Not Preparing for Death, Albrecht Dürer, Woodblock Print on Paper, 1492
There is a lot to be said about Albrecht Dürer as an artist and a printmaker, and how he brought those two titles together. However, I’m not going to say any of that right now. I’d like to talk not about the artist, but the art, and more importantly, art in general. This Fall marks the beginning of my fourth year working at the Mitchell Gallery, and I have grown to know and love every inch of it, from it’s beautiful high ceilings to it’s one creaky floorboard. Yet I see one thing again and again that makes me very sad, and I’ve seen it often this exhibit. Visitors often come into the gallery, spend a very long time reading each and every plaque, but only glance at the actual piece of artwork for a few seconds before moving on. I understand this impulse. The world of art seems dense and impenetrable, full of technical terms and categorized by specific movements. We look to plaques and brochures and audio tours and docents as a resource, as fearless guides through the winding forest of art history. These resources are invaluable, but it breaks my heart when I hear people say that they lean on these things because they “don’t get art” without them. But here is a secret- the only thing you need to “get” art is a bit of patience and a soul. Anyone can gain something just from looking at art.
My suggestion for overcoming this fear of art for arts sake? When you look at art, start with just the title and the medium and then look back to the art itself. Find things you think are beautiful or unsightly, think about the subject, and if there’s a clear “message” the work is trying to portray. Just experience the visual, either for a minute or five or ten. Then, if you’re still curious, read the plaque to gain more information – but don’t use it as your starting point.
To prove this method will give anyone something valuable, I’ve done the same thing with a work that is in the Mitchell Gallery right now which I have not read the plaque for, “Not Preparing for Death.” It’s an almost comical image. The man seems a little scared, but mostly annoyed by the skeleton hassling him. The skeleton is surprisingly expressive, both patience and persistence on his face. The background is also detailed, there are even little buildings on the hill in the background. The metaphor in the print is clear but layered – this man is too busy to die. He refuses to prepare and is instead hustling away to go on with his life. Yet there’s the other layer, that of course we will all die one day, that you can’t run away from death. The small size and detail of the lines add to the sense of catching a snippet of someone else’s life.
All of that, and no biographical information, no technical knowledge, no familiarity with art movements necessary. Anyone can look at art and see something valuable, and walk away richer for the experience. Galleries should be places for all people to see the beauty of art, and to feel connected to it. Next time you are in our gallery, or any museum, take a moment to ignore the plaques and experience the art for yourself. You might learn more than you would expect.
—Kelsey Cumiskey, SJC Student, A19
Albrecht Dürer: Master Prints is organized by the Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania. Exhibition support provided by Rex and Katharine Pingle, Cynthia and Ed Shumaker, and Joan Vinson.
Gifts in kind: Art Things, Inc., Graul’s Market, Kathleen McSherry, Up.St.ART, and Merrifield Graphics and Publishing Service.