Thursday, 23 October 2008

Museum Highlights: Masaccio's "Virgin & Child"

I usually refrain from making blanket statements like "so-and-so is my favorite artist" or "such-and-such is the greatest sculpture in western Europe" because as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I think of something else equally great, or that I prefer.  I've contemplated this for a really long time, and I feel reasonably to moderately comfortable with the following statement: Masaccio's painting of the Virgin & Child (at London's National Gallery) is my favorite painting currently housed in London.

There, I said it.  Now, let me rationalise my statement before I have to back-peddle.

Masaccio painted in Italy during the early 1400s, and by all accounts, was an innovator.  His immediate predecessors, and even many of his contemporaries, were holding onto everything about early Renaissance art that makes people cringe.  Iconography out the wazzoo.  Depictions of the baby Jesus that make him look like a mutant adult.  Pigmentation of the Virgin Mary that closely resembles the color of the statue of liberty.  Gaudy halos.  Awkward poses.  Of course you are familiar with these things, because they are the paintings you make a bee-line past on your way to find the Mona Lisa.  But Masaccio was one of the first artists in Italy to move beyond this, and his efforts are exemplified in this painting.  The baby Jesus is pudgy, even cute, and has naturalistic features.  Especially noteworthy are his chubby little hands, which are a stark contrast to the poorly executed limbs and hands of many other figures painted by Masaccio's contemporaries.  The Virgin Mary has a lifelike expression that evokes a peaceful calm, but also underscores her knowledge of what will happen to her son (or so I was told in lecture in Art History 210).  But this painting is also really worth your time because of what Masaccio holds onto of his predecessors.  He makes huge strides in realism, but the composition is still largely traditional- a pyramid shape.  The Virgin still wears her iconic blue robe, and their halos are marked with gold leaf.  The Christ child holds grapes, which signify his ultimate sacrifice and the wine shared at the Last Supper.  Oh, and it's painted in egg tempera on a wooden panel, so we have not yet witnessed the transition to using oil on canvas.  Because of these stylistic and technical reasons, this painting is a perfect capsule of a transition in western art.  You can see Masaccio struggling to move beyond the old style, yet retaining a link to the tradition.  I love that about this piece.  I love that it is an art history lesson in and of itself.  These are the sorts of pieces that make going through a museum worthwhile.

Also, it is perfectly positioned in the National Gallery (1250-1500 wing, third room in) amongst other paintings that highlight how exceptional it was among its contemporaries.  

Oh, and please don't mention that it's my "favorite" to anyone.  Because I just remembered how much I love the Tintoretto painting in the 1500-1600 galleries at the NG, and I'm already regretting writing this post.  

Monday, 20 October 2008

The Tate Britain: In the Know

One of the highlights of the Tate Britain's collection is their pre-Raphaelite paintings.  Because these aren't the most famous or recognisable paintings to most people, it's probably worth emphasising some of the key aspects of pre-Raphaelite art so that you are "in the know" when you visit.

The Pre-Raphaelites (also known as the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) were a group of artists, poets, authors and philosophers working in Britain around the middle of the 19th Century.  The artists in the group aimed to return to the aesthetics and style of art before Raphael and mannerism.  They despised the sloppy handling and apparent brushstrokes of more contemporary art.  Essentially, they privileged the brighter colours, detailed compositions and complexity of earlier Italian Renaissance art.  They wanted to return to the tenants of history painting, which aimed to be truly naturalistic and less painterly.  They often painted "everyday" subjects in historic, biblical or classical dress, and in this way, aimed to return to painting serious subjects.  Aesthetically, their art is immediately recognisable for the luminous light and rich, royal colour schemes that were often used.  

John Everett Millais is one of the central pre-Raphaelites.  One of his most famous and controversial paintings "Ophelia" is part of the Tate Britain's permanent collections, although it is currently travelling as part of an exhibition.  Nonetheless, many of the pre-Raphaelite's artistic aims are exemplified in this painting, so it offers a good case study and example.  The bright colours, luminosity and classical undertones to this piece are especially typical of the pre-Raphaelite movement.  It's interesting to compare the pre-Raphaelite art in the Tate Britain to the art produced for the Royal Academy, which they so heavily rejected and criticised.  Famous artists associated with the Royal Academy whose art is displayed at the Tate Britain include Gainsborough, Reynolds and Benjamin West.  Note the different style of painting, the different subjects, and the larger size of canvas used by artists exhibiting for the Royal Academy.  

