“A landscape picture is an image of the outside world adorning the walls of our indoor world. The Getty turns its vistas into posthistorical landscape pictures framed by the windows. The galleries for the permanent collection forms three-quarters of a circle, so you complete the collection by looking at the city below. Meier thus actively encourages the visitor to look outward and think of the landscape as an additional work of art.”
David Carrier, Museum Skepticism.
In his essay on the Getty, David Carrier observes that unlike most museums where one moves inwards and away from the city, seldom reminded of its existence, the Getty constantly makes you aware of the outside world, thanks to the intentions of its architect Richard Meier. Due to windows and apertures embedded in the Getty structure, a number of vistas are created through which Los Angeles and the external environment is visible, even inside the galleries.
“The spatial experience should allow for contemplation of works of art from close up, and from a distance, but there has to be a periodic interval allowing the viewer to see nature, to see natural light, and to have a syncopated rhythm of experiences as one moves through. Otherwise museum fatigue takes over.” 
Richard Meier, architect of the Getty.
Is Meier right that movement through the gallery should be refreshed by views of nature? Isn’t simply looking at landscapes of Claude, Poussin, and Ruisdael sufficient to remind us of the beauties of the countryside, even though they are painted representations of the natural world? Some historical perspective is needed here. Claude and Poussin were lucky to discover a market that would pay for landscapes inspired by classical poetry and erudition; poor Ruisdael starved as landscapes met no social need. Later there was more demand for landscapes in the age of the Grand Tour as patrons used art to familiarize themselves with local landmarks. This is clearly of interest to the Getty since one of its curators noted how travellers on the Grand Tour who looked at landscape paintings and Italian art “tried to see the relationship between art and the place it depicted.” In our times we seldom observe how the dynamic between landscapes in galleries and topography may affect the museum experience since galleries deal with “museum fatigue” by building cafes, shops, providing seats and temporary exists from the museum, not by opening the walls to the outside world which the gallery-goer has abjured for a short time. Recovery, or the process by which the malaise of “museum fatigue” is relieved, is dealt with by these amenities inside the museum, not by recourse to the outside. However, in addition to these conventional amenities, the Getty weaves nature into its design in order to soothe the visitor’s body as well as ameliorating the onslaught on their senses. Thus, “intervals for visual relief” to combat “visual competition “are programmed into the visitor’s experience. The museum is no longer sheltered, but open to nature. Wether this soothes the exhaustion, both physical and mental, that assails the museum visitor on their journeys through the modern museum, is debatable. There is also the equally important question of wether it neutralizes reverie in front of paintings in the museum.
“…I could think of no simpler or surer way of carrying out my plan than to keep a faithful record of my solitary walks and the reveries that occupy them, when I give free rein to my thoughts and let my ideas follow their natural course, unrestricted and unconfined. These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day when I am completely myself and my own master, with nothing to distract or hinder me, the only ones when I can truly say that I am what nature intended me to be.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Debates about the restorative qualities of nature can be traced back to the philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau who advocated nature as an antidote to the turbulence of civil society which he saw as corrupt. According to Rousseau, if there was such a thing as happiness, it could only be experienced in a natural state free from any agitation. In the 1770s Rousseau wrote a series of philosophical meditations inspired by his walks around the environs of Paris, which are wonderful a mélange of anecdotes, recollections of people and places, and philosophical reasoning brought to bear on assorted topics. His Réveries du promenades de solitaire attempts to recreate walks through nature while thinking which provides an analogue for the flexible intelligence of a mind on the move. Rousseau is useful when considering how nature can be merged into the act of moving through the galleries although his ideas have yet to be absorbed into the literature on visual processing, thought and museums.
“Reverie is a mode of introducing personal material into a picture or a building: it brings an abundance of thoughts and feelings into play. It also frees us from merely following routine assumptions. The word itself derives from the Old French ‘revel’. Etymology here helps draw our attention to the vagabond quality of associations: they don’t follow the expected or standard line, so more interesting moods and ideas can enter this way into our relationship with a work of art.”
John Armstrong, The Intimate Philosophy of Art.
In his meditation on aesthetics and visual and cognitive processing of art in museums the philosopher John Armstrong describes “reverie” as “the state of giving ourselves up to the flow of associations…a passivity of the mind which allows the activity of associations to go unimpeded.” Armstrong recounts how Autumn Sunshine, a painting by Edward Arthur Walton helps him to recollect a long, afternoon walk taken in childhood during which he saw trees such as are depicted in Walton’s painting. This might be seen as a Rousseau-like promenade where paintings serve to trigger the memory and generate impressions along the way, but this experience with its overlay of pictorial and material landscapes is closer to Rousseau’s contemporary Denis Diderot who wrote on the landscape painter Horace Vernet by debating nature and art as he “walks” through four “sites”, each of which are based on landscapes by Vernet, but which recall places known to the philosopher.
