Plain language in art captions: bring it on

Plain language has more than one kind of enemy. Quite often in academia there's a tacit agreement to approach a work of art from one angle only. Even if students are encouraged to explore their own byways, official works are inclined to take an orthodox view.

Why? Laziness, cowardice, dishonesty, or just a sincere conviction that there's only one correct interpretation?

I expect the main reason is just a lack of resources. Fair enough, but as a result, reading captions for art works can be an other-worldly experience. You either nod dutifully or think, 'What? What? What? You've got to be kidding!'

Captions for the Great Masters exhibition showing now at Te Papa Museum in Wellington are no exception. The caption frequently reflects a perception that dates from the artist's era. This is not likely to make much sense to any 21st century viewer who isn't steeped in art history.

So with 'Elf Dance in Alder Grove' by Moritz von Schwind. It's impossible for most of us to accept the official description at face value. The modern ignoramus like me is more likely to have this kind of thought running through our heads.

Half-naked women and children hovering just above ground level in a forest... But are they hovering? The position of draperies suggests they are whizzing rapidly or floating in water, not air. How can they fly so close together and so close to the ground? Without wings? Holding hands? And why bother flying if you're not going to rise above it all? This is less of a dance than an ancient prophecy of Street Flying. Of course, any excuse to paint naked ladies... and it's all rather beautiful in a weird way.



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