Arrived 6.45pm. Of course the first and main thing that strikes you is how boring it is. Normally in museums that’s not a problem – if you don’t like a particular painting, you just go on to the next one, or the next one, or the next one after that. You just keep going until you find one you like. There’s always the pleasure of discovery of “what’s around the corner”. Each painting appears like a little revelation.
But not any more. From now on, I’m only going to look at one painting. This one, in front of me: the one with the wave.
I look at it. There’s sea, and there’s sky, and there’s a horizon in between. I notice how flat the horizon is, which is a fairly literal observation. Then I start thinking about “eternity”, which is not at all literal. Something to do with the fact that the painting is just sitting there, and has been sitting there for an unimaginable length of time, whilst human life goes on all around it.
Then I start to think about how dark the room is, how gloomy. All the paintings in the room – there are eleven, plus a sculpture – seem to recede into the darkness. And they seem somehow too small. In fact everything here looks vaguely kitschy, which isn’t helped by the hideous decorative wallpaper on the ceiling. The painting of the wave though, looks like it’s from a different world. It looks so out of place here.
I leave. It’s 7.50pm.
Arrived just before 6.45pm. This is only my second visit, but immediately I feel distracted. I head straight for the café, get momentarily side-tracked in the bookshop, pick up a book by Goethe, read a couple of lines, and put it down. Already, by the time I reach the café, I’ve half-decided not to have a coffee. Then I fully decide not to have a coffee. I’m here to see the painting, after all.
But then I get distracted again and go up to the top floor to look at some paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. I look at one of his mountain scenes. I wonder momentarily about whether I’ve made the right decision with my choice of painting. I decide that I have, and go back down the stairs to look at it.
When, at 7.25pm, I finally reach the painting, I experience a few seconds of momentary pleasure of recognition of the familiar. I stand, gazing at the thick impasto of the froth on top of the waves. Two or three minutes pass, at which point I realise my thoughts had been entirely on other things: on work, on the weather, on a conversation I had this afternoon. Focus, I tell myself.
Everything here seems more real than last time. My experience seems more in the present. The cold, stark reality of the thing-ness of the painting seems prominent. There it is, on the wall, lit by the lights, facing into the room. The very tangible room. The room in which I’m sitting and six other people are standing, or walking. Circulating around the room with that studied unhurriedness typical of the casual museum-goer.
The painting remains oblivious to all this. The implied movement of its ocean continues to stir. Its wave still hasn’t crashed. Not since last week. But it’s about to. It’s always about to.
I decide to leave. It’s 7.55pm.
Arrived 7 o’clock. One thing I’ve just noticed about the painting is the way its top quarter is obscured by reflected light. This, in itself, isn’t particularly significant. But it does throw into focus the texture of the canvas, and the way its surface is covered in fine cracks. I also notice that if you stand a metre away, the waves seem at their frothiest. And if you step further back than that – say, two metres – the painting develops an overwhelming flatness. That is to say, its flat areas – the dark parts of the sea, the central areas of the clouds – they speak the loudest. Moving back and forth, I notice how the painting flits between movement and stillness.
It’s 8 o’clock. I decide it’s time to go. The painting just stares back at me, indifferently.
Arrived 9.10pm. I feel a palpable sense of excitement as I approach the corner beyond which the painting can be seen for the first time. And there it is. It looks great. The waves are roaring. The sky is thunderous. I’m extremely hungry. I’ve just been to see a film screening and have just refused an invitation to go and eat with some friends. I’m slightly regretting this decision now. But I shouldn’t be: looking at the painting with an empty stomach isn’t so different from looking at it in any other state.
I go up really close: closer than I’ve ever been. This is exciting. I notice new brushstrokes, new details, the acutely three-dimensional form of some of the breaking waves. I wonder how close I could go before the guard starts getting sweaty, and suspicious. I decide not to test it. I step back to a moderately close distance. It’s incredible how tangible the painting is from here. How material. How contemporary. I start to feel a sort of connection with the painter, physically, somehow. He must have stood this close a lot.
