The first solo exhibition of Mark Rothko in Britain, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 1961. Photo © Sandra Lousada  Mary Evans Picture Library. Artworks © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel &

Let there be light (and don’t get me started on barriers and obtrusive wall texts)

Andrew Graham-Dixon takes a dim view of the way some galleries choose to light and display their collections

Last summer, I visited a great many art galleries and museums and found myself increasingly irritated by the ubiquitous visual distractions from what I consider — eccentrically, perhaps — to be the main attraction of such places: the art itself.

Barriers, barriers everywhere: not just placed between viewer and painting, but sometimes enclosing entire sculptures, even such minimalist works as the floor pieces of Carl Andre, which the artist explicitly intended his audience to walk on, but which are now routinely cordoned off. If it is not barriers getting in the way, it is wall texts, usually printed on rectangles of jarringly white paper, no matter what the museum decor, and placed so close to the paintings that they cannot be edited from the field of vision without standing so close to the work of art in question that the alarms go of.

Not so long ago, wall labels were generally about the size of postcards, but I could swear they have got bigger. On a recent visit to a museum in Amsterdam I found wall texts so enormous that they made the paintings seem entirely secondary, as if included merely to demonstrate this or that didactic thesis. It struck me that here was a museum display aspiring to the condition of a window on the internet.

In fact, I wonder if the internet, a space entirely made up of interrupted, disjunct visual experiences, has had an insidiously corrupting effect on the sensibilities of those responsible for museum display. It is as if people have become so used to being distracted that the idea of a space designed to allow for the uninterrupted contemplation of a work of art makes them uncomfortable.

When it comes to the display of art, the element most open to abuse is perhaps the least palpable of all: namely light

Pictures and sculptures are static yet movable objects, which makes them more vulnerable to mistreatment than other, more insistent and time-based art forms. It is hard to imagine the fundamental disrespect routinely accorded to artists being suffered by playwrights or musicians. 

What might the equivalent be? Attending a performance of one of Beethoven’s late string quartets while being simultaneously subjected to the sound of piped muzak? Or perhaps, in a hushed theatre, as King Lear weeps over the dead body of Cordelia, a man from the Education Department might walk on stage wearing a billboard: ‘This scene is a powerful example of dramatic pathos in the work of William Shakespeare (1564–1616), widely regarded as England’s finest playwright.’ It would never happen. At least, I hope it never would.

When it comes to the display of art, the element most open to abuse is perhaps the least palpable of all: namely light, which also happens to be the medium through which just about all works of art are perceived. There are so many ways in which light (and lighting) can be got wrong, and pretty well all of them are got wrong in museums, galleries and indeed churches, every day, in every corner of the world. When it comes to artificial light, the angle of direction offers a multitude of potential hazards.

Glare and bounce are common in many a museum dedicated to Old Masters, but there are plenty of other mistakes to be made. Things have improved recently, but the National Gallery in London used to have its lights set at such an acute angle that the top six to eight inches of many a canvas were obscured by the shadow cast by the top of the frame.

Hans Holbeins A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, 1526-28, as it hangs today in the National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein's A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, 1526-28, as it hangs today in the National Gallery, London

I remember going there about 20 years ago with my dear friend Howard Hodgkin (who died in 2017: a great loss) to see Holbein’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, which had just been acquired by the museum for what was then the considerable sum of £12 million. Howard looked up mournfully and said, ‘Given all the money they’ve spent, that’s an awful lot of picture to leave in the shade: there must be at least three million pounds’ worth that we can’t even see.’

Artists themselves have traditionally been very careful about the light they paint in, which is why most artists’ studios have a generous window for northern light — cool daylight, in other words. But how many light bulbs used to illuminate how many great paintings have been chosen with the same degree of care? 

I recently went to see Caravaggio’s great St Matthew altarpieces in Rome’s church of San Luigi dei Francesi, on such a dark day that they were barely visible to the naked eye. When I put my two euros into the chapel’s lighting machine, they were suddenly irradiated, but with such a glare of sodium orange that the painter’s original colours were distorted beyond recognition.

Caravaggios St. Matthew altarpieces in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Photo Hemis  Alamy

Caravaggio's St. Matthew altarpieces in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Photo: Hemis / Alamy

I suspect I am peculiarly sensitive to this sort of thing because I spend so much time making films about art, and therefore watching the cameramen with whom I work spending hours relighting pictures with cool daylight LEDs so that they can actually be seen in their true colours. Under my global dictatorship, every museum and every church in the world would be forced to install completely new lighting systems under the direction of first-rate lighting cameramen. But this will not be happening any time soon.

Levels of light are most distressing of all when they destroy the light that a painter has spent a lifetime putting into his work. I remember when Tate Britain’s Clore Gallery, devoted to the work of J.M.W. Turner, first opened its doors to the public. The lighting was so bright that Turner’s sun was virtually extinguished (which takes some doing). To make matters even worse, the colour chosen for the walls was an oatmealy yellow, precisely the same colour that Turner used to paint his sun, which had the effect of deadening its radiance yet further. Turner himself showed his paintings on dark, strong colours, such as midnight blue or Pompeiian red, from which the light in his paintings might radiate and enchant the eye.

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There is little excuse for making such mistakes, especially when an artist has gone to the trouble of actually stipulating the necessary light conditions for the display of his pictures. In this respect, the most universally abused painter I can think of is Mark Rothko, who explicitly insisted that his pictures should be seen in very low light, almost as if they were drawings. Yet just about every modern art museum I can think of, from New York to Düsseldorf, hangs his work alongside paintings by the other so-called Abstract Expressionists, in killingly bright light, as if all the pictures were simply examples of the same kind of thing, the same historical trend.

Another friend of mine, the late Bryan Robertson, put on the first serious exhibition of Rothko’s work in Europe, at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1961. Not long before Bryan died, he told me a wonderful story about looking at Rothko’s pictures one evening, all those years ago, with Rothko himself present. 

I made a recording of his words, and I am glad I did. I have never heard a more eloquent explanation of why display and lighting really do matter: ‘The attendants had gone home, and the space was only dimly lit from Whitechapel’s top natural lighting. Coming down from the offices, the place seemed not only empty but rather dead. I made a move to turn on some lights while we exited, but Rothko stopped me. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Come and sit down.” 

‘We sat down in the centre of the deserted gallery with a good view of two big paintings. As my eyes gradually adjusted to the — apparent — gloom, the deep and intense colour slowly began to appear, like a living organism with its own life force like a steady heartbeat or pulse... an ordinary physical fact, rich colour slowly asserting itself in the half-light, but I remember it with some emotion, after more than 30 years, as a kind of magical revelation — sitting there in the gloaming, and looking at these glowing testaments to the human spirit, floating in space in their own inner light in a silent and gradually semi-dark gallery.’