Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction By Walter Benjamin

'Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.' 
(Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 214)

I agree with Benjamin on this: no reproduction can replace the original. There is nothing more moving than seeing a work of art in all it's original glory, hanging on the wall of a majestic gallery beside other great works, to be observed in the stillness, quiet and community of other awed viewers. A reproduction of a work of art may have brought it to your attention, but there is no substitute for going to see it in person. But why? Why is seeing the original so important?
'That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.' 
Herein lies the crux of the matter: no matter how perfect the reproduction in terms of quality of colour, sharpness and size, it will never have the same impact as the original. The 'aura' is lost in reproduction and the only way to regain it is to visit the original. The experience is as integral to the piece as is the artistry that created it. When viewing an original all that is missing is the artist; the one whose brushstrokes or chisel blows made the work; whose physical presence is missed; whose passion and skill suffused the canvas or stone or wood. With a reproduction many other factors are missing besides the original itself: it's place in space and time; it's scale and texture; it's smell; it's aura.

Roderic O'Conor            Reclining nude before a mirror  1909
I have written before of my experience of seeing original works of art. I don't remember when I first saw a poster of Roderic O'Conor's Reclining nude before a mirror (1909), it may have been in a library or a poster shop such as Athena, but I do remember when I first saw the original. It was a wet, autumnal afternoon in 1998 whilst on honeymoon in Dublin, and my new husband and I ducked in to the shelter of the National Gallery of Ireland. Charles is not a great lover of art but he humoured me and we spent the next hour or so wandering through the galleries. Suddenly I was standing before this painting that I had so admired for years and I was overcome with emotion. It was as though I were seeing it for the first time ever. I could feel tears welling in my eyes. I started to feel very self-conscious, when I felt Charlie squeeze my hand and looking round I saw him smiling at me and he said, "Aren't you glad it's raining?" Later I bought a fridge magnet of the painting so that I could see it every day and remember the first time I saw the original. Reproduction is indeed a wonderful thing but it is no substitute for the experience of seeing an original work of art.

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