How to get the best out of art galleries? Where to start when you want to enjoy the works but it all seems too complicated, too old, or simply too much?
To wander through a huge European gallery (let us say for instance Prado in Madrid or National Gallery in London) can be more than exhausting, even if you are just trying to navigate your way to “the masterpieces” introduced in the guide. That is one way to enjoy museums – but simply finding the pieces that others have deemed worthy is not nearly all there is to them.
I could spend hours and hours at an art museum, admiring paintings and sculptures. The secret to truly enjoying the visit is to convert the practice into a subjective experience. Arts are about meeting people and going places. And that is why old visual art is particularly interesting: the people you meet will tell you stories about a world that is long gone and yet still here.
But where to start getting to know these people and places? I recommend you a couple of fun “games”. It may seem unscientific – but art is supposed to speak to your heart anyway. And before you know it, you will be having conversations with the framed and sculpted crowd who are eager to invite you to their territory.
1. Miss and Mister Museum
This one is rather simple. While browsing through the halls, find the most stunning lady or the prettiest guy (note: inside frames). If you are lucky, they might stock a postcard of him/her and you can take them home without fear of being disrespectful. If not, you can either take a picture yourself (if photographing is allowed) or relish the thought that others simply have a poor taste.
Franz von Lenbach: Mary Lindtpaintner as Salome. 1894. Currently in Neue Pinakothek, in Munich, Germany. Beauty, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder (and sometimes a beauty be holding a head).
2. Find your muse/ your patron saint
Is your name Theresa, Catherine, Anna, Sebastian, John or Patrick, or derived from these or other Catholic names? You just might bump into your patron saint! The Catholic calendar lists each day of the year belonging to a particular saint, and people named after saints can celebrate their name day on this date. Not every country associates name days with Christianity anymore – and by no means do you have to be a Christian to have a little conversation with a painted saint.
Precisely like you do not have to believe in the Roman gods to have a muse. Are you into astronomy or dancing? Do you write poetic lyrics or study history? Are you part of a theatrical group or is your first epic novel in the making? There is a muse for you and you simply have to find her. Distinguishing the muses is fun.
Johann Heinrich Tischbein: The Nine Muses – Calliope. 1780. Currently in New Gallery in Kassel, Germany. Calliope is the leader of the nine muses of arts. Her domain is epic poetry and rhetoric art. Among her trademarks are a writing tablet, stylus and laurel wreaths.
3. Find the odd one out
In paintings that portray a group of people or other beings, there is almost always the one who is just… odd. Sometimes that is what makes them the easiest to identify with. Here are a couple of examples.
The one who is a bit too proud of himself.
The man who smiles proudly while others are agonized. The saint who is boastful about her devotion in the most desperate moment. The patron (the one who has given financial aid to the artist and as a reward is depicted in the final work) to a painting that has a bit too large role in it. For one reason or another, there is always the one who has the nerve.
Derick Baegert: Christ Carrying the Cross and Veronica with the Sudarium. Between 1477 and 1478, currently in Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain. Saint Veronica clad in white seems rather content despite all the suffering going on (and Judas hanging himself) in the background. Notice also the charming horses and the very sensible-looking child next to Veronica.
Derpy children and animals
Sometimes it is hard to paint a new-born child when he is also supposed to be full of heavenly wisdom. And sometimes it is hard to depict an animal you have only seen stuffed and half eaten by moth. By no means am I taking anything away from the amazing artists, because bewildered horses (like they are choking on an apple and seeing a ghost at a same time, while simultaneously staring into your soul) and babies with a face of an old man definitely make the works more memorable and original.
Jan de Beer: The Annunciation. Circa 1520. Currently in Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain. The rather sheep-like cat in the left bottom corner is the cutest thing and definitely adds to the easy-going charm of the work.
What about the endless landscapes? I have noticed that people do not spend much time in halls filled with them. Here something I call “landscape-imagining” could be worth a try. Select a painting with a setting that seems particularly interesting, pleasant or fierce. Choose a spot or a tiny figure in that painting and imagine yourself there. What would it feel like? What would it sound like? If you like historical dramas, you can also choose a setting that fits your favorite characters and imagine their reactions.
Jacob Philipp Hackert:Landscape with the Palace of Caserta and Vesuvius. 1793. Currently in Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain. If you look closely, you will notice the guy who has fallen down running on the hills, something that is actually quite easy to relate to. How would that feel?
Is there even more to this? Yes, there is! Maybe you can even approach the art works with the thought of learning something. Tune in to part two of this mini article series!
The thumbnail image used is Apollo und die Musen (Apollo and the Muses) by Heinrich Maria von Hess, 1826. Currently in Neue Pinakothek gallery in Munich, Germany.
All the pictures used are from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain in their country of origin and areas where the copyright term is author’s life plus 100 years or less.