The painting seems more fraught today. The billowing clouds have a nervous energy. The waves strike me as being somehow mountainous, massive. The horizon is more electric, the whole vista is more zesty. All my senses are heightened. This has probably got nothing to do with the painting. Probably all the other paintings are behaving this way too. I decide to check one of them. It looks the same as it always does.
I leave, since the museum’s about to close. It’s 9.55pm.
Arrived 7.10pm. There seem to be a lot of people here this evening. So much so that, when I first approached the room, I felt part of a flood, that I was being unwittingly swept through the galleries. Then everything stopped and there was a brief moment of elation: there was the painting. Its intimacy and its detail felt marvellous. But that moment passed, and soon I felt I had to move on. So I moved on. But given that the whole point of coming here was to see the painting, this made no sense – so I decided to go back and have another go.
There are kinds of procedures for looking, routines that by now I have become used to doing. Moving in closer, for example: homing-in and focussing on the materiality, the brushwork of the waves. I try it. It doesn’t work. What about tuning in to the “sound” of the painting? I try that. For a brief moment I think I can hear something. But it doesn’t amount to much. Most of the time the waves simply stand still: silent, indifferent, oblivious.
What about moving back into the previous room and trying to catch sight of the painting again, as if for the first time? Would that spark something off? I try it out. It doesn’t; it was too staged. It’s no use: I can’t make the painting speak to me.
What is compelling, I suppose, is exactly this battle I’m engaging in. There are competing forces of silence and noise in my head: clear-mindedness is trying to hold its ground against jittery distraction.
I look at the painting again. The waves aren’t crashing. The clouds aren’t billowing. The froth isn’t frothing. No part of the image is doing anything. None of it. This is ridiculous. I decide to leave. It’s 7.45pm.
Arrived 7.25pm. As I turn the corner and allow my eyes to fall upon the painting, my immediate reaction is: “oh, god.” There it is. Exactly like it was last time. I gaze at it blankly for a while, and I’m struck by how completely uneventful a painting it is. It’s so deadpan. It’s so unbelievably matter-of-fact. “I’m a painting of some waves,” it seems to say. Or rather, it seems not to say. It’s so stubbornly literal and matter-of-fact that it doesn’t really say anything.
I decide to go home. I’m sure it’ll be different next time. It’s 8.20pm.
Arrived 7.20pm. I want to make a concerted effort today not to say too much. I want to avoid words. I want to engage silently with the painting. The temptation is always there for me to use the painting as a launch-pad for an evacuation of all my thoughts. To speak about whatever I’m thinking about, and to try to make some tenuous link with that and the painting. Today I want to avoid this sort of empty verbalisation.
I look at the painting. There are stormy clouds. There are waves. There is one particularly big wave. There is a horizon. More than that I don’t want to say.
There’s no doubt that already I’ve been looking at this painting for an unnaturally long time. I’ve fought with my desires not to look at it, and not to come and see it. But I’ve stuck with it. And so, as a consequence, words, ideas, conversations, verbal descriptions of the painting are constantly screaming around my head. This is what I’m having to fight against. I’m having to force myself to empty my head of all its thoughts. This sounds a bit like meditation, but really it’s got nothing to do with that. I don’t want to stifle what naturally happens when you look at a painting. It’s just that I don’t want to over-burden it with meaningless chatter.
The clouds, the sky, the waves, the ocean. All these things have nothing at all to do with my daily routine, with the habitual paths of my meandering consciousness. But I can’t separate the two realms. The landscape of the painting is impinging on my life. Its large wave is crashing into my own “sea” of trivialities.
I leave. It’s 8 o’clock.
Arrived 7.15pm. There is something about the waves in the painting that strikes me as different today. I couldn’t possibly explain what it was, or in what way they were different, but they are definitely appearing to me today in a new way. And the clouds too: they are also, somehow, different. The same clouds that are always there, every time I look at them – the precise same mass of painted forms, the same brushstrokes, the same colours, the same textures, the same compositional weight – all that is always the same. But sometimes, inexplicably, momentarily, it appears to me differently.