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Tate Britain

On a sort of grey and cold Saturday in mid-October, we went to the Tate Britain to fill an afternoon.  My husband had never been, and I'd only been once or twice, so it's definitely one of London's museums that we just don't go to as often, for whatever reason.  This visit reminded me that this was dumb, because the Tate Britain is actually super-fantastic.

Tube stop: Pimlico (Victoria line), then follow the signs to the museum
Entrance: Free, dummy. It's in London.
Opening Hours: 10-6 daily, open til 10pm on the first Friday of the month.
Collections: British art, almost exclusively, from about 1500-present.  Unmatched collection of Turner paintings.
Good to know: There is a ferry that goes between the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern (on the southbank of the Thames), so if you feel like making a day out of museums, you can link these two with a quick boat trip (fun for the kids or kids at heart).  The boat run every 40 mins during museum opening times, and is 3.35 if you have a travelcard.  Admittedly, it's not exactly a deal.  

You can see most of the "historic" collections and the Turner paintings in less than 3 hours without rushing at all.  Here are the "need to know" highlights:
  • Newly acquired Rubens oil sketch with a full mini-exhibition of the history of the piece and its acquisition.  Really nicely displayed, and when we were there, it was totally empty so we got up close to it.
  • Exceptional collection of John Constable paintings (he's famous for his idyllic pastoral landscapes of Britain, c. 1800).  They don't have many (or perhaps any?) of his famous large-format "Six Footer" canvases, but they do have many lovely complete paintings and sketches.  These are in rooms 7, 9 and 11.
  • Very nice collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings.  If you aren't familiar with these, see my post about the the pre-Raphaelite art at the Tate Britain. Bright colors are often used and these paintings really jump off the canvas.  Look for works by Ford Maddox Brown, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, William Homan Hunt, and Gabriel Michael Rossetti.  The museum also has a great collection of William Blake paintings and prints, which draw on similar themes and are really good 'eye candy.' Right now, there is a special exhibit of his work and that of Cecil Collins. 
  • I was also drawn to the Samuel Palmer romantic landscapes on this visit.  Look for them in room 12. 
  • Throughout the museum, but especially in the "Turner" galleries, you can see an unparalleled collection of Turner's oil and watercolor paintings, and this museum offers the perfect opportunity to see the whole trajectory of his work and life.
We had a great afternoon at the Tate Britain.  My husband said that one of the things he loved about the museum was that they had a collection of works that were not necessarily by the typical "big name" artists.  This allowed you to go through the galleries without feeling like you were on a hunt for the da Vinci.  Instead, you were drawn to whatever attracted you aesthetically.  I think this is really true at the Tate Britain, and it's refreshing to visit a museum in this way, when so often we are preoccupied by making sure we've seen all of the "great works."  So go to the Tate Britain and find yourself standing in awe in front of a painting by an artist you've never heard of before.

I should also add that at the moment, there are several nice special exhibits.  They have Francis Bacon paintings in an exhibit that has been widely lauded and praised (we passed on this when we went).  Also, they have the Turner Prize art on exhibit there now.  

Monday, 13 October 2008

Feed me (at the National Gallery).

First things first.  I mentioned I become a ravenous, irrational monster when I get hungry, so I try to scope out the local pitstops when I visit a museum.  Near the National Gallery, there are two good lunch/snack options that are not your typical museum cafe.

1.  The Crypt at St. Martin in the Fields.  Literally across the street from the museum, you walk downstairs into the crypt of this church to find it has been transformed into a fully functional cafe.  Self-serve, with a wide range of dishes from soups, salads and sandwiches to more substantial meals.  Also a good place to stop for a cup of tea & a scone or piece of cake.  Reasonably priced, and always packed with locals and tourists alike, this is a good bet.

