If you happen to be walking thru an art museum and see a work of art where someone in the painting is holding a beer or it contains a scene of jovial people drinking some alcoholic beverage, look at the date. If the year starts with ’16’, then you can safely bet a six-pack of Heineken that the painting came from a Dutch artist or a Flemish artist who was living in the Netherlands at the time. One of these artists, Adriaen Brouwer, was the subject of another blog post on this site.
I love art. I have since I stepped foot inside my first European art museum back in 2004. That art museum happened to be the wonderful Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I was in awe of the enormous civic guard portraits particularly by Rembrandt and Bartolomeus van der Helst. They were so detailed and life-like and up until that point in my life, I had never seen anything like them. Then for several years, I was a proud card-carrying member of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. When I moved to Europe in 2011, the ability to visit and revisit the great European art galleries became a reality and fulfillment of a dream. However, I have found that the act of going to an art museum is not really the fulfillment of that dream. There is in fact, in my humble opinion, a right way and a wrong way to visit an art museum.
Being a fan of art is just a starting piece for being able to enjoy an art museum. Let’s face it, visiting a great art museum can be a daunting experience. It is simply not possible nor feasible to enjoy every painting and I personally think it is a bad strategy to go to an art museum just for the sake of it being a famous building on a Top 10 to-do list from a guidebook. If you waltz into the Louvre (the one in Paris, not Abu Dhabi…*smh*) without a plan, you will soon be overwhelmed and find your energy drained before you’ve even made it out of the 1400’s.
Here is my simple philosophy. Better to give 100% attention to 10% of an art museum than to see 100% of it with a 10% attention level. I will let you stop and absorb the math there, but I trust you get the point. The art museum experience is much more memorable and valuable when you find a selection of paintings to really connect with.
So here is the strategy I have followed over the years:
- Don’t be ashamed to focus on the famous artists.
There is no shame in going to the Louvre and making a bee-line to the Mona Lisa. Of course when you go to an art museum, it is good to research ahead of time. At a minimum, you have to at least see the iconic paintings, the ones that crossover into pop culture. Not every museum has such famous paintings as the Mona Lisa, so from the very beginning I made a list of my own “Must See” artists.
Flemish Masters: Rubens, Van Dyck, Van Eyck
Dutch Masters: Hals, Rembrandt, Bosch, Vermeer
Italian Masters: Caravaggio, Canaletto, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Da Vinci
Impressionists: Van Gogh, Monet
Of course this leaves out so many other famous artists, but by having a ‘target list’, I didn’t mind speeding by incredible masterpieces in search of the ones by the artists on my list.
Over time, of course, you start to recognize and appreciate other great artists and the list evolves. Today, artists like Jan Steen, Franz Klimt, El Greco, and Diego Velazquez are more appealing to me than say Rubens and Van Dyck.
- If you don’t have a plan, get the audio guide.
If you are just going to wing it at a huge European art gallery, the best way to appreciate the museum without wearing yourself out and losing interest is to use the audio guide. This is a great way to make you feel ok skipping 90% of the paintings and focusing just on the ones highlighted by the museum itself. You will learn bits about art history, symbolism in art, and notice interesting things that you easily would have missed otherwise. If I am seeing a museum for the first time, I almost always do the audioguide and afterwards hunt out any remaining “Must Sees”.
- Focus on a particular theme.
This is an especially good strategy if you think you will be back frequently. I once attended a lecture on lapis lazuli, a type of stone which was often used to make the blue pigment in paintings. In general, a painting which had the color blue was more expensive and revealed the wealth of the patron. The next time I visited an art museum after that lecture, I focused only on paintings which had a good deal of blue. One theme that a lot of audio guides will introduce you to is how perspective in paintings changed over time or how realism evolved. One example of the latter is how the image of the Virgin Mary transformed from the pre-Renaissance to the Baroque periods. Again, themes give you a goal which enhances your enjoyment and learning and prevents your mind and body from suffering overload.
- Maximize your energy level.
If I know that I am going to be doing an art museum, the best times for me are in the morning or in the late afternoon/evening after a nap. You never want to start an art museum when tired and hungry, immediately after lunch, or after several hours of other site-seeing. I actually prefer to visit an art museum when they have evening hours. For example, the National Gallery in London normally closes at 6pm, but it is open on Fridays until 9pm. Imagine a Friday of site-seeing London, a nap in the hotel in the late afternoon, a reviving shower, a light snack, and then a visit to the National Gallery before a Friday evening dinner. Not only do you get a boost in the museum visit, you also get a boost in that evening’s dinner conversation while everything is fresh in your mind. That’s the way I would do it folks.
Since moving to Europe is 2011, I have had access to Europe’s amazing art galleries, but despite my strategy, I have found my passion for art to be waning over the past couple years. However, in the process of coming up with ideas to write about for this blog, it dawned on me that the inspiration I needed to re-ignite this passion was staring me right in the face. It was the concept of the “theme” that I mentioned above. While taking my daughter around in the Philadelphia Museum of Art just recently, I found myself disappointed that I seemed to be wandering aimlessly or taking too much time focusing on paintings that I really wasn’t interested in. In fact, this is to say I had lost my strategy. Somewhere along the way, my appreciation for art became replaced by other passions. But it is never too late to recover it, and that I did inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art when the idea for a new blog series was born. Why not write about and highlight the famous art not just of the world, but of the brewtifulworld? Paintings revolving around the underlying theme of my blog. Beer and the beauty of this world. When this idea came into being, not only did it create excitement to write about it, but it gives me the perfect reason to revisit so many great art museums with a completely new plan. First up will be said Philadelphia Museum of Art and then let’s see where it goes from there.