All of which reminds me of that old cliché about so-called great works of art: that every time you encounter them, you discover in them some new nuance, some fascinating new detail, some new feature which offers a new insight into their own nature, and the nature of the world at large.
I look at the painting for a long time.
Then I remember that I need to buy some milk on the way home. I leave. It’s 7.50pm.
Arrived 7 o’clock. The absurdity of what I’m doing hits me almost immediately today. The sheer insanity of the fact that I keep coming back here again and again to look at this thing, which always looks exactly the same. In fact, there might well come a time – and probably quite soon – where I find I’ve utterly exhausted the possibilities that this thing has to offer me.
But that’s just speculation. That’s something that might or might not happen in the future. Why should I try to preempt it actually happening? Looking at the painting now, I notice that it’s still offering me something. I shouldn’t get needlessly defeated by the prospect of it stopping. I should try to live for the moment.
I try really hard.
Eventually I notice something: that the horizon is actually quite uneven. It’s as if the sea was mountainous. But only very slightly – only in the extreme distance. I consider for a while how the painter might have plotted out the line before he painted it. With a piece of string, probably, stretched tight between two points.
I leave. It’s 7.40pm.
Arrived 7 o’clock. What I never wanted was for this whole thing to become some sort of endurance test. It’s just not a very interesting conclusion to come to that endlessly looking at a single painting is quite a difficult thing to do. But today I’m feeling that more than ever.
The painting, as usual, is frozen into its unchanging moment: the moment of the wave crashing onto the beach. It is always frozen into this moment. Okay, the moment is full of drama, full of implied action, full of powerful resonant expression. The moment is rich, rewarding, poignant. But it’s always the same moment. And it will always be the same moment.
That’s quite a depressing thought. I decide to leave. It’s 7.40pm.
Arrived 7.25pm. There’s a man standing in front of the painting, looking at it. This is the first time this has happened; every other time I’ve arrived so far the painting has simply been there, alone, unwatched, waiting for me to start looking at it. But this time it already has an admirer. He doesn’t look at it for long though. He obviously doesn’t like it.
Then a small group comes and sits themselves around the painting. They’ve brought fold-up chairs with them. They’re obviously serious. This has never happened before either. Five people are now paying close attention to the painting. Their guide tells its story: its art-historical context, its subject matter, its meaning. Most of this I’ve heard before – I’ve long since given up trying to make sense of the painting through other people’s words. It’s all interesting stuff, and to begin with it certainly enriches the experience of looking. But after a while all this circulating mass of information starts to seem overbearing and unnecessary.
The group leave. They’d been sitting there for little more than five minutes. ‘Now we’re going to look at another painter,’ the guide tells them, before marching off towards the opposite end of the room.
The group have gone now, and the room is quiet again. This is how it usually is. I think the painting prefers it this way.
I leave. It’s 8.05pm.
Arrived 7.25pm. I’d been approaching today’s visit with something less than complete enthusiasm. I’d even considered going into another museum first, to look at something else, like some ancient Egyptian artefacts, or something. I wasn’t really in the mood to look at the painting. The day just wasn’t a “looking at a painting” day. It was more of a “sitting in a park enjoying the warmth of the sun, drinking a beer, and having a picnic with some friends” kind of a day. But now that I’m here, I’m glad that I’m here.
I spend a long time just looking. Today the waves seem bigger and more terrifying. The brushwork seems to emphasise this even more than usual. In certain places there’s an intensity and violence to the way the paint has been applied, which adds to the effect. Especially towards the right hand side: the form of the breaking wave in the foreground here seems quite ill-defined. There isn’t a particularly convincing shape to it. But the force and energy of the brushwork more than makes up for this.
I leave. I’m not sure what time it is – I left my watch in the cloakroom.
Arrived 8.10pm. Before I got here this evening I’d thought about how purposeful today’s visit was: I’d been at home, I’d stopped what I was doing, I’d left the house, and I’d come straight here. And later I would go straight home and carry on with whatever it was that I’d been doing. The visit would be a mere interruption, a blip in the narrative of the day, a productive break in the flow of ordinary life.
