amar Avishai has a voice like velvet. Flowing out of your earbuds, it will wrap around your brain like a spool of soft fabric and absorb your whole attention. This voice is the driving force behind The Lonely Palette, a podcast that unpacks the masterpieces of art history with style and humor.
Avishai aims to “return art history to the masses, one painting at a time.” So far, in two years and 35 episodes, she’s made good on this guarantee. The Lonely Palette is neither bougie nor boring, two adjectives that cling insistently to the art history world. In her first episode, “Art! What is it Good For?”, Avishai strolls through Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where she worked as a lecturer at the time, and asks visitors why they came to the museum. Often, they’re startled and also intimidated by her staff badge. When Avishai asks a visitor why she likes Cezanne, she turns red and answers, “I don’t know. I certainly couldn’t tell you in any fancy way.” This is the notion that Avishai sets out to combat: the sense that art is only made for an enlightened few. To do so, she describes each artwork in tantalizing detail. Every fraught pencil stroke of an Egon Schiele drawing is dissected. Each delicate arc Donatello carved in 1425 into “Madonna in the Clouds” is given its fair share of minutes in her episode. Avishai focuses on the concrete – the elements that anyone, art history connoisseur or not, can see. Using the physical as her base, she then zooms back to fill listeners in on the history.
Some of this history is anecdotal. In Mission: Mona Lisa, an episode that took Avishai months to complete because of its daunting nature, we find out that the famous moniker “Mona” is in fact a misspelling. It should be “Monna,” a nickname for “Madonna.” But as Avishai points out, this mistake is irrelevant today because the work is, after all, “the Mona Fucking Lisa.” (Another neat fact: the “Mona Lisa” not only receives 1,500 visitors per hour, but she also has her own mailbox at the Louvre for all the love letters that besotted viewers have written to her over the decades.)
There are a number of podcasts that aim to make art accessible. Some that come to mind are The Art History Babes, Art History for All and A Piece of Work. Even if you have listened to all of these, The Lonely Palette is still worth following because of the way Avishai looks at art. In the episode René Magritte’s The Son of Man, Avishai begins by recounting a road trip she took with her husband. At one point on the road, stuck behind a Jeep, Avishai remarked that she detests Jeep brake lights since they look like they have X’s over their eyes and “might as well have little tongues sticking out of the bumpers.” The back of the Jeep looks drunk, and she concludes that this is not a wise aesthetic for a car. Her husband, bemused, asks her if she frequently sees faces in inanimate objects. The question startles her because she figures, doesn’t everyone? She goes on to talk about pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon that makes some people see Jesus in a slice of toast and which is actually somewhat common.
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It takes about three minutes to tell this story – substantial in a 29-minute episode. So you start thinking, where is she going with this? What does this have to do with the famous painting of a man in a bowler hat and an apple hovering over his face? But in her final sentence, Avishai connects this galaxy of separate points she’s created, pulling all of her floating ideas together in a single breath. Her desire to see faces in everything, she explains, makes her especially frustrated when she looks at Magritte’s “Son of Man.” She’s vexed by the impish apple, which she claims is “cock blocking” her view of his face. Frustration. It’s not an immediately obvious emotion when looking at this painting. Amusement and confusion usually come first. But frustration is one of those feelings you might not realize you felt until Avishai calls your attention to it.
Even if you’re not reaching this conclusion, the pareidolia digression will make you question how you see objects – from sculptures to stop lights – in comparison to your peers. The study of art is about learning to see things in different ways, and Avishai offers you a new method in every episode.
Perhaps the concept Avishai explores most successfully is how to see works in a difficult environment: the museum. In a space that is designed for seeing and observing, it can feel like someone’s eyes are always on you – a guard’s, a fellow visitor’s, even a portrait’s. If you ever watch museum-goers walking around a gallery, you can see how hard it is at first for people to move their attention away from their own bodies and into the art.
A lot of this has to do with a visitor’s liberty to move in a museum. This freedom is rare in the arts. In a dance, theater or music performance, there is usually one focal point, an assigned seat, and dim lighting, all of which mute our senses towards fellow onlookers. Museums, meanwhile, are open spaces with bright lights and relatively few rules besides the ever-looming “Please don’t touch!” We are not fixed in a single spot and we can openly observe other visitors’ reactions. Curators guide the movement of patrons through how they design their exhibitions, but even those rules are flexible. When you enter a gallery you could go left or right, start at the back of an exhibition or work from the beginning. You get to decide what paintings you want to look at for twenty minutes and which drawings you’d prefer to breeze past. This freedom means that visitors are constantly forced to make decisions, most of which they are not aware of. With more freedom comes more fear and self-consciousness. One visitor explains to Avishai that when she walked into Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, she was afraid that she “wasn’t going to do it right. I don’t know if I’m going to spend the right amount of time looking at the painting.”
André Malraux, France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs in the 1960s, was one of the first thinkers to address the problem of the museum in his book The Voices of Silence (1953). In the past, he explained, art was created for a precise purpose and a specific place. Medieval statues of biblical characters were built into the architecture of a cathedral. In the 17th century, wealthy Dutch merchants commissioned portraits of themselves to display proudly in their homes. Even today, artists often create works with the knowledge that they will exist in a specific gallery or space. But then the works are taken out of this context and thrown together with other works on the vast white walls of a museum. Without context – or function, as Malraux puts it – these pieces can become extremely confusing. This is especially true when you reach abstract modern and contemporary art, works that are so strongly tied to their moment in history that you almost always need an explanatory plaque to fully understand them.
Works in this museum void become intimidating. Wall texts are a definite aid, but walking into a room full of French Impressionist paintings, while delightful, is undeniably overwhelming. Condensed together, these works are put into new conversations with one another but they are also launched into competition. How many times have you been to a museum and seen parents ask kids which piece is their favorite in a room?
In the past, Malraux explains:
“A painting was not exhibited, but unfurled before an art-lover in a fitting state of grace; its function was to deepen and enhance his communion with the universe. The practice of pitting works of art against each other, an intellectual activity, is at the opposite pole form the mood of relaxation which alone makes contemplation possible.”
The museum is stressful in Malraux’s mind and clearly to many of the visitors Avishai interviews in The Lonely Palette. But Avishai validates our confusion and anxiety. It’s okay, she says. And then, she shows us how to look.
Nikki Lohr has reported for the New York Observer, Hyperallergic, Untapped Cities and the former DNAinfo New York.