Diderot’s “walk” should be distinguished from Rousseau’s because it is framed by a picture or his knowledge of that picture, or on a metalevel by the authority of the museum and art history. This is the act of imagining yourself “walking” through a painting in a museum that observes the hierarchy of art history, but where nature interrupts in the form of landscapes. This is not the same as rambling through a museum in which the experience depends upon nature occasionally, but physically, interceding in the form of light and atmospheric phenomena, which clearly changes the way painted landscapes are viewed in museum situations, something I shall consider in a companion post. Diderot is not concerned with how architecture captures and structures light since he says nothing about the aesthetics of the museum in his “sites.” Meier on the other hand stresses the “periodic interval,” the gaps in the museum space through which nature is glimpsed through the walls of the museum, not depicted nature interrupting, though these views of Los Angeles visible through the gaps might be seen as the equivalent of painted views enjoyed by the hilltop viewer in the same way as the Grand Tour traveller marvelled at Rome from well-chosen vantage points, like in Turner’s Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino at the Getty..
“We need to provide many intervals for visual relief, rest and reflection, for it defeats our purpose to tax the visitor’s body and overload his senses. Looking at art should be an intense experience. After a while recovery is necessary, for which we need to provide appropriate spaces.
Getty’s instructions to Richard Meier.
As an architect Meier is obviously thinking of interval in terms of the physical building, which invites comparisons between civilization and nature. However, an analogy which dispenses with architecture and civil society exclusively in favour of the natural setting would be walking through a wood rather than a built manmade structure where nature periodically appears. Visual interval in this imaginative locale would also be construed as natural, namely the flickering of light through the branches of trees, natural interruption though not as “syncopated” as in Meier’s architectural aesthetic where interval is paced evenly. What is useful about the wood analogy for the museum is that it brings nature mentally into the act of moving through picture galleries, which is not what Meier intended at all. According to this modification, the random play of light through the branches suggests the associative, impressionistic mode of reverie which isn’t what the Getty aesthetic would actually accomplish, just a periodic emission of light, the visitor marching to the beat of the museum. The idea of reverie stimulated by nature occurred to me last year while walking through the narrow, crepuscular back passages of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On my expedition, I performed my own “natural light experiment” by imagining that I was ambling along a path in a darkened wood, and that entering large rooms of old masters was akin to emerging into large clearings open to the sky where the light was brighter. I had come up with this idea several years after visiting the Getty, and now reading about Meier’s architectural vision, I can see the appropriateness of Rousseau’s naturalised promenade for thinking about the ideas I’m exploring here.
Heading towards a conclusion. Though I would accept Meier’s point about nature as temporary relief from modern “museum fatigue”, I am still cautious about extending this model to museums generally. I am too much of a museum introvert to want to share the external world with the gallery despite the glorious vistas on offer. If the Getty does mark an outward turn in museum culture, it is one I deplore. Whilist I am sociable in everyday life, the museum for me symbolises a refuge from modern life and crowds. Though respectful of its public mission, I need to have a private calming experience which unhappily is threatened in the age of the neo-liberal museum. Though this warrants a blog post of its own, if we think about this outward turn in terms of personality, it might be argued that museums are less likely to appeal to introverted people who want to introspect in front of paintings in museums. As institutions are pulled towards what could be called the “extraverted” model by the neoliberal dogma, which pressurizes museums to turn towards the outside world in order to stress their accountability to civic society, the opposite of Rousseau’s tranquillity in nature, the consequences for what I am calling the museum introvert are sobering.
My emphasis here is not in applying personality types to museum demographics, though it is an interesting idea, but in speculating on how this outward turn might affect what we could call cognitive style, the varied ways of reflecting on pictures in gallery space as well as thinking about the process of thinking itself as affected by the conditions within the gallery including natural and artificial light. The challenge is to come up with ways of reacting to that aesthetic and cultural shift in museums, and my Vienna experiment might be regarded as both a symptom of the condition I’ve just described as well as a way of developing a cognitive style that reacts against the outwardly orientated museum and its appropriation by civil society and neoliberalism. In order to preserve a private, introverted experience in the modern externally -orientated museum, I imagined myself as Rousseau’s solitary walker seeking a kind of privacy in nature, where inner reveries, thoughts, fragmentary associations, stimulate mental processes inside the visitor’s head, augmented by images of the outside world on the gallery walls. As the neoliberal museum (the walk through BP at Tate Britain comes to mind) begins to influence gallery display, is the inside of our heads going to be the only place where we find recovery without the “assistance” of the museum ?
There will be a related post on natural light and museums after Christmas.
 David Carrier, “The Display of Absolutely Contemporary Art in the J. Paul Getty Museum” in Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries, (Duke University Press, 2006), 170.
 Quoted in Carrier, 174.
 John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 105.
 Carrier, Museum Skepticism, 174.
 John Armstrong, The Intimate Philosophy of Art, (Allen Lane, 2000), 63.
 John Walsh and Deborah Gribbon, The J. Paul Getty Museum and its Collections: A New Museum for the New Century, (Getty Publications, 1997), 88.