• Travel: a Gnostic Guide

    Travel: a Gnostic Guide

  • National Gallery, Ottawa (2018)

    National Gallery, Ottawa (2018)

  • Venice: Biennale 2022/Peggy Guggenheim Museum

    Venice: Biennale 2022/Peggy Guggenheim Museum


Travel: a Gnostic Guide

Summer of 2002 felt like a return of the world to something approaching “normal” after the sense of confinement which clouded the last few years. Mega-vaccinated, ready to “get out of town,” I spent the month of June traveling in Italy (see map). My traveling companions tend to remember the food, while my memories are more of the art, and this year my dreams will be influenced by images from the Biennale in Venice, the Museo Morandi in Bologna, the Museo Maffeiano in Verona . . .  The Biennale this year focused on the art of women, most memorably perhaps that of Leonora Carrington (whose work lent itself to the theme of the Biennale: Il Latte dei Sogni; The Milk of Dreams).


Among the featured artists at the 2022 Venice Biennale were Leonora Carrington (left), Leonor Fini (centre) and Remedios Varo (right).


Paintings on this page are by Remedios Varro (left),  Leonora Carrington (above), and Cecilia Vicuña (right, two paintings).  Many of the artists featured at the 2022 Biennale share the Surrealists’ interest in magic and the occult. Interpretative material for the show explains that “the exploration of dreams, the irrational, and the unconscious to express inner desires and fears united these artists.”

ab4 vicuna

Why travel?

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.

B40 munich 2015

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. Students, looking at the reproduction of the work by (for example) Mark Rothko or Barnett  Newman, complaining that they can make no sense of these “floating blobs of colour,” are 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. I would also say that I have walked into spaces hung with Abstract Expressionist paintings and felt a huge jolt of creative energy.

TO 2014 1
London 2018 1
Twombly munich4

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.

TO 2014 2
Prado 1
Bosch Hell

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?

Prado 2

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