How can we appreciate art without knowing much about it? A beginner’s guide

lillith By Lillith Vanian-George, Fraud & Investigation (F&I), Assurance

I have always been interested in art, as a child I paid more attention in art class than math (probably explains my grades)! As I grew into my teens, however, I started to wonder if my (amateur at best) knowledge of art was enough to really appreciate galleries. This led to a lull in my engagement of art, as I never seemed to find the time to read and watch and learn about art. I was embarrassed that if I went to a gallery and someone asked me a question my answer would be wrong…or worse…stupid. As an adult I started to realise that art is subjective, and anyone can appreciate art. One person may be brought to tears of joy looking at a piece of art, while another might scoff in disgust. It doesn’t require a degree, just an open mind and the positive attitude to be engaged.

In the past few years I have been making the effort to go to galleries all over London but somehow I had never managed to make it to Tate Modern. Modern Art always seemed confusing to me, but I was given the opportunity to represent EY at the Wifredo Lam exhibit as an art guide, and I jumped at the opportunity. I took part in some training prior to the event which just reconfirmed the idea that anyone can appreciate art, and you can learn as much or as little as you like.

Prior to my evening as an art guide I learned about Wifredo’s life and how his experiences shaped his art. Lam is sometimes colloquially known as the Cuban Picasso, and when I learned more about him I discovered how both his heritage and his environment formed his style, much as it must do for all of us! Lam was born to a Chinese father and a Spanish/African mother and showed a skill for art at an early age. This led to him travelling to Europe, specifically Spain and France where he worked closely under Picasso. Picasso drew out his cultural heritage, helping Lam transform and define his own unique artworks. He also lived in Spain during the Civil War, and encountered several hurdles in his life both personal and professional.

As I wandered the exhibit, with this prior knowledge I could see the changes in his work. His work in the early 1920’s, when he first arrived in Europe are very traditional and realistic. A sharp contrast to his work in the mid to late 1930’s during the Spanish Civil War.

In his Self Portrait II, painted in 1938 and when Lam first arrived in France, you can see a very defiant pose, was this perhaps reflective of the turmoil in his life? He had fled from Spain and was now being exposed to the French Modern Art movement. This is very different to his realistic style in his earlier works.
His style sometimes becomes erratic, for example during his time spent in a refugee camp in Marseille during the German assault on Paris. These drawings are passionate sketches, with sharp angles and bold lines.

All these changes in his style reflected a major change or hardship in his life. Much like how we might get a new haircut or a new outfit if we get a new job, or go through a difficult time. Ultimately, my empathy and understanding of human behaviour prepared me for the exhibit just as well as any art course ever would.

Modern art, and art in general for that matter, is not about how much you know. It is about how it makes you feel, and how it makes you think. Before you visit the Wifredo Lam exhibit, have a brief look into his life and his history. See if you can connect the dots between his work and major life events. It brought me a new perspective on Modern Art, and helped me appreciate the humanity and passion within his work.

I am glad I decided to visit the exhibit, and be a part of it. I have learned a lot about Modern Art and I have accepted the fact that no matter my knowledge level I can still enjoy a gallery. Whether you are a seasoned gallery aficionado, or a keen bright-eyed newbie like myself, this exhibit will open your eyes and make you think about Lam’s life, and maybe even your own!

The EY Exhibition: Wifredo Lam is open until 8 January at Tate Modern. EY people receive free access as part of The EY Tate Arts Partnership.