Tag Archives: galleries

Book sniffing note: André Kertész: Paris, Autumn 1963

Books – especially books that are not filled with trains of words meant to be ridden from end to end – can be like visiting a museum or gallery. You will find a route through, but it can be any of many routes. You can spend a long or short time. You can pause in some places, hurry past others. You can swim in them, letting it all flow past you as though you are a fish in an aquarium. And you can simply enter and let the smell tell you that you are where art is.

Yes, the smell. Museums and galleries have smells, some stronger than others. The gradual decay of paint, the aging of paper, the exhalations of exalted and exhausted visitors, the wandering aromas of the café in the basement. You could put me to sleep, blindfold me, and awaken me in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and I would say “Ah! The MFA! It’s been years since I was last here.” And books – art books in particular – are like that too.

Art books use different paper, often glossy paper with a clay content, and they use different amounts and kinds of ink, and they come from different printing plants. Opening an art book can be to your nose like revving an expensive car is to your ears: Yes, you are here, this is going to happen.

I have various art books. They don’t all smell the same, but most of them smell like art books, some more pointedly than others. I have just sat down with a not-too-thick clothbound dust-jacketed volume of one of my favourite photographers: André Kertész: Paris, Autumn 1963, printed by Flammarion. The photographs are what it says on the cover, pictures of people in a city at a time, captured by master of the camera. There is an essay at the start about the assembly and production of the book; it’s so interesting, I actually read it. But before I get to word one, before I can examine in detail the scenes in black ink and white paper, I open this book and my nose knows.

It knows that smell of a mixture of tangy ink, just a few shades off from oil paint in a gallery, and paper such as filled certain books languishing in a small-town library I visited when I was young, or lurking in the stacks of my university’s library in my first year, waiting for me to pull them off the shelf and open them and feel like a scholar. There are overtones of the fetid mushy smell of pulp mills in small mountain forestry towns, but only in the background, like wet newspaper you pass on a damp sidewalk. This pulp has been refined, pressed, dried, and educated. This is a smell of paper with glasses on and one eyebrow half raised. 

But with the ink, that arty ink in its arrangements, it is the smell of an old book of photographs, raising a beckoning finger, asking me to come and sit down on the floor of the stacks gazing at a page that has no words, bidding me bide a while looking at soft old images of people long since buried but here still young and alive. It is a smell of life that has stopped and flattened itself against a page like a shadow of a cat awaiting the passing of peril, and it will not move while death walks the earth. 

Come, come, sit down, stop, stay. Look at us, look at this, let the words end so that the world does not end. This is how life was once, when the world was black and white. And you have smelled it before, this smell that stalks galleries and art stores and the halls of your parents’ rich friends’ houses, and you know that you can come and abide with it, this autumn petrichor breathed through the open window of a paint-stained garret, this aroma that so often shades into coffee or wine, and then you can stand up and put it back on the shelf and return to the world of colour and movement and the odor of things that change.


I love being in galleries.

Every city I visit, if there is an art gallery, a nice, large art museum, I will surely go to it. (Unlike museum, gallery can also name a place you can buy art; but the ones I go to are mostly art museums.) I will walk in the door and dive into the art. I will inhale the smell of old oil and acrylic and the myriad modes of preservation, mixed with the aroma of the cafeteria – they always smell the same, museum and gallery cafeterias, and the aroma of their coffee wafts through the halls and mixes with Matisse and Titian and O’Keeffe and Sheeler and Cassatt and Caravaggio and Degas and the gallery itself – and I will wander past these windows onto other worlds, the heightened moments and vivid observations of so many hypersensitive minds and eyes and skilled hands, and I will swim through and past the other people too, peering and photographing and sketching and resting. I will read placards and I will pull off my spectacles and lean close to inspect the strokes. I will soak in this inland sea, the water of life and breath saturated with the salt of artists’ sweat and fretfulness.

A sea? An aquarium. The paintings are the windows. But they are not the windows to the exotic tanks; I am a fish, we all in the gallery are fish, and the paintings are the windows looking out, through which we are seen or ignored by the people and plants and animals, the scenes and dreams, the abductions and abstractions, that we see through them. They are a view for us to the divine, the transcendent, the hyperreal, the world the way we always try to make it be but never quite succeed – and they are a view of us by that world, as it looks in for a moment and continues on. Every artist has been given a window, or several, to clean, and they have cleaned them in different ways so we can see differently, always at least a little obscured or smeared or diffracted; this is how we know we cannot allow ourselves to believe that we see it exactly as it is (a mistake we often make in the “real” world). We know we see layers and angles, freezes and melts, the slashing and dotting gestures of the painters and the hard caresses of the sculptors. All so that we may see, and all so that we may be looked into. Or ignored, pointedly.

Well, if we are ignored by some of the art, we at least do not always ignore each other. In a gallery I love the art, and I love the architecture, but I also love the art lovers, the gallery-goers, the human element. They are often so amusing, and some are so pleasing to the eyes. I hope it will not gall you too much if I say I like the gals in galleries, especially the elegant ones, lingering long, eyes open, looking well and looking good. There are often entertaining gentlemen too. When we were recently in the Rijksmuseum I took photos of the people looking at the art, like brightly coloured fish at the glass. You see, just as we tap on the glass to get the fish to respond, the paintings put on a show to catch our attention and bring us around in hopes of feeding on the soul food they promise. They feed us regal lies, but they tell us too that the world is not all grey, even if it largely is; they provoke our allergies with the lees of the grail from which we have drunk, but as we cross their sill we are eager still for all that is within their gyre.

Not all galleries are art galleries, of course. There are rogues’ galleries, shooting galleries, the cheap seats in a theatre (whence playing to the gallery, which the paintings too are doing), and assorted long arcades: architectural features with a wall on one side, a ceiling above, and arches on the other. Gallerias. There’s a galleria in front of the building I live in; it extends along the front of the hotel next door, too. It’s a great place on a weekend to watch people shoot their wedding photos. Yes, it’s not quite the same word, galleria, but that’s just because galleria is the Italian version of the word. A galleria is a good place for viewing art: sheltered but daylit. Now we may see art in a gallery that has the name but neither daylight nor arches.

Whence comes the word? Oddly, we are not entirely sure, but it seems it’s from Galilee. The porch of a church – next to the narthex – was sometimes called galilea, possibly because it was at the far end from the altar as Galilee (Galilaea) was far from Jerusalem. Its name transferred to the colonnaded form, as will happen (think of your attic). But while the galilea is far from the altar, Galilee is where the person came from that the churches are all about; he is the entry point to the faith.

Have you been to Galilee? It is hilly, but it is also laky: one big lake, to be exact. If you take the road there from the Mediterranean, you drive uphill for a bit, and across the plain of Megiddo, and drive back downhill for a bit, and you can reckon you are at about sea level. And then you crest an edge and see that you are going much farther down still, down to the lake, more than 200 metres below sea level. It is as though some massive gravity has warped the space-time of the landscape, and everything flows towards it. Well, not everything; it has one outlet, the river Jordan, which drains it and flows as the axis of the Holy Land down to the Dead Sea, which has no outlet but the air and is so saturated with salt you can easily float on it.

Galleries have a similar gravitational pull on me. I flow towards them and pool in them and swim in them. They are places where I can cast my glance to one side and catch nothing, and cast it to the other side and find it overflowing. They are places where storms may be bred by mistrust and stilled by rebuke. They are places where water is walked on. I am not the one walking; I am one of the fish holding up the feet of the walker, because I crave the touch of the transcendent.