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Appreciating Art

Just reading the RS December newsletter and something Rick said really struck home with me; hopefully I'm not breaking any copyright laws but here's a quote from his blog;

For some people, Europe's great masterpieces evoke gasps. For others,
yawns. The difference: knowing the stories behind the works. That's
why one of my joys as a guide has long been teaching European art and
architecture in a way that makes it both fun and meaningful.

For me, I'm more likely to appreciate Dogs Playing Poker than a Renaissance masterpiece if I were to just show up at a museum or gallery with no knowledge. I accidentally discovered the importance of pre-planning/knowledge and the value of a guide on my first European adventure. We booked a guided tour in advance for the Vatican; not because we saw the value of a guide but we saw the value of not getting stuck in long lines to get an entrance ticket. Best decision ever. My wife and I now love the value of how a good guide can bring a site or piece of art to life. For me, I still don't really appreciate the quality of the art, but like Rick mentions in his blog, I love the story behind the art.

When I read through this forum there has always been different opinions regarding the use of a guide or visiting sites yourself, so I'm curious; if you have chosen to go it alone-in the past or present, did you do some research and get some pre-trip knowledge so you would better appreciate what you're seeing? If not, were you disappointed once you saw the art that the it didn't move you? Or maybe, did you even care about the art and you were just ticking a site off your bucket list?

By the way google the history of Dogs Playing Poker, you may appreciate it more.

Posted by
1116 posts

I’d taken a couple of art history classes in college for my general studies requirements so that helped. I’ve been a member of the Art Institute of Chicago for the last few years.

I think it can also be helpful to look at the lectures available on YouTube, I know the National Gallery and the Prado have them. Makes it easy to appreciate the main pieces and the price is free.

Posted by
2601 posts

It's not as black and white as a guide (in human form) or no guide. A guide can also be a written or audio one. We've toured sites using all of the above. Which form it takes depends on the site and our degree of familiarity with the subject matter. They all have their pros and cons. Not all human guides are equally well informed or communicate in an interesting or engaging way. Not all written or audio guides answer every question you might have. The one reason DH and I prefer written or audio over a human guide is that we can linger as long as we like over pieces we are really interested in, or skip entirely those we aren't interested in. We would only DIY with no guide if one wasn't necessary to understand the subject matter, or if one wasn't available.

We don't visit museums just to tick the box. The Tate Modern or Pinakotek der Moderne are 2 museums we'll likely never visit because we just don't like most "modern art".

Posted by
2365 posts

I’m not big on guides or tours (will book them when it saves time, like skip-the-line or early entry but not in general). BUT I agree that it is essential to go into a sight with some context.

For art, I have a basic art history framework, and will read up on the particular museums pieces before I go. Often there are sources listing highlights or providing written walking tours. Rick Steves guidebooks do this, or the museums own website. Also just finding out what era/artist the museum has a good collection of (or an area of personal interest) and focusing on that section. An audio guide can be ok, I use it sparingly but can be useful.

Same for any sight - 5 minutes of reading can vastly improve the experience.

Before a trip I get the general sense of the culture/history/artists of the countries I’m visiting. Then a few minutes on the fly when entering a sight. Guidebooks or Wikipedia or websites or literature provided at the sight all work.

Posted by
10 posts

I too, have taken art history courses in the past. I now like doing my own research about what I am going to visit and see. The back stories of the art is the best part of enjoying Europe's art, (IMO). The only piece of art that I have been disappointed with was the, Mona Lisa. I have also found that a good local guide can really make a place come alive. Enjoy.

Posted by
3533 posts

I didn’t really know & appreciate art until after we took the RS Best of Italy trip and even more after RS Paris trip. During the several years since both of those trips, I do a lot of research and planning and have not used a paid guide, except for food guides.

