Making it Meaningful: The Art of Interpretation

Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967. Acrylic on canvas, 543.6 x 243.8 cm. Purchased 1989. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. ©The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York/ SOCAN, Montreal (2022). Photo: NGC


On the second floor of the National Gallery of Canada – just beyond the portraits of Paul Cézanne and Edgar Degas, the landscapes of Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, and the sculptures of Auguste Rodin and Jules Dalou – visitors enter a large room that arguably bears one of the Gallery’s most iconic works. Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967) hangs five metres high, both thrilling and bewildering visitors who either celebrate or question its place in a national collection. For many, the simplicity of the work defines its shortfall – three vertical lines, two colours and one canvas translate to feelings of frustration or confusion surrounding the value of the work. For others, the acrylic’s candor is the exact reason for its charm. Whatever the case, visitors often want to learn more, such as what inspired the artist to create, and the Gallery to acquire, such a contentious work.

It is in this realm of contention that opportunities for investigation and interpretation thrive, says Gary Goodacre, Chief of Education and Public Programs at the National Gallery of Canada. “In our programming, we try to empower people to look, describe, analyze and interpret art,” he says. “This way, they leave maybe not loving the work, but at least understanding the context in which it was produced.” Indeed, the Gallery has several programs in place that help visitors feel more comfortable experiencing and connecting to the art in front of them, from tours and talks to activities, discussions and debates. In each case, the goal is simple – to provide the tools necessary to make art interpretation accessible and enriching for adults and children alike.

Frank Stella, Firuzabad (Variation) 1, 1970. Acrylic on canves, 304.8 x 609.6 cm. Purchased 1997. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Frank Stella / SOCAN (2022). Photo NGC

On group tours, educators at the Gallery focus on encouraging observation and dialogue among visitors and their peers. “Rather than simply lecturing or providing information, we try to get people to be active viewers,” says Goodacre. “We want to be the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage.” Visual thinking strategies developed by educators such as Philip Yenawine and Abigail Housen, for example, help to guide discussions and inspire critical thinking. Standing in front of an artwork, visitors are asked three questions: what is going on in this picture, what do you see that makes you say that, and what more can we find? As more people contribute and share ideas, perspectives and interpretations develop and change – leading to rich discussions and meaningful interactions with the works. “What I like about this approach is that it demonstrates that interpretations can be provisional and change over time,” says Goodacre. This approach works best with narrative works, such as Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe, where visitors can pick up on different visual cues within the depicted story itself.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. Oil on canvas, 152.6 x 214.5 cm. Gift of the 2nd Duke of Westminster to the Canadian War Memorials, 1918; Transfer from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo NGC


Another common approach developed by educator Terry Barrett consists of standing around a work and having visitors take turns sharing what they see. “The next person repeats what the previous person said, and then adds something of their own,” says Goodacre. “This allows us to listen intently to people’s observations and continue searching to discover new things.”

In addition to these (and several other) group tour activities, the Gallery has programs in place with their volunteers, as well as programs tailored specifically to children. In I Have a Question, visitors are encouraged to look closely at works and ask questions of the volunteers. “Rather than trying to facilitate a conversation, you simply let them ask what they want to know,” says Goodacre. Likewise, in Docent’s Choice, a volunteer selects a work of interest and shares information for ten minutes, drawing attention to details in the work, especially in relation to other pieces in the same space.

The Artissimo program at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo NGC


As for programming for children, the Gallery offers summer camps and school tours, as well as art-related activities, which help young visitors experience the collection up-close. The Artissimo program is especially popular, allowing children to use costumes or art buddies (doll-like characters from paintings) to locate and engage with works in the space. “Having this object with them makes the experience more dynamic and gives them a sense of responsibility of caring about the art,” says Valérie Mercier, who works with children at the Gallery. “When they locate the work and come back, we ask them questions about what they saw, what the character was doing … By asking them the right questions and guiding their observations, we help them to understand and interpret the art.”

It's not about interpreting a work correctly, either – the way a historian or curator would interpret it, or the way that the artist intended audiences to understand the work, says Goodacre. “People enter works in different ways, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to do so,” he says. “If we do our job well, we’re helping people to be active viewers, to feel more confident in their own abilities to interpret art. If we’re doing our job really well, we’re piquing their interest and helping them learn where they can go to find out more.”

As for Newman’s Voice of Fire, “what makes it good has more to do with its context … in society than the intrinsic properties of the painting itself,” said Jim Davies, Professor of Cognitive Science at Carleton University, in a CBC documentary on art interpretation in 2017. For instance, visitors don’t often realize that the work was commissioned for the celebrated Expo ’67 world fair. Or that at the time, Newman’s piece was an expression of protest to the United States’ entry into the Vietnam War. Even more surprising is the odd and titillating optical illusion that occurs when you focus intently on the edges between the stripes – a kind of sound wave movement, or heat illusion on pavement, that lends value and understanding to its name – the Voice of Fire. These experiences come alive when we allow ourselves to slow down, observe, ask questions and interpret.


For further information about the programme, see the Events and Education Department at at the National Gallery of Canada. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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