Cities, Art, and the Self: On the Virtues of Visiting Museums When Traveling

A good of friend of mine is headed to Barcelona this weekend, and asked me for a few recommendations on what he absolutely must see while he is there.  Knowing him reasonably well, and also what he ought to see on a first visit, I did not include many of the great art museums in the city since, despite Barcelona’s prominence as an art and design capital, sending someone to wander through hallways full of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and drawings would probably prevent them from seeing many of the interesting buildings, streets, and squares which make the city unique.  Yet in doing so, on reflection, I realize that I erred greatly. For he will only be getting a part of the story of what makes the city he is visiting so special, because we so often forget that works of art tell us a lot about both ourselves, and the cities where those works of art happen to be housed.

Take Michelangelo’s monumental “David”, for example, which is the most famous sculpture in the city of Florence.  The figure of David, the shepherd boy from the Bible who managed to slay a giant several times his size, had a great deal of meaning for the small Florentine Republic, which often found itself fighting enemies much greater in size.  Or think of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, which despite its Milanese provenance has resided in France since the time Da Vinci moved there toward the end of his life, to work for King Francois I.  One sees this image and immediately thinks not of Northern Italy, but of Paris, since after leaving the royal collections she has been smiling down at the public from the walls of The Louvre since the late 18th century.

There are many more examples of works of art, commissioned by or which have passed into the public collections of cities around the world, which those among us with an appreciation for history and culture visit as if on pilgrimage when we go to certain cities.  One must see Velázquez’ “Las Meninas” in Madrid; in Dresden, Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”; in Chicago, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on Le Grande Jatte”.  To go to these places and not see these masterworks is a bit like going to Philadelphia and not eating a cheese steak.  They are so interwoven into the collective cultural fabric of the cities where these works happen to reside, that their omnipresence on everything from advertising posters on public transit systems to postcards and knickknacks at the newsagents’ almost causes us to forget they are there.

Art appreciation is not simply a course which one has to pass in high school, but rather it is meant to be something which informs you about not only where you live, but where other people live as well.  The next time you travel therefore, consider doing a little research in advance to see what are the important works of art in the city you happen to be visiting, to see what you can learn about the place you are sojourning, and perhaps learn a bit more about yourself in the process.  What sorts of images do you respond to, and how do they make you see the city in which you happen to be when you are looking at them?

For example, in Manhattan you can pay a visit to Sargent’s seductive and justly famous “Portrait of Madame X” at the Metropolitan.  Ask yourself how, even though she was a Louisianan painted in France by a painter from Massachusetts, Madame X rather aptly reflects the city and indeed the neighborhood in which she has subsequently come to reside, so close to the commercial palaces and fashion industry giants on 5th and Madison Avenues.  Her portrait created a scandal when it was displayed, yet now it seems surprisingly demure.  How has New York, and indeed the world, changed from the days in which her alleged love affairs and fashion sense were a cause célèbre in society?

Returning to Barcelona, what I should have done for my friend at the very least is to send him to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, which without question has the best collection of art from the Romanesque period (roughly 1000-1300 A.D.) in the world.  Probably the two most important works of art in the collection are the “Christ Pantocrator” fresco of c. 1123 from the apse of the church of Sant Climent de Taüll, and the painted wooden crucifix known as the “Majestat Batlló”, of about the same date.  One sees the use of elements of their composition in objects and images all over the city, and in fact I have small-scale reproductions of both in my home oratory.  Their familiarity as images, their devotional quality as works of Catholic art, and their reminder of a time when my favorite part of the world was deeply and colorfully Catholic, help me to feel grounded in the way I think about my faith. They are visual reminders of my own perceptions of the world in a way which some other images of Christ may not be, no matter how aesthetically beautiful.

That, in the end, is one of the joys of coming to know and appreciate great art, for it tells you much about yourself and where you happen to be at this moment in your life; what does and what does not matter to you; even about where you are likely headed, than you might otherwise believe possible.

