When you travel do you visit art galleries and museums? I know little about art in the formal sense, did not even study art at high school, but I do read a lot and I do visit galleries. I did discover I love the visual, as much as the written word, art is about stories and ideas and that is something I can’t get enough of . I discovered that there are works of art in the world that have spoken to me and moved me as much as great literature or a an inspiring landscape. The world is full of so much to be excited about, to be inspired by, art is just one of those things. Art galleries though, can be stuffy, intimidating spaces when they want to be. Big major galleries are intimidating by virtue of the sheer size of the collections. I guess I am writing this post because I have been quite mystified by some of the behaviour I have seen in galleries in recent years. If you are looking at art through the lens of your phone, and rushing through galleries at light speed in order to see everything, I hate to say it, but you are doing it wrong. Galleries and museums can be such great experiences don’t waste the opportunity. Thought I would throw out some ideas on how to enjoy galleries, even if you know nothing about art.
Go alone Sometimes it is fun to compare notes and chat about the things you see, but at the same time experiencing art can be a very personal and intimate experience, best experienced without distraction. It is also liberating not to feel you have to keep up with someone else.
Don’t try to see everything A big mistake when travelling, especially visiting the world’s great galleries with a limited time frame, you can feel pressured to see the must see masterpieces, but all that happens is you get stressed and wonder what all the fuss is about. Never ever try to see everything, it really is a pointless exercise and simply not worth it. Select a particular room or part of a collection, perhaps a room with a particular well known painting you are curious about and start with that. Don’t expect that just because a painting is designated a masterpiece, it will please you, or speak to you, sometimes the work that you really connect with will surprise you.
A great technique is to do a quick walk around a room, don’t stop too long at anything and then when you have completed the quick walk around, if any piece particularly caught your attention go back and look again, this time really look, think about what you are seeing, what it might be trying to say. Take your time!
Sometimes choose a weird, unusual or less popular gallery or museum
The great galleries can be crowded. Art should be enjoyable, not an endurance event. Don’t go to the Louvre expecting to see the Mona Lisa without a jostling crowd and think you are going to have some sort of enlightening experience, trust me, you won’t. Actually where that particular painting is concerned, unless you are a die hard art history nerd with a particular interest in the Italian Renaissance just don’t bother. (Tip for seeing the Mona Lisa if you really must, go to the late openings and wait until half an hour before closing then go check out the painting, you don’t have to fight your way through crowds then).
Every city has its less popular, quieter galleries and museums, seek out one of those, find something that tickles your curiosity, it will be worth it. In Paris, I can recommend the Musée des Arts et Métiers, not an art gallery but a fascinating industrial design museum, one of my favourite objects on the planet lives at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, the early steam air craft Ader Avion III, a truly beautiful object that captures my imagination and inspires, perhaps in a way not originally intended.
In Amsterdam one of the best gallery experiences I had was at the little known cat museum/gallery; Kattenkabinet, a gallery devoted to works depicting cats, including work by Picasso, Rembrandt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Corneille, Sal Meijer, Théophile Steinlen. This is a really cool museum and it has its own resident cats who sometimes wander about the gallery.
Do some research and let your curiosity guide you. Research before you go always helps, but is not essential, if you know nothing about what you are about to see, maybe do a google search for a general introduction, there are youtube videos on everything and the Khan academy has a fantastic series of videos on art history like this one: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/introduction-ap-arthistory/v/why-look-at-art
I tend to leave galleries with more questions than I went with, so I invariably go home with things to research. Audio guides can be useful but don’t feel tired to the guide, some museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam have fantastic apps you can install on your phone. Good old fashioned conversation is also a great option, talk to staff on duty in galleries, they are only to happy to answer questions or share an opinion, ask them what their favourite piece is and why.
Don’t take pictures Well maybe take pictures, but only after you have really looked at a painting, and never ever take a photo just for bragging rights, you do not have to prove you saw a painting to enjoy the experience. Never ever take a selfie, there is nothing more annoying or more shallow than some idiot taking a selfie for Instagram or for the bragging rights. It is annoying for everyone else in the gallery trying to enjoy the art and quite frankly it just makes you look like an incredibly shallow idiot.
You might want to take a picture as a memory but if you do take pictures be aware of your surroundings and people around you. Never ever use flash, aside from the discourtesy of using flash when it can affect other viewers, the use of flash can be damaging to light sensitive objects and on that point, also don’t move block out blinds so you can get a better photo, they are there for a reason. I have seen this happen, which I thought rather astounding, the care of the art was totally irrelevant to that particular tourist.
There are quite a few galleries that don’t allow photography at all and I have to admit that I think they have the right idea. The Prado in Madrid is one and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is another, don’t take your phone out of your pocket there unless you want a conversation with a guard. You can always access digital versions of the art on the museums website or buy a postcard. Postcards are great, you can note down your own thoughts on the back, always a good idea.
When I went looking for photos to use for this post I realised just how few photos I have actually taken in galleries and to be honest when visiting galleries I was not thinking about blogging the experience, hence the lack of images for this post.
Take a notebook – draw – really see I am a big fan of the notebook and always carry at least one. Take some time with a work of art, try and draw it, it really does not have to be good, it just helps you see and helps you be present with the art and in the moment. I can’t draw to save myself, but I can scribble a quick doodle that helps me focus and remember. Sometimes a scribbled note, even just one word can evoke a memory and send you down a rabbit hole of research. One last tip on notes, one thing a phone really is handy for is a quick snap of the information on the work you are looking at, you know those white cards on the wall telling who the artist is what the work is called etc.
Re-visit – if you can. Obviously if you are making a once in a lifetime trip, re-visiting may not be an option, but if you can, do re-visit. How I feel about paintings and my understanding over the years changes and grows and sometimes it is just nice to visit an old favourite.