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Sitting, Looking, and Being Looked At

As you enter the exhibition Oudry's Painted Menagerie, you'll notice that there is an area of tiered seating directly opposite Oudry's monumental life-size picture of Clara the rhinoceros. At the risk of sounding really weird, I can honestly say that I've never been so pleased with gallery seating in my life.
Seeing Clara in the galleries  
Watching and being watched on the tiered seating in front of Clara  

Let me explain—among all the images we have of Clara, many of the paintings show Clara in the foreground and a variety of people looking at her in the background. In my book Clara's Grand Tour, you can find just such a painting—Pietro Longhi's Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice (1751). Longhi shows Clara in the foreground of the painting, eating hay, while the top half of the canvas depicts her Venetian spectators. They clearly occupy tiered seating, as the second row of spectators is higher than the first.

From both rows, an assortment of 18th-century Venetian faces stare out at us, some of them hidden by the traditional masks of the Venetian Carnival. One of the many puzzles generated by Longhi's painting is the question of who, or what, is really on display. Are the young women of Venice who pose in their Carnival regalia any less an object of scrutiny than Clara herself?

Eighteenth-century accounts of public scientific demonstrations tell us that female spectators were often invited to occupy the seating nearest the stage—ostensibly a courtesy, but in reality a convention that allowed men to watch women who, like Longhi's enigmatic masked women, were acutely aware of being watched.

To return to the tiered seating opposite Oudry's life-size painting of Clara: it's a very clever allusion to Longhi's painting, and by extension to all those paintings of Clara that also represent elements of her 18th-century audience. Take a few minutes to sit on the tired seating—don't be too self-conscious to sit on the highest level—and enjoy the experience of recreating the spirit of Longhi's painting.

I was lucky enough to walk through the exhibition in advance of its public opening and was initially able to sit on the tiered seating and have the view of Oudry's canvas to myself. The curators circulating through the exhibition knew of my special interest in Clara, so I wasn't at all self-conscious at sitting there, drinking in all the detail I could. But throughout the exhibition preview day, the number of visitors to the galleries increased, so that by the evening, hundreds of people were circulating in front of Oudry's lifesize oil. And the longer I sat and looked at the canvas, and the more visitors there were in the room with me, the more conscious I became of myself as both viewer and viewed. And I wasn't just looking at Clara any more, but watching other people looking at Clara, noticing their reaction to her life-size image, and I couldn't help eavesdropping on their Clara-discussions.

Whether you've already visited Oudry's Painted Menagerie, or have yet to visit it, or whether you want to think about your exhibition-going habits in general, my question for you is this: do we ever really take the time we would like to look at the detail of an exhibition, or are we always too self-conscious? Are we aware that we are both viewers and viewed? How much do your fellow exhibition-goers and -viewers impact your experience of visiting a gallery or any sort of display? And if the presence of other people does change our viewing experience, does it change it for the better, or worse?



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