rookmaaker here and his groundbreaking book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture in which he surveyed the history of art by paying attention to the impact that these commitments have had on painting. By using examples both classic and contemporary, Rookmaaker made the point that an artist does not merely set down a record of their time.  Rather, they reflect in their work the tempo, attitudes, hopes, tensions and ultimately, the fundamental religious commitments of their era.

While important, this aspect will only get us so far in looking at art. Armed with a quiver of “isms” well-meaning Christians can take this approach too far by approaching the history of art as a catalogue of worldviews. When this happens, worldview-speak can quickly degenerate from a useful tool into touchstone for censure. Art should not be looked at as if it were nothing more that the skin of an ideology which can be thrown away like the skin on a banana to get to the fruit on the inside. Reducing the whole of one’s work to their fundamental commitments ignores the possibility of God’s intrusive, surprising and scandalous grace.

While it is useful to understand the worldview assumptions that underlie a given work of art, we should not think of artists as philosophers, rationally constructing a unified approach to life; nor should we think of them simply as creatures of their times. A worldview approach to art will only be helpful if we really try to understand the worldview struggle -- to see a painting not as the expression of a dominant culture worldview, but the experience of struggling with questions of what it means to be human. Artists, like all of us, are complex, idiosyncratic and often inconsistent people.

Art can express joy, suffering, wonder, confusion and anxiety in a world in which we are both simultaneously at home and lost. It can sometimes express dominant cultural views, but it can also be in conflict with them.  My favorite example to clarify this point is Picasso. On one level, Picasso seemed to epitomize the powerful cultural dynamic that expresses rebellion against God by claiming an absolute autonomy to create -- free from all norms or societal constraints. This is a dangerous myth, and as Rookmaaker rightly observed, it has had a tragic impact on the course of modern art. We err, however, when we stand before a Picasso and only see a mirror reflection of these beliefs.

As Christians we believe that we as humans image God, often in surprising ways. None of us is completely bound by the culture spirits of our age. I am fond of showing my students Picasso’s Guernica, his response to an air raid by the German Luftwaffe on a Basque town in Northern Spain. The painting has become a timely and prophetic vision of the Second World War, and beyond its reflection of the violence imposed on Guernica, represents a loud warning against the monstrosities brought about by man's destructive war machine. The painting is now recognized as an international icon for peace. Because of Picasso, we have a better visual vocabulary for understanding war. As I look at Guernica I see a reflection of the God who suffers, who weeps. I am reminded that our history which includes Guernica, Rwanda and Auschwitz is shared by a God who is affected by every act of evil. So despite Picasso's self-declared
autonomy from God, his art can reflect the redemptive-creative potential inherent in creatures made in God's image -- the image of love, justice, creativity and suffering. This is the surprise, and it reminds me that God’s grace works its way through the cracks in unexpected places.


Words About Art

We should also recognize, when considering the role that worldview plays in our engagement of the work of art, the role that our own worldview plays in shaping what we see, how we make associations, and how we classify information. There is no such thing, as Gombridge was fond of pointing out, as an “innocent” eye. As Christians we have a set of assumptions about God and his world through which we interpret everything, including works of art. How then do we as Christians, people of the word, interpret visual languages?

While written text can have a comforting and powerful appeal for many people, the Protestant emphasis on word revelation as the primary source of God's truth has given many Christians an unconscious rational for subordinating images to spoken and written words. Given the seeming esoteric quality of art, many of us feel more comfortable reading words about art before looking at the art itself. A statement by the artist, a curatorial synopsis or even the title can provide the viewer with that elusive key to opening the dense inferences of symbols and imagery, and it is often to the words about images that many of us turn first when looking at art. Works of art
are, by their very nature, frequently indeterminate and ambiguous expressions. Words can define, clarify and provide guidance, and because of this, we assume them more reliable to trust than images.