BatlloDetail of the “Majestat Batlló” (c. 1100-1125)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

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The Waunderlust of Life

As I write this it is early morning, and from the top floor of my house, the bedroom windows look out toward a hotel not far away. I can see about a dozen windows of the guest rooms from my vantage point, seated at my desk.  The sky, which just a couple of minutes ago was a deep indigo, looking like a dark and churning ocean, has now suddenly broken into patches of peach streaked with lilac.  Into this sky, I can hear that one of the first early morning flights from Reagan National Airport, a few miles away, has just taken off – possibly with a friend of mine at the controls.  At this early hour of the morning, none of the guests in the hotel are yet stirring, so far as I can see, for the curtains are all closed and there do not appear to be any lights on in the rooms, but no doubt some of them will be getting up soon for they will be checking out today, to begin their travels.

Last evening I met up with a couple of friends for happy hour.  One is an airline pilot, and the other travels extensively for his work in energy.  We spent a good deal of time discussing travel, particularly air travel, and realizing that although the glamour days flight are long-gone, there is still a thrill one has in taking a flight somewhere, no matter how many times you may have been on an airplane.  The Courtier was even made fun of, by suggesting that I ought to be the focus of a documentary road trip across the country stopping in truck stops and monster car rallies, which apparently would make rather compelling television.  Fortunately for all of us this is unlikely to come to pass.

Travel used to be something that was excruciating, which was why people tended not to engage in it any more than they really needed to.  It took days to go from one city to another, and weeks to cross the ocean.  The ability to travel more quickly and bringing rapid travel from planes to high-speed trains to express public transportation to within a price which more people can afford has certainly changed our lives in many respects.

Yet the faster travel gets, the less time we have to spend on reflection during our travels, whether it is in appreciating the marvels of modern travel itself, or in looking at what we can take away from the overall experience.  For there is something ponderous about travel, within which we can find so many dichotomies that mirror life itself, in which we are all on the same journey to destinations unknown.  And it is a journey we should all be trying our best to prepare for, and help others prepare for.

Think about the various emotions experienced over the years, for example, in going to a train station or an airport, when boarding a boat or a plane.  There is always sense of a duality in these places, of both expectation and loss, excitement and sadness, relaxation and aggravation.  We have concerns about forgetting important items, or getting separated from people, or not making connections.  We may be faced with weather delays and terrorists and the just plain rude, as we attempt to make our way to our respective destinations.

However all of us, whether we live to be one year old or 101 years old, will all be taking a journey from this life at some point, to a destination with which we are totally unfamiliar.  This is a conclusion which is inescapable for any traveler, in the back of their mind, no matter how savvy they may be.  Will today be the day that something goes wrong, and I don’t make it home, they may ask themselves.  Is it time for the journey where one may not take any carry-on bags whatsoever?

There is of course no reason to be morbid when stepping onto a train or taking your seat before take-off.  Yet perhaps in our (alleged) contemporary sophistication about such things we have closed off the possibility of learning from the journey itself.  It is possible that we have so insulated ourselves from what our ancestors clearly understood, i.e. that travel is potentially risky and dangerous, that we have become too detached from the opportunities for reflection provided by it.

Gentle reader, perhaps the next time you have to travel a significant distance while putting yourself in the care of someone else, you can do a couple of little things.  Take a little time to reflect on and be grateful for all of the men and women who make your journeying possible in a degree of relative comfort and safety.  And at the same time realize that it might do you some good to ponder where your own life is headed, and whether there are some course adjustments which you ought to consider as you continue along your way.  You may be arriving at your intended destination in a matter of hours, rather than many days, but you can still make the most of that time you have to think, and then to act upon what you have considered.

Illustration of a trans-Atlantic crossing for the Louis Vuitton Co.
by Catalan illustrator/cartoonist Jordi Labanda (2009)

Looking Back at London

If you have ever moved to another city, another country, or another continent for any extended period of time, gentle reader, then you know that the first few days you spend there are some of the most vivid memories you will take away from that place.  You may of course forget some of the later things that happened once you settled in, and began to see the place as your home.  However this is why I want to encourage those of my readers who are going to be living somewhere far from home for awhile, to make an effort to write down their experiences and observations now, in order to be able to draw upon them later.

Reading my updates on Facebook this morning I had a bit of a shock, realizing how quickly time seems to pass.  A good friend from here in the States had just arrived in London to begin a year of graduate school there, and I saw the news that he had safely arrived at Heathrow posted in my timeline.  It suddenly dawned on me that it was 15 years ago, in September of 1997, that I moved to London for the first time.  I could not help but sigh a little, as I thought about what my friend would be experiencing, as this was his first time ever in London.

