Art 105-106 truly changed my life. Through this course, I gained a new way of looking at the world and at art, which I have applied to my studies in London this semester. After visiting almost 30 museums in 10 countries, I have found that cities and their inhabitants shape their cultural institutions, particularly their museums.
One of the courses in which I have been enrolled this semester, Art in London Museums, involves studying the curatorial practices of London’s various galleries. Basically, this entails observing how a gallery space and its works can introduce new ways of seeing to a public audience. London is not known to be a city full of sun, and this idea is reflected in its gallery spaces. Most are located in dull, gray buildings, but the art inside transcends its bland confines. The Tate Modern used to be an old power station, and now it holds one of the most famous modern art collections in the world—where an abstract Rothko can be placed opposite an impressionist Monet. Additionally, most galleries in London are free for students, which allows greater public access to these collections.
Although London may seem melancholic at times, the museum spaces serve as a wonderful reprieve from daily life. Going to the institutions together as a class created a sense of community in a course filled with students from around the world. The works served as a foundation for us to get to know one another, whether it be around Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergère” or a forensic architecture exhibition.
Museums can also be influenced by the vibes of the city. I found that Amsterdam, which is full of bikes, fake hipsters and recreational drugs, was more relaxed with its art collections. After continuously almost being hit by oblivious bikers, my friends and I made it to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. The two spaces are located almost parallel to each other, with the Rijksmuseum being a massive, ornate building that represents the old city, while the Van Gogh Museum’s structure illustrates how modernity can shift ways of seeing. Apart from about five guards standing in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” the Rijksmuseum allows its inhabitants to meander among its huge halls and see some of the world’s finest Dutch art. The Van Gogh Museum is much smaller, but also more relaxed in its set-up. Each room allows gallery-goers to easily walk through Van Gogh’s life.
In Barcelona, I had the chance to go to the Pablo Picasso Museum. Located in the Gothic Quarter, its architecture makes me feel as though I was brought into a different period of time. There are only about 17 rooms, but the museum feels welcoming and hospitable, similar to the feelings I got from the city. It was definitely one of the best gallery spaces that I have had the pleasure of visiting.
Paris is a city known for its unwelcoming culture. The people are presumed to be cold and standoffish, but I have found that if you make an effort to understand the French culture and language, they are much more welcoming. The Louvre is massive and acts as the pinnacle of French culture. Its rooms are not numbered in order to prevent thieves from being able to escape in a timely manner. This lack of room plan, coupled with poor cell reception, resulted in my mother and sister being lost in the museum for an hour. While it is amusing to look back on now, the layout makes it difficult to find many of the gallery’s notable works. The “Mona Lisa” has signs everywhere, but if you want to find any other work, good luck.
Musée de l’Orangerie acts as a foil to The Louvre. With only a handful of rooms, this brightly lit space creates a unique experience for the spectator viewing Monet’s “Water Lilies.” I will never forget walking into the rooms and being rendered truly speechless. With the works placed onto each wall in a circular room, the public has a 360-degree view of each piece. If you can only go to one gallery in Europe, make sure it’s this one.
People tend not to visit Eastern Europe for its gallery spaces. I have noticed that in both Prague and Budapest, the people running the museums do not care about the public or what they think. Perhaps it is due to my Americanized perspective, but I felt that the staff was cold and disinterested and the gallery designs were poorly executed. In Prague, the National Gallery isn’t labeled on any building. I found myself walking aimlessly around a town square, attempting to convey which museum I was trying to find to indifferent workers. While in Budapest, I observed large tour groups touching sculptures and paintings while workers looked on. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if I hadn’t been forced to pay the full fee, as my London student ID was deemed to be insufficient for entry.
Finding the galleries in Florence, Italy was much simpler, but most importantly, the art was breathtaking. At any given time, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has about a two-hour wait time. A friend and I had booked our tickets in advance, which allowed us to walk straight in. Although almost as large as The Louvre, the gallery has created a path for visitors that allows them to see everything in a timely manner. It was immensely refreshing. However, I waited an hour to see the statue of David in Galleria dell’Accademia, and was disappointed to find that there were only about five other rooms in the institution. It made me think about how popular culture allows galleries to focus on one work and benefit immensely from it, while neglecting the viewing experience of a public that is there for more than the touristic picture of David’s sculpted butt.
The galleries in Venice are mostly palaces that have been turned into museums. It was interesting that I needed to hop on a ferry to get to a museum that was just about 20 feet across the river from me. In my opinion, the city’s Guggenheim Museum possesses the best collection of modern art from 1920 to 1960 in Europe. My friend went two days after me and ran into Cara Delevingne, who proceeded to explain art to her! I couldn’t possibly fathom this to be true until Cara posted a picture of the canal right outside of the museum on her Instagram. Although its confusing structure makes it difficult to navigate, the city and its cultural institutions are beautiful.
Unlike artistic spaces in the United States, I have found that the curatorial practices of museums in Europe are shaped by the city’s history. Each gallery has its own presence, and one can feel a city’s core values by walking along its halls. We learn so much in our lectures at Vassar, but the way one truly experiences art is by going out and seeing all of its beauty in person.