Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Sitting with Pictures

Nesterov's Blessed St. Sergius of Radonezh, Russian State Museum.
© Andy Freeberg, reproduced with permission.
This weekend’s Guardian magazine carried a feature on the photographer Andy Freeberg, and his images of Russian art gallery attendants, Guardians of Russian Art. When I wander around art galleries, the attendants, sat on their little stools, staring into the middle distance, appear unsmiling and fantastically bored. So it was interesting to read that the attendants photographed by Freeberg talked to him passionately about their jobs – one woman, it was reported, came back to the gallery on her days off to continue looking at the paintings, while another commuted for hours to the job she loved.

Freeberg’s photos of the attendants sitting, silent and still, in front of the paintings they guard are gently humorous, but I also found them moving, and they made me think of historians. Freeberg is interested in how gallery attendants might come to look like the paintings they guard all day. I sometimes wonder if historians, like dogs and their owners, also gradually come to resemble the periods they study, or at least take on some of their characteristics.

In particular, however, the attendants in Freeberg’s photos give off a sense of contemplating, sitting, and being with the art objects they have responsibility for. That reminds me of historians in archives, who spend hours a day (also on uncomfortable chairs) in the presence of their documents, listening for voices, simply being with the past. So perhaps art attendants in world-leading galleries, and historians huddled over their sources behind the doors of archives, have a certain kinship, a kind of bearing witness to the endeavours, labours and lives of others, which leave many people baffled or unmoved. 

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