Museums

Watching the Art Watchers

by Carren Jao on August 28, 2012

"Kugach’s Before the Dance, State Tretyakov Gallery"

Andy Freeberg, “Kugach’s Before the Dance, State Tretyakov Gallery” (all photos © and courtesy the artist)

There is something about art that begs us to get closer, which is why museum guards often stride up to visitors with a warning: “Please don’t touch the artwork.” To many, guards can be a nuisance, but to San Francisco–based photographer Andy Freeberg, they are an inspiration.

Freeberg’s Guardians, 16 large-format photographs that capture Russian women sitting sentinel in front of masterpieces, are on view now at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. In Russia, while most tourists’ cameras were trained on the art, Freeberg’s eyes were captivated by the stoic, older women who stood by the works out of love and civic duty.

"2nd Century Mummy Masks, Pushkin Museum"

“2nd Century Mummy Masks, Pushkin Museum”

“I loved that they were wearing their own clothes and sitting in chairs,” said Freeberg in an email interview. “In the US, the museum guards are almost always wearing uniforms and standing. As I approached some works of art, the women became a part of my viewing the painting or sculpture.”

Indeed, sometimes the women inadvertently become part of the artworks by unconsciously mirroring them — in stance, style or simply by virtue of their clothing.

"Matisse Still Life, Hermitage Museum"

“Matisse Still Life, Hermitage Museum”

In one, Matisse’s “Still Life with Table Cloth” gains a new dimension when placed side-by-side with a guard’s deep blue shawl. “I love the way her sweater matches the painting,” wrote Freeberg. “I gave her a print on my last trip and asked if she had bought the sweater because she was sitting by that Matisse, and she laughed at me and said ‘Nyet, nyet!’”

"Altman’s Portrait of I.P. Degas, State Tretyakov Gallery"

“Altman’s Portrait of I.P. Degas, State Tretyakov Gallery” (click to enlarge)

Yuri Kugach’s “Before the Dance” gains another patient wallflower as the guard mirrors the painting’s young women whose hands lay clasped on their laps. The guard by the mummy masks similarly stares upward, as if waiting for judgment to come. In front of Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of I.P. Degas,” the guard seems to be standing watch over a portrait of her younger self. Freeberg’s lens shows us that museums aren’t just a place for art, but a venue where art happens.

This isn’t the first time Freeberg’s camera has taken viewers a step back from traditional art. His previous photographic series also carry a strong hint of “meta.” In Art Fare, he captures dealers, gallery owners and collectors wheeling and dealing at New York’s Armory Show and Art Basel in Miami and Switzerland. In his photos, the art world plays itself. With Sentry, Freeberg adds a little humor to the mix by photographing just the tops of receptionists’ heads as they hide in giant white desks by gallery entrances. As these series show, while the world is busy looking at art, Freeberg is watching (and capturing) art’s watchers

"Malevich’s Self Portrait, Russian State Museum"

“Malevich’s Self Portrait, Russian State Museum”

"Rublev and Daniil’s The Deesis Tier, State Tretyakov Gallery"

“Rublev and Daniil’s The Deesis Tier, State Tretyakov Gallery”

"Repin’s Portrait of Baroness von Hildenbandt, State Tretyakov Gallery"

“Repin’s Portrait of Baroness von Hildenbandt, State Tretyakov Gallery”

"Veronese’s Adoration of the Shepherds, Hermitage Museum"

“Veronese’s Adoration of the Shepherds, Hermitage Museum”

Guardians: Photographs by Andy Freeberg is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center until January 6, 2013. It will travel to Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York. The photographs are also featured in Freeberg’s book Guardians of Russian Art Museums.

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