2. Maoz in Soho.  A 5 minute walk up Charring Cross Road, a left turn onto Old Compton Street, and a few short (and entertaining) blocks into Soho, will land you at Maoz.  This place does one thing only, falafels, and they are great.  You can have your falafel in a pita, or in a "salad box" and it's a self-serve salad bar to load up your falafel with all sorts of traditional and more off the wall goodies.  Their hummus and deep-friend aubergines and especially tasty.  They also serve good chips.  A cheap and cheerful break from the museum, and a better bet than most other places in the neighborhood.  However, be aware that they accept CASH only.

Happy eating!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The National Gallery, London

When I set out to create this blog, creating a guide for the National Gallery in London was one of my main goals.  This museum is so utterly fantastic and I wanted to prove to myself that it was possible to conquer this museum, see a lot of it, and not lose your sanity in the process.

One of the things I love most about the NG is that it knows what it is.  It has the most fantastic collection of western art from 1250-1900, but it doesn't have much else.  This is a museum with a real sense of its own identity, and you can see an unparalleled collection of art here.  But it's not the British Museum or the Met in New York, so you don't have to chose between fine art and antiquities.  It's just the art here.  

The NG also breaks all of my museum rules, which I simultaneously love and hate.  For instance, I like to complain loudly and obnoxiously about poor labelling, stupid arrangements of pictures, having too many pictures in one room, having them hung too high on the wall or in a bad location with glare.  And mostly, I like to tell people to visit museums in whatever order they want and to say "screw you" to the guide that tells you to do things in a certain order.  So it took me a long time to admit that I actually think the NG has great labels, wonderfully arranged galleries, the perfect number of paintings in a room, and good lighting with minimal glare.  Oh, and also, I shamefully admit that here, it is best to do what they say and visit the galleries in chronological order.  Seriously. 

The NG has 4 main wings where paintings are grouped chronologically:  1250-1500, 1500-1600, 1600-1700, and 1700-1900.  On Wednesday, I "started" in 1250-1500, with great hopes of conquering the entire museum in 2-3 hours and leaving with a clear idea of how I would guide people through.  I failed miserably.  I could blame the huge number of school groups that were there on Wednesday, or the fact that some of my favorite paintings were not on display because they were in a special exhibit, or I could even blame the fact that my brain wasn't fully functional because I had finished my PhD rougly 72 hours beforehand.  But the truth is, I actually failed because the NG is too great to compress into 3 hours.  

I'm sorry to come to this realisation so early on in this venture.  After discussing this with some family and friends, we've all agreed that perhaps a "choose your own adventure" of sorts is the best bet for the NG.  Namely, I set you off in the right direction, and depending on what you are liking, you chose your route.  I am anticipating I will need several more trips to the NG, and several posts to sort this out.  So in the next series of posts, I'm going to try to pick "highlights" from each of the 4 wings.  Subsequently, I'm hoping to string these together into some sort of coherent guide.  If I fail, it's mostly because everytime I walk into the NG I get distracted and can't stay focused on one task.  Apologies in advance.

In the meantime, here are some fast facts for the National Gallery:
  • Closest tube station: Leicester Square (Picadilly Line).  The museum faces onto Trafalgar Square.
  • Entrance fee: FREE.  (In fact, most museums in London are free.  This is, quite possibly, the greatest thing about this city.)  
  • Collections:  Western European art from about 1250-1900. Mostly paintings, very little in the way of sculpture or decorative arts.  
  • Opening hours: Daily 10am-6pm.  Open late on Wednesdays.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Musee Marmottan, Paris

There are a lot of fabulous museums in Paris.  One could, theoretically, spend the better portion of a week-long vacation museum-hopping.  Theoretically.  :-)

Everyone knows to hit up the Louvre and d'Orsay by now, but it's worth highlighting a few museums off the beaten path too.

In early September, my husband and I hopped on the Eurostar to Paris to spend the weekend with his sister and brother-in-law as they were traveling in France.  They were all incredibly compliant as I dragged them out of central Paris to the Musee Marmottan.  This museum is relatively small, especially if you focus exclusively on their impressive collection of Monet paintings, so it's easily visited in a couple of hours.  It has the largest collection of Monet's paintings in the world, and is thus sometimes called the Monet-Marmottan museum.  It's worth a visit!