I love to go through art museums- both in the US and Europe. Personally, I enjoy the smaller, less crowded museums where I can enjoy pausing in front of a piece of art as long as I would like to fully appreciate it, i.e. Rouen’s art museum was my latest example this year. I’ve found that I like to not know the history of a piece of art - rather to enjoy it for what I see in it, and how it brings out specific emotions. Of course, there are exceptions. Guernica in Madrid is much more powerful preparing to see it by researching the history of it.

By the way, we both loved the Mona Lisa when we saw it about five years ago. Her smile in person and the entire painting touched me much more in person than any picture I had seen of it previously.

Posted by
6142 posts

I've been interested in and taking classes in art history and art appreciation since high school so I was already prepared to visit the museums in Europe and appreciate the stories behind the masterpieces. That does not mean that I like all of the art that is considered 'masterpiece' status, I don't. Like most people some art speaks to me and some doesn't. One thing I did before my most recent trip to Europe was to re-read Rick Steves' Europe 101: History, Art, and Culture for the Traveler. I had read the first version many years ago and loved it. Like his other books this one is a pleasure to read - clear, concise, understandable, and a bit of humor thrown in. I highly recommend it for those not already steeped in art history as preparation for visiting the museums of Europe.

Posted by
229 posts

I enjoy reading about what I am going to see and am also a fan of Rick’s Europe 101 book. If you want something more visual, check out the Art History for Travelers videos in the Travel Talks section of the RS website. Narrated by Rick and Gene Openshaw, I think they are well done and very informative.

Posted by
231 posts

I didn't know jack about art . . .just familiar with some of the masterpieces, and a bunch of Monet's when I saw an exhibit in Chicago of his work. Two sources have helped me appreciate and have some understanding of what I'm looking at and why it's considered important: The Great Courses: A History of European Art, hosted by William Kloss and From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism, hosted by Richard Brettell. You can find very informative and entertaining info by Waldemar Januszczak on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

Posted by
1217 posts

I'm married to a fella who had to take a good number of art history classes as he was getting his MFA. And with whom I share a lot of visual interests so we generally do well just wandering around on our own, though we are sometimes foiled by the special exhibits schedule. I think the subtitle for our Art Trek 2019 was 'Not another bloody Picasso special exhibit' because they seemed to be everywhere this year.

Tate Modern is worth a visit if you skip the exhibits proper and go straight to the rooftop deck for a lovely free view of the London skyscape. It's more of the emperor's new clothes approach to modern art rather than a number of other perfectly nice European modern art museums like the Museum Ludwig in Cologne or the Stedeijk Museum in Amsterdam where the museum itself does a good job of educating the visitor of why they think modern art matters and what makes individual works special. I'm still not a big fan- I like art that's more kinetic and the modern stuff is often quite visually static- but I 'get' it better now.

Posted by
1 posts

I recently used the Audioguide for the Rembrandt exhibit at the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne Germany. I found it very useful. I learned so much about Rembrandt’s life, his art, about his art students and how he fit into the art world at the time. I had just seen Rembrandt pieces at the Rijksmuseum which were amazing but I learned so much more in Cologne.

Posted by
5947 posts

You are missing out on a lot if you simply decide you don’t “do modern art.”
As with all art you probably won’t like all of it but it’s worth remembering that some of the most popular art today, Impressionism, was “modern” and challenging at first.

Some of it is “emperors new clothes” but a lot isn’t and I’d much rather be slightly challenged by a piece than just stare at another pretty picture.

If you have any interest in art it is worth hunting out the many art documentaries put out by the BBC often on BBC 4. They cover a huge range of artists and are usually really engaging and interesting.

Posted by
3191 posts

Unfortunately, Emma, I have yet to find a way to see the BBC stuff from Canada.
Back in the 1970's BBC and Kenneth Clark made Civilization....which was world history through art. That was my favourite high school series and had the biggest impact on my art history. I u derstand there is a part 2 and it streams on PBS in US as well, but only for paid subscribers.