But words can also obscure meaning in a painting. Consider the fifteenth century Flemish artist Jan van Eyk and his famous wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini. There is a puzzlelike quality to this painting which begs explanation, and it is tempting to begin looking at this piece by decoding it, by providing a legend to unlocking the allegorical meaning of each symbol, colour
and character. A dog, a single lit candle and peeled oranges may all be taken as allusions in a complex symbolic program to some higher spiritual significance or conceptual meaning. While such approaches are important, we can rely too heavily on what art historians call the iconographic scheme of the piece and not pay attention to the surface of the painting. In fact, much of the value in such an approach lies precisely in the fact that there is a deeper layer to the piece beyond the surface play of what appears to be a simple domestic scene.


Part of the explanation for how the piece communicates is to be found in paying attention to the form and style the artist uses – in this case, the way that Van Eyk pays attention to the contrasting textures of wood, fur, silk and metal, the delicate plays of light and the balance of colours. Indeed, when we go straight to the juggler of an allegorical narrative we sidestep the many-leveled properties of art and focus on a concept or idea that the images refer to, ignoring the very features of a painting that the artist was principally concerned with. Conceptual ideas, while important to understanding the bigger picture of meaning, are usually not the things that an artist is most attentive to. An artist is concerned with problems that are much more fundamental and basic – adjusting colours, making sketches and imagining multiple compositional possibilities.

It is perhaps a bias of the Protestant fondness for written text that we are drawn to paintings and works of art (particularly in the liturgical context) that most readily translate into a language we are already familiar with. The Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt represented this attitude well by attaching legends to the frames of Biblically-inspired images explaining what each symbol meant so that his viewer could more effectively “read” the image. In our Protestant tradition, this idea of “reading” a painting becomes one of those metaphors, to borrow a phrase from Lakoff and Johnson, that we live by – one that shapes our perceptions without us ever noticing. When my students ask me what a painting means, they are often asking me to provide them with a legend, a set of signposts to a verbal equivalent – they are asking me to “read” it for them.  The meaning of a work of art is not to be found merely in its narrative content, but in the way in which the narrative is being told.

A consistent refrain in my classroom is asking the question of how: how do the elements and principles of design fit the function of the piece? How do they work together to create meaning? The form, the way in which the artist treats his subject matter, is as revelatory of his or her deeper commitments as the content itself. For many of my students, this aspect of my teaching appears to be the most alien. An unfortunate side-effect of our conceptually-astute but visually-illiterate Protestant tradition is to “read” art as a visual reference to the textual tradition of Scripture and Classical mythology.

It is important that we pay attention to the words that have been spoken about artworks, but we should not do so at the expense of our own engagement. We should think of the process of looking at a painting as an act with two poles – at one end an experience which is personal and the other an experience that is communal. Communal understandings are passed on to us through art history and criticism. These remind us that artworks are linked to the particular world in which they were created, and responsible viewing will take into account the artistic conventions and intentions of the artist’s world.


We should not regard a painting as having unlimited potential to mean anything we would like it to. We should always allow cultural knowledge and historical facts to set limitations on our conjectural impulse as viewers. The philosopher Umberto Eco once talked about artworks having “rights”; that is, we the viewer should respect and honour the artist’s intent and the original function of the artwork so that we ask more responsible questions.

But we should also recognize as viewers that there is no single “right” way of looking at an artwork. When we look at a painting we need to recognize that whatever an artist planned for their painting is only partly a result of their own intentions and the artistic conventions operative when the work was produced. The experimental act of creation can often yield surprises for both the artist and the audience.

F or that reason, we should not think of artworks as isolated historical records, but things, while historically rooted, that have a life of their own. We should not only try to understand a painting, but appropriate it for ourselves; not only observe a painting but to make the world of the painting something we put ourselves in. The philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer described this as making a work of art “one’s own”.

The best words about a painting invite us to see things in the piece that we may have missed and then prompt us to continue exploring. They do not create a closed or fixed “reading” of the painting but should give us a greater sensitivity to the language of the artist. While part of this involves unpacking things like forms and symbols, good words about art will not try to reduce the fullness of visual expression to a literal equivalent.

