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A recent BBC Radio interview considered the importance of viewing paintings in the flesh, so to speak.  Of engaging with art as physically close to the real thing as manners and gallery by-laws might allow.  It was discussed that one should spend ‘time’ observing the art and, importantly, be ‘present’ with it.

My recent visit to The Alte Pinakothek in Munich, the renowned art gallery and home of paintings by Rubens, Dürer and van Dyke, provided me with some of both.  I had an hour or so to visit between hopping off an Italy to Germany train, dashing through the Munich Christmas Market, and hopping back on. There was some time, but admittedly much less than a place like this deserved. I was nevertheless able to meet up close and be present with Flemish or Italian art.

But the painting that struck me even more, from within the gallery’s Dutch collection, was one I had neither the time nor permission to see.  It would have gone completely unseen had it not been for a postcard in the gallery shop and a reference in the gallery catalogue, that indicated it was somewhere in the building.  You see, while some collections were open for view, the gallery renovations – which started in 2014 and are on-going to 2017, had for now closed off the Dutch collection.

Within the ‘Old’ Pinakothek’s collection of Dutch art, Reading Woman (or Woman Reading) by Pieter Janssens Elinga in around 1660,  shows a solitary female – seated in a room, relaxed and reading.

Pieter Janssens Elinga (1623-1682) was born in Bruges in Belgium, and later moved to Rotterdam, then Amsterdam.

What is at first noticeable for me from Reading Woman is how marginal the room’s furnishings and accoutrements are made, in favour of reading a book. Physical stuff is side-lined for the cerebral or imaginative.    Then, the light – maybe a lazing afternoon sun – illuminates the room and the reading.  The spotlight effect presents the reading activity as central.  Even more so, perhaps the light becomes something of a motif for enlightenment in the room, the text and the 17th century woman pictured.  Next are the strewn shoes in the foreground.  They are seemingly cast off in a way that might seem palpably modern and free spirited. Yet maybe, the woman is actually from the servant class – suggested by the ‘Dutch cap’ she is wearing.

The painting, for me, evokes a calm, contemplative and peaceful atmosphere. Daily strictures removed and imagination expanded.  It is also perfect to prompt aspirations for a more reading-filled year ahead. In fact, although I haven’t read it, this painting has apparently also inspired fiction, in the form of Katie Ward’s debut novel ‘Girl Reading’.

So, I have found this work of art and I’ve looked at it, but have I really seen it?  Am I compelled to return to the gallery one day to see the painting in its original physical form?  It might be that a postcard and glossy brochure alone are unsatisfying proxies for truly being present with a work of art.  But what I have seen is the capacity for a reproduced painting, in book or postcard form, to create a layering of art encounter by which one might eventually, layer by layer, become truly present with a painting in all its dimensions.

See: The Alte Pinakothek, Munich and Reading Woman

© Laura Claire H  2015

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