Skills for the gallery: different ways to interpret art


Skills for the gallery: different ways to interpret art

Walking into one of the many galleries located around South Africa may lead you to feel like a bit of a lost sheep. Especially if you wouldn’t exactly call yourself an artist or art connoisseur.  But the fact that you still find art interesting enough to view, means you may, in fact, possess the skills you need to interpret and appreciate the art in front of you. And that’s all artists are really asking for, anyway.

We’ll be looking at the different ways you can interpret works of art and actually enjoy those trips to art museums and galleries.


Artist context

It will make a great difference to your gallery experience if you’ve done some research on the artist whose work you’re about to see beforehand. Having the artist’s context in the back of your mind while you view their work will help you better understand why certain materials, styles and images are used.

You’ll also find out what themes they are famous for depicting in their artworks, which will help you place the artpiece’s theme and context as well. Context makes many things in life easier to understand and art is no exception to that fact. And, specifically, with the change African art is undergoing with artists creating more contemporary pieces with a head-on approach to controversial societal and political topics (founded on their individual contexts), you’ll want to understand and interpret them correctly.  


It’s not always meant to be obvious

The next thing you need to keep in mind is that many pieces of art aren’t always meant to be obvious. So, if it only takes you a few seconds to look at an artwork and think you know what’s happening because you recognise symbols and materials, please try again. Yes, it may be a face, but the painting probably isn’t only about a woman’s face. Different paint strokes and techniques in different areas of the face can mean different things. As well as different colours, or just the general use of colour, can mean something so much more.

You need to allow yourself some time to go through the steps of appreciating and interpreting a piece of art. Never assume you know all there is to know by assigning generic meaning to seemingly generic symbols in art. Art is created to make you think. So take your time.  


What do you see?

But, it’s not to say that the more obvious things don’t help with interpreting the artwork at all. In fact, a great way to start is by simply asking “What do I see”. What colours, textures, materials, art style, shapes, shades, repetition and/or patterns are in this art piece? You can’t begin to start interpreting something with no base of understanding the fundamentals of what it’s made up of.

When you have the basic description down, you can start considering what those all mean individually and together. Because, remember, it’s not always meant to be so obvious.


What does it mean?

Taking the information based on what you see and the knowledge of the artist and their context, you can start deciphering what it means. Can you follow the strokes and find a movement or energy in the artwork? What emotions are depicted and translated through colour association and art technique? Is it conveying tranquillity or turmoil? Take everything you see and take it deeper to understand it better.  

When it comes to interpreting works of art it’s about iconography in the symbols we pick up that helps us to understand what the piece as a whole means.


How do you feel?

Now that you get an idea of what the artwork is conveying, you can consider how your interpretation of it is making you feel. Do you understand it? Are you moved by the art style as it was intended to move you? Can you link the meaning of artpiece to you with its title?

You also need to understand that everyone is going to have their own interpretations at the end of the day. Symbols mean different things to different people and the interpretations may be similar but they’re, likely, not the same. Just as poets who write poetry have a message they wish to deliver to a reader through their words, artists have a message they wish to deliver to a viewer through their art techniques. But it is the viewer who has the final say at the end of the day. Your personal associations will lead you to understand an artwork differently than another viewer and that’s why there are instances where you won’t understand a certain piece of art almost at all. And you need to know that that’s okay.

Take everything you’ve experienced from this one piece of art and hold onto it as you go through the process of the next artwork. This way you will be able to compare emotions, understanding, feelings and ease of interpretations that will help you criticise and assign value to different artworks – based on the experience you have with them.