When it comes to art galleries and museums, most travellers have similar questions: how much time do I budget? How many do I want to go to? As someone who has visited more individual museums and art galleries in the last seven months than I probably have for the last seven years combined, I've definitely had experiences of feeling entirely 'art gallery'd out' - staring blankly at paintings more for the sake of looking at them than actually processing them, walking through hallways and barely glancing at the displays and mostly just wishing for a place to sit down.
So how do you make a visit to some of the most visited, most photographed places in the world feel personal and meaningful? That's a question I've been grappling with, to varying levels of success, and the lesson I've come down to is this: visiting galleries is like drinking alcohol - choose carefully and know your limits.
Choose carefully: One of the things I’m trying very hard to unlearn is the idea that there are things you should do when travelling somewhere. You don’t have to visit every place - not even the most famous ones - if you’re straight up not interested. If other people want to judge you for visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, that’s their problem. If you want to go to an art gallery for a specific set of paintings or works, you don’t have to see the rest in that one visit if you have somewhere else you really want to be. This also applies to photographing things inside galleries. I’ve seen people snapping photos on their phones indiscriminately from one painting to another like they're policemen in a crime scene and I often wonder if they actually ever look at them again.
Know your limits: It's hard to be brutally honest about what kind of an art gallery wanderer you are now, all personal issues and neuroticisms included, but I think it's the best way to cut through all the 'should do' traveller BS and actually aim for an experience that you'll remember.
Some of these are issues I want to overcome but I’m not going to cure neurotic art gallery FOMO in the 3hrs budgeted for the Louvre. So here’s a brutally honest assessment of me as an art gallery visitor: I have flares of anxiety about missing things so I tend to always give every room ‘a chance’, even ones I’m not that interested in, and get easily overwhelmed with sensory information. I get irritated and tired when surrounded by crowds and I tire more easily than most since I'm generally lugging a >5kg backpack and camera around all day.
For me, that means getting to the gallery early (waking up at 6AM to go to the Louvre when it was quiet and empty was great), spending extra time studying the map to plan out a route so I can ensure I cover the things I actually want to see and minimise doubling-back, avoiding buying audio tours because I feel so guilty about skipping things and remember about 0.001% of what I hear. Instead I generally read plaques very carefully, making notes on my phone of my impressions and search for the painting online if it really catches my attention. I concentrate better face to face so I try to join free guided tours when I can. Also giving myself projects like The Art Collectors and Dumb Art Jokes to find something novel in paintings people tend to brush past.
Other things I’ve noticed that affect your art gallery experience: gallery flow (ie. if the rooms are designed logically or if you have to double back, if it’s easy to miss things, availability of aircon, quality of plaques (Louvre doesn’t have a lot of informational plaques in English so I do recommend an audio guide). Paris made things so nice because admissions were free for EU students, so definitely take advantage of your exchange or student life if you can.
And as a photographer, how do you photograph some of the most photographed places in the world? Faced with the enormity of the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles and even the Musee D'Orsay as just one of the millions of visitors they get annually can feel like wading into the vastness of the ocean. I don't know if I succeeded in photographing something original but I like the photos and I guess that makes them at least 'mine'.
(just for fun, here are some of my raw, unfiltered notes from the Louvre and Musee D'Orsay)
- Giuseppe Arcimboldo - L’Hiver - so weird yet so innovative
- Guido Reni - Hercules - giggling at strategic cloth placement
- Eugene Delacroix - Mort de Sardanapale (there was a Delacroix exhibition where you could see some of his early 'drafts' for his final piece and I found them more fascinating than the actual one)
- Christ in the Garden of Olives
- Baltic artists exhibition (at Musee D'Orsay) were interesting! Almost graphical, almost mythological, very varied and interesting aesthetics
- Seurat’s Poseuse de Profil is so small and the colours are incredible but the rest of his work is a trip and a half
- Monet’s paintwork was so thick but ah, truly beautiful. Even though he had a bunch of different ways of working with brushstrokes, he’s able to get the smallest details of colour. Truly no eye quite like his. His subject matter could be somewhat 'boring' though, even composition-wise.
- Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe - The eyes of the subjects are a little creepy and masklike in real life, especially the man next to the naked lady but the painting has a luminous quality to its quotes that is striking. The lines also look very clean and bold - there not that airbrushed quality there is to traditional classical paintings. The brushstrokes are thick and visible
- Renoir’s later work was a big hit or miss for me, the brushwork was almost childlike and smudge-y/pastel-like and it felt like he was neither embracing the lack of form of the Impressionists or formalist styles
- Toulouse-Lautrec is still my fave ever - casual use of line and colour, looking both 'unfinished' but also somehow finished is so unmatched.
- Picasso’s La Buveuse d’absinthe 1901 is lovely and unusual, can't look away.
- Wow @ Philippe de Laszlo’s La comtesse Anna de Noailles - she looks like Elizabeth Debiki. How does he make life glow in that gaze.
- Jean Béraud's Une soirée is so beautiful and has this amazing sense of depth created through texture and thick paint.
- Holy shit Gustave Courbet’s paintings are insane re: scale and it doesn't hit you until you see it in person.