Examining the Surface

Many modern artists have deliberately avoided engaging their subjects in a narrative manner as a way of exposing the conceptual or literary bias of western thinking. Later-nineteenth and twentieth century art has challenged our notion of art as a direct representation of the external world by offering abstract visions which are partial, precarious and unique. In modern art, the physical surface of the painting itself was brought to the fore as the raw process of creation, the artist wrestling with their medium, was exposed.

Modern art has taught us that it is important that the art not disappear behind the subject – that when we look at art we do not look through the surface to understand the narrative or subject to which it refers. But just as it is essential that the image not defer to the content, we also need to be careful that we do not fall into the trap of much twentieth century art criticism by paying attention to only the surface. When people tell me they prefer paintings that they find
pleasing or beautiful they are usually not talking about the content or the underlying worldview of the art, they are talking about the form of the art work. The word formalism describes an approach to looking at art that reduces the fullness of artistic expression to the basics – the relationships between shapes and colours. Formalism encouraged people to look closely at art and to only trust the evidence of their eyes – only what they could describe using a basic
grammar of line and composition. Like all grand-theories, formalism fell short because it attempted to reduce the many-facetedness of art to a common baseline. It divorced art from the fullness of what it means to be human and suggested that we come to understand art purely through aesthetic contemplation.

It is important that we pay attention to form in art and I teach my students the fundamental value of looking at the surface of the work through formal analysis. To disregard formalism completely is as dangerous as embracing it wholeheartedly. Formalism offered a language for discussing the mechanics of art, for paying attention to the way images are actually created in the studio. The predominant mode of expression in western art until the end of the nineteenth century was mimesis – the attempt by artists to mirror reality through recognizable forms on the canvas. The final illusion mattered but the process was regarded as a form of secret knowledge. Renaissance artists often burned their sketches and studies fearing that such insider knowledge would reduce the magical effect of art. Much modern art aimed to demystify this process by reducing art to its basics. But revealing the mechanism inside the top-hat shouldn’t strip the magic from a painting – it should show how much magic is inherent in the process of combining lines and colours in such a way that they spark an imaginative response.

An Integral Perspective

Looking at art should not be an onerous task. When we first look at a piece we may notice some equivocal feelings or make some quick mental connections, but our initial responses are usually not well-articulated interpretations. They are usually inchoate mutterings and vague thoughts. While the experience of looking at many paintings may help us, over time, become more familiar with distinguishing these emotions and thoughts, we should never let a fluency in visual language prevent us really looking. Perhaps one of the most useful things I tell my students is that this first stage of looking should be awkward – it should have a child-like quality of stuttering naivety. As we move closer to the work and away from it, blurting out observations to others and ourselves we slowly begin to transform initial impulses into something more lucid.


As we struggle to articulate our responses we should try to consider the image from diverse angles without reducing the totality of meaning to a single facet. By developing a nuanced approach that considers the aesthetic surface as well as the socio-historical circumstances of production, the biographical story of the artist, the dominant worldviews that shape the artist’s society as well as the collective language of symbol and metaphor that the artist draws upon, we can piece together a more complete picture of the work of art and its contextual story. Through this wholistic approach I encourage students to avoid isolating one aspect of a piece and allowing that element to dominate judgment. This is particularly useful when approaching works of art at what Calvin Seerveld calls the “troubled borders” of art – works that contain nudity, sex, blasphemy, or other elements that may be considered offensive.

As we look at art we should be aware that certain approaches such as formalism or worldview analysis may provide only a partial explanation of artistic experience because they fail to take into account the many ways in which metaphors and meaning become lodged in a work of art. We must also remember that a painting is not a propositional statement to be read and understood. Paintings, like all art forms, should grow with us, ever inviting us back to make new connections as we learn more about ourselves and God’s world, prepared to see with active eyes and willing to be surprised.

Dr. Christopher Cuthill


First Published in Comment Magazine, WRF, October 2006

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