When is it open?:  Daily 11am-6pm, til 9pm on Tuesdays. This is great to remember as a lot of Paris museums, like d'Orsay, are closed on Mondays.
How do I get there?: Ligne 9 to MUETTE, or the RER to Boulainvilliers, and then a short walk through a quiet residential neighborhood
What's the damage?: 9 Euros (5.50 for students & concessions, free for children under 8).

Basically, if you haven't had enough Monet in your visit to Musee d'Orsay, this is a must see.  Also, this museum is a great compliment to a trip out to see Monet's house in Giverny.  In the basement of this small museum is a really impressive collection of Monet's art, from the early pieces to the late paintings where he was going blind.  They have a full series of waterlilies and of the Japanese bridge, which allows you to see the way he progressed and changed as time (or seasons, or hours of the day) passed.  

TOP 5 MUST SEE PAINTINGS:  This museum is so accessible that it's almost silly to highlight five paintings, because you truly can see everything in an afternoon.  However, aside from the waterlilies that made Monet famous, make sure to spend some time looking at the following pieces:
  • Impressionism, soleil levant.  As you walk into the basement, this painting will be on your left.  It's easy to miss as you get distracted by the waterlilies in the adjacent space, and the sign-posting in this museum isn't the best.  Don't walk past this painting.  It basically launched the entire Impressionist movement and gave it its name.  It was stolen in the 1980s but was returned a few years later, so we're lucky to still be able to see this piece!
  • There are a handful of Monet's sketches in a display case in the basement that are really entertaining caricatures.  It's always a treat to see art that didn't make people famous and to be amazed by how diverse their talent was. 
  • La Barque.  I love this painting because it reminds me how Impressionism started.  Mottled light.  Emphasis on shadow and color.  Compressed perspective and flattening of space.  It has that Japanese feel that many Impressionist artists were striving for (a lot like many of Mary Cassatt's paintings), and I love how the boat is placed in such a precarious place on the canvas.  It looks like it might topple off the page into your lap!
  • Cathedral de Rouen.  Okay, you'd probably look at this one even if I hadn't told you to, but it's a really nice one!
  • Gare St. Lazare.  This one is on the same wall as Impressionism, soleil levant.  I love the way Monet painted the steam coming off the trains.  This painting is a great example of Impressionist interest in industrialism and the way society was changing.  We often associate Impressionism with paintings of nature, and we sometimes forget the aspect of Impressionism that was a rebellion against the Academy and the traditional way of painting, which included depicting these unusual subject matters.  Also, my mom loves this painting, and everytime I see it, I think of her.
After you've picked your jaw up off the floor, walk back upstairs and have a quick stroll through the other "galleries" in the house.  On the top floor, they sometimes have special exhibits, but sometimes they display more of their permanent collections which are worth seeing if they are out (also mainly Impressionist art).  On the ground floor, look for the Berthe Morisot, Pisarro, and Renoir paintings.  Many of them are in the main hall, but some are off the main hall and worth finding.  I especially like the Caillebotte painting of the people strolling the streets with their umbrellas.  

Enjoy visiting this gem that is off the beaten path.  You probably won't have to fight the crowds here the way you might at Musee d'Orsay, so it's a treat to have a chance to get really close to these paintings (but don't sneeze on them!).  Also, if you are traveling with kids, there is a park right outside the museum with merry-go-rounds and space to run around--so you can bribe them with some time in the park after you go to the museum!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Please don't sneeze on our Van Gogh

Pretty much everytime I've been in a museum, at least one person does something so atrociously offensive that it sends me into a panic or, even worse, fits of laughter.  Some of the greatest faux pas include:

  • Family of four taking their Christmas card photos in a gallery of the Musee d'Orsay (Paris).  This in and of itself may not have been hugely offensive, but it involved posing the children ON A MARBLE SCULPTURE and allowing them to crawl all over it.  The mother actually POURED WATER ON THE SCULPTURE (presumably to clean it?!!)!  
  • Men snacking just inches away from Velazquez's Las Meninas, in the Prado Museum (Madrid).  True story.  It was, admittedly, 1994, and I think these things were allowed at the time, but in retrospect, it was pretty horrifying.
  • I didn't actually witness this, but in 2006, somebody tripped at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, UK) and broke a pair of really expensive Chinese Qing Dynasty vases.  Ooops.  (Read more about it here.)
  • 2006 was apparently a bad year for museums, when a boy put gum on a painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  