To give you some context about what Britain was like at the time when I first went to live there, I arrived exactly one week after Princess Diana’s funeral on September 7, 1997.  The Labour MP Tony Blair had only been Prime Minister for four months, after decades of Tory government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the most popular British musical act at the time was The Spice Girls, who had only released their debut album in the U.S. earlier that year.  The Queen Mother was still going strong, mobile phones were seemingly all made by Nokia and about the size of a television remote control, and internet was exclusively of the dial-up variety (and very, very slow.)

As weird as it may sound, I can remember my entire first day in London on September 13, 1997, as if it were yesterday.  If you recall the expression of “having your wits about you,” I would say not only did I have all of mine about me, but they were firing on all cylinders.  Everything was new and interesting, and there was this strange sense of having landed on another planet.  For although the language was the same, many details of everyday life were handled completely differently.

For example, once my cab had dropped me off at my halls of residence on Regent’s Park – no Heathrow Express to Paddington in those days – I decided to see how long the walk was from there to where I would be studying, close to Piccadilly.  I remember looking at the words painted on the asphalt at intersections as I made my way through the car park and around the side of the building, which read, “Look Right” or “Look Left”.  I did not quite understand what they were for, until I started walking down Portland Place, and crossed an intersection without looking in the direction indicated.  As I did so a car came whizzing past honking its horn at me, and I had a near-miss with getting flattened within minutes of arriving in London.  From then on, I was quite careful to read what was on the ground before I stepped onto it.

Feeling a bit shaken and deciding I had better calm myself and call home, after a couple of blocks I spotted the BBC and All Souls Langham Place, both of which I knew from a lifetime of watching British television shows.  Across the street were three red telephone boxes in a row, standing at the side of a rather grandiose Victorian building, which I later came to learn was the Langham Hotel.  I chose one and made a telephone call to my parents, waking them up at about 5:00 a.m. Eastern to let them know that I was there and safe.

They were happy to hear from me, particularly my Father who is more the Anglophile of the two, and as I looked about from inside the phone box describing what I saw, I spotted a cafe across the road and down a little ways.  I told them I would head there to get some caffeine and try to call them again later, after I had done some exploring.  I could not have known it at the time, but later I ended up spending many, many hours in that Italian cafe/deli, using it as a place to study and write, and to meet up with friends, since it was centrally located but not a major tourist draw.

However rather than ordering their – excellent, as it later turned out – coffee, I must admit I bought a bottle of Snapple Iced Tea imported from the U.S.  It was warm, and the thought that I would be able to have American iced tea despite being far from home was rather encouraging.  As I continued down Regent Street sipping my beverage, I passed a news agent’s – which again, as time went on I would come to patronize regularly for magazines and for postcards – and noticed that they had that day’s New York Times for sale.  I realized that although I was in a different country and a different culture, there would still be plenty of things from home to keep me connected to the other side of the pond.

That was the beginning of a wonderful day, which included visiting my school and running into some of my classmates who were also figuring out the lay of the land; visiting what would come to be my parish in Mayfair for the first time; having my first gin and tonic in London at The Marlborough Head just north of Grosvenor Square; and coming back to my residence to find that a friend from high school was in town from Cambridge, and would be returning later that evening to meet up and go to dinner.  This is not a testament to any particularly astounding powers of memory on my part, mind you, but just an inkling of how much of an impact that first day in London had on my memory.  It is something I still treasure.

And if for some reason I should forget all of this, thank goodness I had the sense to keep a journal during both of my stints living in London.  It runs to many volumes, and though I must confess I have not sat down and cracked open these books in years, I do know they are there if I ever want to do so.  Perhaps with the realization of this anniversary, it might be a good time to revisit them, and recall some of the things I experienced, but have forgotten with the passage of time.

In the end that was the one piece advice I emailed to my friend today: that he makes sure to keep a journal for the year he will be living in Blighty.  No one knows what the future holds, and whether his experience will be as rewarding as mine, but having these memories to draw upon undoubtedly makes your life, and your understanding of the world in which you live, much richer.  Whether the city is London, Vienna, or Poughkeepsie, take the time now to write about what your impressions and thoughts are, so that you can relive those experiences later.


Phone boxes at the side of The Langham Hotel
Langham Place, London W1