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.