Pondering Museum Visits – and Guernica

In a previous posting, I mentioned how moved I was by the tremendous trove of art at the Prado in Madrid. And indeed, the Prado is a location of global art treasure, just like the Metropolitan in NYC, The National Gallery in the UK, and the Hermitage in Russia, among other seriously notable museums.

However, as a tourist with limited time to see museums it’s important to spend time wisely when choosing which museums to visit when you land in your destination of choice.

And it’s not just about time, either. It’s about the human eye and brain getting overloaded with images. I’ve visited enough museums to recognize there is such a thing as over-stimulation and museum fatigue. After about 2-3 hours, I usually need a break, or possibly need to stop wandering through galleries to “process and absorb” the things I’ve seen.

With this in mind, I want to mention the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, which houses Guernica. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guernica_(painting)

Guernica is housed deep within this relatively small museum of contemporary art, in a bunker-like gallery designed to display only this towering painting. And although the room is reasonably large, it still somehow isn’t large enough to contain the painting. I can’t describe it adequately, and unfortunately in keeping with the museum’s policy, photography is not allowed in this particular gallery.

And once you’ve seen Guernica, for your $8 euro ticket price, you can essentially leave the museum. I know I’m being harsh in my commentary, and it’s not that I don’t like seeing cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque, or seeing the many Miro on display in Spanish museums, but I must call the Museo Reina Sofia out on this – there is NOTHING in that museum that can come close to the experience of seeing Guernica. There is not even one other piece on display that had an impact that could even touch what it’s like to see Guernica in person. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZCTrM3yfug)

Don’t get me wrong – I walked the entire museum. I saw the permanent Richard Serra installation on the first floor. I looked at the giant Calder sculpture in the courtyard. I walked by many Picasso, Braque, DuBuffet, Miro and other works on display. But… I’m sorry to say this because I sound like a total art brat and snob to make such a comment (apologies in advance) but I have seen these works before many times.

This brings me to the core of what I’m getting at with the museums we choose to visit and why.

At the Prado, I can see totally unique works by Bosch, Goya and many others that I cannot see anywhere else in the world. I got a bit of an “art high” walking around the Prado – an experience I remember having when first viewing The Temple of Dendur at the Met so many years ago. It’s just a brain-freezing, arresting, overwhelming moment when you see something that is a towering human achievement.

And Guernica delivers this experience, no doubt. I had seen reproductions of Guernica over the years, but nothing could compare to seeing it in person.

But, I’m sorry to say, if I want to see those brown and black cubist paintings that Picasso and Braques did side-by-side for a few years and that look very similar to one another… there are a lot of them, and I see them everywhere. After a while, I don’t even really bother looking at them because my mind “knows” the image.

And once you have seen two dozen paintings by Miro, which I have in a variety of museums, I’m sorry, but I “get it” and I know the style and I can even enjoy the image but it’s something similar happening over and over.

Perhaps this is one reason Guernica has such impact. It’s a combination of cubist style and figuration – plus the historic content which is essential in understanding that scene of war horror.

But I digress.

Museums often have a “mission” to display art history, and present some chronological view of art through the ages. And in that world tour, Cubism is in there, and so yes, you will be shown those brown and black Picassos because he created that new style and it was an important moment in Art History. Yes, I agree.

Unfortunately, since many/most museums have this same mission, you wind up seeing many of the same painters over and over, and you see paintings of the same style, and in the Museo Reine Sofia I just found that I’d “seen it before” when it came to anything other than Guernica.

Am I saying don’t go to the museum? NO. I am saying if you have the chance to see Guernica, just the experience of seeing that one work is completely worth it – in my opinion. It is like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado, a one of a kind and not replicated in any other painting globally. The painting – unto itself is a piece of Art History.

But consider what I’ve said when it comes to visiting museums. What is it you hope to “experience” at these institutions, and then make your choices accordingly.


6 Responses

  1. I love this and I get it.

    • This was a tough post to write, in a way. I love being able to go to museums, and I appreciate what they do for me, the public, wanting to learn about art. At the same time, there is the issue of repetition…

  2. And the issue of, you’ve seen the ultimate/now go home.

    • Actually, I should have mentioned something that museums do that helps break this cycle – they host special shows focused on specific artists as a retrospective, or they have a theme they investigate and this is a way of looking at works in a “new way.”

      This is important because some shows can help highlight aspects of works that allow the viewer to see the pieces differently, or to consider their impact differently.

      Then again, you could also tell me it’s a bunch of hooey the museums cook up to sell tickets and drive attendance up, and that would be true too. šŸ™‚

      (Should I mention I’m planning to see the NY Historical Society exhibition opening in October which replicates the first Armory Show held which displayed “Avant Garde” art to the public? I think this show will be very interesting – so guilty as charged!)

  3. I love this post.
    Guernica does seem to burst at the seams in that particular room. So many museums have a laundry list of must haves, reading more like an academic text than a manicured collection. They collect the names and not the work, but in this day and age they can’t even afford the names anymore. Museums can’t compete with hedge funds.
    Still all said and done, looking at a second rate Matisse in some mid sized city’s cultural institution is way better than not.
    Thanks for the great post.

    • Hi and thanks for the positive feedback.

      It’s obvious you’ve been to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, so you know what I mean about the room not even being large enough to contain Guernica. It’s a shame too, because I got the sense that the experience – as fantastic as it was – could have been even more enhanced by providing a higher ceiling in the room and more space in general. It felt claustrophobic in there.

      Your comment about hedge funds collecting art reminds me of some news stories I’ve heard recently about how the art market is going nuts in China right now. In many, many times past…explosive growth in art investing comes JUST BEFORE an economic bubble bursts within an economy.

      So it wouldn’t surprise me to know that financial institutions are snapping up important art works, which potentially prevents that piece of art from being shown publically and the important works get stockpiled like so many bars of gold in Fort Knox.

      I also strongly encourage you to read my recent post on Danish paintings, which touches on this theme too.

      Thanks for your thought provoking reply.

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