Travel: a Gnostic Guide
I spend several weeks a year traveling in Europe, with a focus on art galleries, museums, and archaeological sites. When I travel I leave behind the familiar routine of the studio and take with me just a few changes of clothing, a small set of books, and a toothbrush; the next few weeks will be spent walking, looking, and reflecting.
This section begins with a recent trip to Italy (November 2019, with particular attention to Venice and the 2019 Biennale; my visit happened to coincide with an impressive and rather destructive acqua alta – i.e. high water). From there I will focus, somewhat arbitrarily, on a few other recent pilgrimages. The theme uniting much of this travel section is the Northern Renaissance – the art of northern Europe from the late middle ages, which, from a personal point of view, has always been an important artistic influence.
It is easier than ever to access high resolution images of art works and take virtual tours of art museums and archaeological sites without leaving home. Of course, travel, too, is easier than ever, though it is becoming a sort of “guilty pleasure” (given the increasing awareness of the resulting “carbon footprint”). So the question becomes: What is the role of travel – actually being in the presence of the painting, sculpture, or installation – in the artistic process? What is to be gained by seeing the work itself, as opposed to a virtual reproduction?
Understanding art is, for me, an immersive, spatial experience. The Sistine Chapel (Vatican, Rome) will serve as an example. Entering the space, the visitor is drawn into an artistic ecosphere: as the photo (which I took during a visit a few years ago) illustrates. This is not a zone of quiet contemplation – quite the contrary: this is a sea of chaos. Individual paintings in the chapel are (arguably) better understood through quiet contemplation; videos and photos will give a sense of the imagery that is not available to the visitor walking through the space. Nonetheless, the artistic pilgrim understands the images in a different and more meaningful way as a result of having walked through and actually experienced this work of art as a model of the universe (as some commentators understand it) in all its flux and chaos.
Is it true, as art students are often told, that certain works of art can only be understood by standing contemplatively in their presence? This argument has been made in particular with respect to Abstract Expressionism and colour field painting. The student, looking at the reproduction of the work by (for example) Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, complaining that he can make no sense of these “floating blobs of colour,” is advised to make a pilgrimage to see the work itself: reproductions do not come close to giving a clear sense of the spiritual vitality of the work. I will politely say that yes, I have made the “pilgrimage” and that my personal experience has been equivocal. A few pictures here document visits to museums in London, Munich, and Toronto. To summarize: my repeated, seemingly endless encounters with artists like Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko have been ambivalent and puzzling. On the other hand, I have found shows like the joint exhibit of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore (AGO, Toronto) extremely effective and thought-provoking.
Left: a visitor contemplates the work of Mark Rothko at the Tate Modern (London). Centre: Cy Twombly in the Museum Brandhorst, Munich. Right: Francis Bacon and Henry Moore in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Hieronymus Bosch: Museo del Prado
Bosch is a quintessential artist of the Northern Renaissance; though he worked at the same time as Leonardo da Vinci, textbooks point out that nothing could be further from the spirit of the Humanism of the Italian Renaissance than the work of Bosch. How is it, then, that to see the best of his work the “artist-pilgrim” must travel to Madrid?
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