The art of travel

My parents never took me to galleries and museums while I was growing up, so art is something I’ve discovered for myself as an adult. I regularly visit the big galleries in Sydney, but it’s really through travelling that I’ve developed my own tastes and ideas about art.

Whenever I’m on the road, I end up going to galleries and museums. At times intentionally, at times accidentally and, well, at times because there’s nothing better happening on a hot afternoon. The latter occurs a lot in Europe, where I’ve stumbled across art exhibitions in small towns that would have made some kind of  headline in Australia.

Projects 90 by Song Dong at MoMA
Projects 90 by Song Dong at MoMA

I’m currently planning my trip to New York in December and on the long ‘to do’ list is the Met, the Cloisters and, if I have time, the Whitney. I’m also making it to the West Coast this time and the Getty has long been on my bucket list, so I hope to get there in the few days we’re in LA.

I visited the US in 2009 and was completely bowled over by New York’s museums – the Met, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim – as well as the ones in Washington DC. Walking through those lauded institutions, it seemed clear that America was a wealthy place during the 19th and 20th centuries, as evidenced by the incredible private collections. I practically tripped over Picassos because there were so many of them.

I’ve been extolling the virtues of armchair travel of late and watching an excellent documentary about Lucian Freud on the weekend made me wonder if I’ve ever seen his work on my travels. Chances are, I’ve stumbled across his work in an art museum somewhere but not known who he was at the time. I used to work next door to the Tate Britain in London, which has Freuds in its collection. But I only made a few brief trips, so taking the museum completely for granted and not making the most of it close proximity.

In Paris I was much more mindful that my stay was short, so I didn’t take the city for granted. The apartment was a stone’s throw from the Musée d’Orsay so I visited twice. I also finally got to the Louvre and enjoyed the museum away from the Mona Lisa – it’s hard to enjoy looking at it when you’re sharing the room with about five hundred other people!

The best art museum I visited last summer – and possibly one of the best museums I’ve ever been to – was the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries. It was a real darling of a museum, with a small collection that could be properly absorbed.

Nymphéas by Monet
Nymphéas by Monet

The masterpiece of the collection was the huge cycle of Monet paintings. They were like a force of nature, work that no photos could do justice. I’m not sure that I love Impressionist paintings as a whole – they’ve very pretty but don’t inspire me – but these huge installations were extraordinary. The intricacy and the detail of his waterlily paintings created a completely immersive experience. For my money, if you only had time for one museum in Paris, I reckon this would be it.

In addition to the art in Paris, we also visited some of the history museums. We wandered through the Carnavalet, learning about the history of Paris, and learnt about France’s military history at Les Invalides. We also made the effort to visit the Musée du Quai Branly and ended up thinking it was a puzzling place. It was essentially a good collection of “native” curios for no particular reason – the kind of display that only a rich country would put on.

Whenever I’m in museums, I can’t help but feel immensely privileged to be able to see what the vast majority of the world will never get the chance to. Much of the global population has far more pressing problems, and the world’s art and historical artefacts are things that they can’t even dream about, because they don’t even know it exists. And if they knew that it existed, they don’t have the museums to house it properly. That’s the argument, anyway.


6 thoughts on “The art of travel

  1. You’ll love the Cloisters! I was there last summer, and it was such an interesting and calm island in the middle of the city, more or less anyways;)

    1. I didn’t get time last trip but I really want to get up there this time. I first read about it in a Babysitters Club book twenty years ago!

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