But what goes on in the outside world rarely has any bearing on what goes on in front of the painting.
Standing here in front of it, I realise how far away I am from that sense of efficiency. Looking at the same old waves and the same old clouds, I’m struck by how much of an effort it all is.
Then suddenly a thought strikes me: it looks just like a real wave crashing onto a real beach. It’s utterly convincing. More convincing than a photograph could ever be. I’m sure I must have thought about this before – I’ve definitely read something about it, anyway. Something about the fact that the painting has a different temporality from a photographically reproduced wave, that it somehow lasts longer, or at least stays with you longer.
Well, that was certainly a thought; but it wasn’t really followed up by anything. In fact, I’m getting increasingly worried by the infrequency of my responses to the painting. I need to try to respond more often. I need to ensure that I have more than one thought per visit. That’s not very much really.
I decide to leave. It’s 8.45pm.
Arrived 7.20pm. ‘Hey, a naked woman!’ says a man to his friends as they enter the room and spot the painting of a naked woman. The naked woman in question is located exactly opposite my painting, and because of this I’ve tended not to pay too much attention to her, as I generally have my back to her. I’ve never noticed before but she seems to be holding a rather dismissive hand out towards my painting, gesturing as if to say, ‘oh no, not that boring painting of a wave again!’
I leave. It’s 8.10pm.
Arrived 8.10pm. I’ve now got to the stage where my expectations of the painting are so low that I can’t even be disappointed any more. I expect nothing, and it gives me nothing. My relationship with the painting seems to have reached something like neutrality.
Maybe I should try to observe it a bit more methodically, just like I used to. Pay attention to how it looks. It’s a scene looking out to sea, from the point of view of a beach. The weather’s stormy: there are some threatening looking clouds hanging low against the horizon. The clouds are dark, dense, threatening. They are either blowing in off the sea towards us, or blowing away out to sea. The storm has either just started, or it’s about to stop. I’ve never really worked out which. To be honest, I’ve never really thought about which it is before. I guess that’s just one of the painting’s many temporal ambiguities.
Half of the picture is sky, and half of it is ocean. The ocean is raging: huge waves are crashing onto the beach, and the ships far out at sea in the distance look tiny and vulnerable against the might of nature. There’s nothing else in the picture, apart from a small area of sand in the bottom left hand corner.
Going through the contents of the picture like this – chronicling what’s actually there in the painting – does have its merits. It’s important not to neglect the facts, and not to get too carried away in flights of speculative interpretation. There is great value in simple, objective description.
I leave. It’s 8.50pm.
Arrived 7.35pm. This, I’ve decided, will be my last visit. After today I’m not going to look at the painting of the wave any more.
I’ve invested so much time and effort in looking at it, but nothing has ever really changed: it’s no different now from how it was at the beginning. But I must have changed, surely? I’m several months older now than I was at the beginning. And I know a lot more about the painting. I’ve read a lot about it, I’ve had a lot of conversations about it, and I’ve looked at it a lot.
There are things about the painting that will never stop fascinating me. For example there’s one particular wave in the mid-distance that seems particularly compelling today. It’s just breaking, and in a few moments it’ll come crashing onto the beach just like the larger ones in the foreground.
But I’ll never get to see that happening. It’ll never happen. It’ll never be anything other than a wave that’s a few seconds away from crashing onto the beach. It’s been that way every time I’ve looked at it, and it’ll be that way forever – regardless of whether I’m here to look at it or not. There’s something quite amazing about that, I think.
I spend a long time gazing blankly at the painting. I can’t think of anything to say about it.
Eventually I realise I have to go – I’ve arranged to meet someone and it’s getting late. I take one last look over my shoulder as I leave the room, and pause for a moment. It strikes me that the painting is suddenly roaring – it’s alive, magnificent: it has a burning and captivating mystery that never goes away. And then immediately after that, another thought enters my head: I’m a bit bored by this painting, and I’m quite glad that I’m not coming back. I think I prefer the first thought.
I leave. It’s 8.15pm.