Needless to say, people aren't always on their best behaviour in museums.  But the truth is, even if you manage not to break or ruin a piece of priceless art, there are still lots of things you can do that can make a trip to a museum miserable.  I've compiled a short list of "do's" and "don'ts" over the past few years.  Here are some of my top tips.

  • Don't decide to break in your brand new Manolos the day you decide to go to the Met.  You won't be happy. 
  • On a similar note, it's almost a rule of museums that whatever the temperature is outside, it will either be a good 15-20 degrees warmer or colder inside the museum.  My parents have recounted almost losing their fingers to frostbite inside the Scuolo di San Rocco (Venice), and I recently persevered through an incredibly overheated and overcrowded Michaelangelo exhibit at the British Museum.  Wear layers.  
  • If you don't want to have your purse ripped away from you by a security guard with no sense of humor, don't take a huge bag, especially a backpack.  The rules vary from museum to museum, but it's a good idea to "pack light" if you don't want to have to check your purse.
  • Sit down wherever possible.  "Museum legs" are the worst thing in the world, and somehow it's more exhausting to stand for two hours than it is to walk for two hours.  If there's a bench, use it.  
  • Don't travel with the pack.  It's hard to imagine that everyone you are with will want to spend the exact same amount of time with the exact same exhibits as you will.  Instead of trying to navigate the museum en masse, it's a better idea to agree to meet up in the entrance at a certain time.  That way, if you're loving Chuck Close, but Grand Aunt Myrtle thinks modern art is a waste of time and wants to spend all day with Caravaggio, you won't have to mudwrestle over who gets to call the shots.
  • Don't go hungry.  My husband jokes that he should always carry a granola bar with him when we travel, because I'm a bitch when I get hungry.  Don't decide to squeeze in a trip to the National Gallery right before a late lunch.  Eat before, or have a snack midway through your trip at the (overpriced) museum cafe.  
I think there's almost nothing worse than paying $10 to visit a museum, and then finding yourself miserable the whole time you are there.  Plan ahead.  You'll be glad you did.

A start

How many times have you been in a new city and wanted to go see a famous museum? Do you often find yourself frustrated by the crowds or unable to find the one painting you wanted to see? How many times have you left feeling like you've really seen nothing, or seen everything but understood nothing? Do you often go home with little to remember your trip by other than some overpriced crap at the giftshop (how many mousepads with Monet's waterlilies on them does one person need?)?

I've lived through this frustration myself, and I've also heard many friends and family members gripe about this with me.  I think it's actually possible to completely by-pass this frustration by building a guide to some of the world's best (and largest, and most over-crowded, and most over-heated or over-air conditioned) museums. Since I have the attention span of a 1st grader on a sugar high, my aim is to spend no more than 2 hours in any given museum. In addition to making a 'drive-by' pass at some of the most famous paintings and sculptures, I'm also going to seek out the often-forgotten but equally important pieces of art to try to build a complete "snapshot" of what each museum has to offer. That way, if the Mona Lisa is totally obscured by a wall of tourists, you can have a game plan for where to go instead so you haven't wasted your afternoon in the Louvre. And contrary to popular belief, there IS more to the Louvre than the Mona Lisa. 

I live in London, so we'll start there. Since I've been to a lot of London's best museums several times, this should be relatively easy. Each time I take a trip, I'll try to write-up my thoughts on any great museums we visit and how to tackle those as well. We'll see where this takes us. Also, I'll try to write up reviews of special exhibits that come through London.  I have a bachelor's degree in art history, and it's my first love, so most of the museums I visit will probably be art museums, but I also have a PhD (almost) in archaeology, so we may intersperse some ancient crap along with the Renaissance portraits.  Who knows.  I'm making this up as I go.  

Also, if I start to sound like Rick Steves, somebody put me out of my misery.