Why I Love Art Collections
Written by James Dunford Wood
I love art collections - no city visit should be complete without a fix of great art, just as when exploring a new region you should always climb the local high point, to get a fix on where you have arrived. But all too often people treat art museums as sights to 'be done', to be 'ticked off' - the Louvre, the Hermitage? Oh yes, been there, done that.
No - like great wine, great art cannot not be sipped once and confined to some memory bank, like a stamped postcard. It needs time. Visits also become like conversations - you discover artists you like, and can visit them again on subsequent visits, or find new connections in other galleries in other parts of the world.
You can also make a collection or a specific exhibition the focus of your holiday, the reason to travel. A great hotel, a world class exhibition, and a memorable meal out - what better way to spend two or three nights in Paris, New York, Berlin or Madrid?
Beyond the art, galleries themselves also have attractions. They are havens of quiet from the tourist bustle of the streets outside, and more often than not they are air conditioned. Not to mention their usefulness when you find yourself 'caught short' in the middle of the day. There are exceptions - do not expect much peace and quiet in the Louvre or the National Gallery in London. But in seeking out the smaller, more tranquil museums and galleries, you can get a real buzz from the discovery of treasures that have been missed by the 'tick-box' tourist outside.
Then, of course, there is the art. In addition to renewing acquaintance with old friends (encounters with whom stand out in my mind - an exquisite Simone Martini Virgin in a blue cloak in Siena, or the fabulous Night Watch by Rembrandt in Amsterdam - am I alone in wanting to shoot the sly Mona Lisa?), I make a point of going to see stuff I have not heard of, because what is the point of art if not to challenge your perceptions? Many towns and cities, too, have wonderful collections that say something about their history, often a real dogs dinner of fine art, applied art, sculpture and objects. The more personal these collections are, the more revealing. But by and large people want to see the special stuff, the Old Masters, the great museums - and here you often have to be clever about choosing times of day when the place will be less crowded, or in certain cases - the Sistine Chapel for example - consider splashing out on a private out of hours tour. Visiting with the hordes of bus tourists, many of whom have queued since early in the morning, can be a gruesome experience.
There are two schools of thought of how to enjoy a large museum like the Louvre or the Hermitage. The first is to plan your route carefully, looking for highlights by using their museum guide. Most museums now will helpfully highlight their main attractions. So - arrive at the museum, grab your guide, and then repair to the cafe for a lingering cappuccino and a pencil or highlighter to mark your stops on the map. This method is popular with the tidy mind, the person with limited time, who wants at least to say they have 'seen' such and such. Personally I find that approach way too cold. I prefer the anarchy of wandering in to the first room I see and then following my nose - or a pretty girl - to discover pleasures or terrors I might have missed altogether using method one, while at the same time keeping an eye out for old favourites if I know they are there. Still, it's not exactly efficient, and some will want to get their fixes much more quickly.
Last, try to take your time. Do not expect to 'do' a museum in a set amount of time. And always leave time for that cappuccino or panini in the gallery cafe afterwards - some even have great gourmet lunch offerings, like the Louvre or the Tate in London - because you need wind-down time to assimilate and reflect on all you have seen. If you simply step outside into the rat race again the Breughels will soon be forgotten. Stop and look and listen to the messages you are getting - then your day will be immeasurably richer.
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