The American undergraduate system requires every student to take a reasonable number of classes covering topics such as drama, history, philosophy and art that had no connection to one’s major but would hopefully contribute in making one a more rounded personality. My academic adviser suggested Professor Mary Abel’s art history class, as it was being offered only to ‘scholars’ i.e. students who were at the college on academic scholarships, which implied a greater likelihood of being surrounded by intelligent and hardworking individuals. It was purely luck – had I started college in any other semester, the scholars class may have been drama or music and I would have probably taken that class rather than art history.
The art history class was interesting but my real love affair with art galleries began on our first field trip – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known simply as the ‘Met’ (for movie buffs, this is where Pierce Brosnan stole the Monet in the Thomas Crown Affair). Over the course of the semester, I found myself trekking up to Manhattan each weekend to spend time at this outstanding museum – initially, obsessed with their exceptional Egyptian collection, then the impressionist wing but slowly discovering many of the other wings on this enormous building. Indeed, it is so large that till date, I cannot claim to have seen the entire permanent collection with the patience that it deserves. I was lucky that I went to college in New York – Manhattan has an exceptional number of amazing museums all within easy reach and all affordable to visit, even for a broke undergraduate student.
While the Met was the place where I first discovered my love for museums, my favorite art museum in New York is the Frick Collection, bordering Central Park. The Frick Collection is housed in the building that was previously the residence of Henry Clay Frick, a steel industrialist who spent the later years of his life accumulating an exquisite collection from the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Goya and several others. While the collection itself is exquisite, I mainly visit because of the building – despite being in Manhattan, once you step inside, the hustle and bustle seems hundreds of miles away and one is overcome with a feeling of Nirvana whilst within its walls. I often sit around the courtyard reading a book or doing something else just to soak in the atmosphere. Other great collections in Manhattan include the Guggenheim where you take an elevator to the top and walk down the spiral downward sloping exhibition spaces till you are back on the ground floor, and the Museum of Modern Art (“MoMa”) which houses epic modern art pieces like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Edvard’s Munch’s ‘The Scream’, Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ and countless others.
When I moved to London in 2003, I started to check out its galleries within weeks of moving there – my first apartment was conveniently only walking distance from the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington. Over the course of time, I discovered many others – far too many to visit unless you live in London but the one that stands out in the Tate Modern, that is housed in what was previously a power generation plant on the bank of the Thames. The Tate Modern’s permanent collection is less-than-dazzling but there is always some special exhibition underway and these are normally fantastic. Like most other London art galleries, the Tate Modern does not charge any entry fees, although the special exhibitions normally require the purchase of a ticket.
One of the first holidays I took after I moved to Europe was to Paris, where my first stop was the Louvre, which is enormous like the Met and houses a collection that is no less impressive. The highlight, for most visitors is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which is irritating as the crowd around this work is large and one is unlikely to get much quality time to look at this masterpiece, which is quite likely the most recognizable art work of all time. A less famous but fascinating gallery in Paris in the Espace Dali in Montmartre, a few steps away from the Sacre Coeur Basilica. This permanent collection contains over 300 works of Salvador Dalí, the father of surrealism. For those who are fans of impressionism and post-impressionism, I highly recommend the Musée d’Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine, in the building that was formerly a Beaux-Arts railway station and now houses the largest collection in the world by the likes of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin and Van Gogh. A slightly smaller collection of works by a similar group of artists is housed at the Musée de l’Orangerie, on the other side of the Seine. The collection is not comparable to the Musée d’Orsay but what I love most about this gallery are the ovals rooms, specially designed by Monet to display a collection of paintings of water lilies from his garden, known as the Nymphéas.
During an unfortunate period of my life when I was required to live in the depressing industrial city of Birmingham, I kept my sanity by establishing a weekend residence in Switzerland. The gallery I visited most frequently was the Fondation Beyeler, on the border of Switzerland and Germany near the city of Basel. While the gallery boasts works from Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh to Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Francis Bacon, my favorite collections here are the Mark Rothko paintings and the Alberto Giacommeti stick figures. More recently, I discovered the Kunsthaus in Zurich, which is larger than the Fondation Beyeler and has a more impressive collection.
For someone who has had the opportunity to repeatedly visit the finest galleries in the world, it takes a lot for something to impress me, let alone blow me away. The work that did it for me was Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To truly enjoy and appreciate this masterpiece, you should not see it amongst the vast number of tourists who line up outside the Vatican City each to see it. You need to be there alone, or with only a few others in the chapel so that you are comfortable enough to lie down on the floor and stare upwards, your gaze unobstructed and your other sense undisturbed by human beings. Getting a private viewing requires a vast amount of influence, but if you are determined enough to make it happen, you’ll find a way. Take it from someone who has been there and done that, it’ll be worth the effort.
Originally published in Frappe