Posted by
5947 posts

I didn't think civilisation2 was that great but that is probably because the bbc hyped it so much.
Some good bbc arts presenters worth looking out maybe on Youtube include
Waldemar Januszczak, Janina Ramirez, Alastair Sook, Andrew Graham Dixon, Simon Schama

Posted by
349 posts

At age 19, I took my first trip to Europe with a college friend who had some background in art history. I knew nothing. But visiting great museums in her company taught me how to look at and appreciate great paintings.

Likewise, when I traveled around China the first time, it was with a work colleague who had studied Chinese history. She knew what to visit and why those sites were important, and that made it all meaningful to me as well.

And when my Asia-born husband and I recently traveled around Europe, I was able to give him a lot of historical background that helped him appreciate what we were seeing. For example, he'd never heard of the Inquisition or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

You see, it's not necessarily a question of guide or no guide. It's also a question of who you travel with.

For me, listening to a guide in the company of people who were bored and playing with their phones all the time would be worse than blundering through a site on my own that I knew nothing about. I want to be in an atmosphere of curiosity and appreciation, and that can happen in many ways.

Posted by
2021 posts

We enjoy art museums, and have been to hundreds, especially if you count my 100+ visits to the Art Institute of Chicago (over 60 years). While I haven't taken an art history class, I read a lot, and artists and their history have been part of my reading.

We have been to 2 museums in the last 3 years that made a bigger impression on me than many. First, the Alte Pinotek in Munich has a truly excellent audio guide, which did excellent commentaries on the pieces. Second, we spent a morning at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. This has a chronologically arranged religious art display over dozens of rooms. The wall displays, in Hungarian and English, gave me more information and history of the religious art than I have had previously. Well worth the time to carefully view the museum. We did the audio guide there as well.

Posted by
2365 posts

For pre-Impressionist European art I also think a knowledge of religion is important. Doesn’t matter what you believe, but knowing what beliefs the artists were depicting is important. There’s the pretty obvious (Jesus, Mary), but also more subtle things like symbols for particular saints, or less famous Old Testament stories. And the historical context (especially surrounding the reformation and counter reformation).

Greek mythology is also a big thing in art so knowing a bit of that can help.

That kind of general cultural knowledge is as important as knowing more art-specific things.

Posted by
4401 posts

I have visited most of the famous art museums in Europe, from the Prado, Lourve, Vatican, Uffuzi, Accademia, Hermitage and more.

Having taken an art history course in college helped, but it helps to prepare a bit prior to visiting an art museum. Guidebooks can help and most of the time the museum will sell you some kind of guide to assist you.

The single most amazing work of art to me was the Sistine Chapel. I know it is more than just one work, but the fact that it is all in one room is amazing. My 13 year old Daughter and 7 year old Son also were in awe. My Son insisted that we sit one the floor and I had to tell him about all the frescoes. I had an excellent guidebook purchased there before entering the Chapel.

Yes, perhaps a guide would help, but you can do it on your own.

I have my preferences, I love the Dutch artists, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh as well as Michalengelo and many of the Impressionists. Never cared much for modern art. Picasso is a mixed bag.

Posted by
6142 posts

Picasso is a mixed bag.

That's the truth. He had his periods and some are more likable than others, at least to me. I don't know a single soul who likes all so-called modern art, there is so much variety all lumped into that category.

Posted by
1669 posts

There have been some interesting responses, I've enjoyed reading them.

When I took a high school trip to Europe way back in 1966, our chaperone was a high school teacher who had been, as we say down here in the South, "raised right". We met for months before the trip and at each meeting one of the 8 o us had to make a presentation of a segment of the trip. We had to research what we would see and share its significance and history.

Our group of 8 joined up with 56 others to make up the People to People tour. Even though we were Junior High students and most were Seniors, we were by far the most knowledgeable and appreciative. That was a great start to a lifetime of traveling.

The last time we were in Florence, we opted to take a Walks of Italy tour of the Uffizi. It was well worth it. Marco, our guide, has a Masters in Art History and did a great job sharing background on the works of art we saw. It really makes a difference when you put art in context.

BTW, art is pretty important to me. I have a B.F.A. from a world class design school, Art Center College of Design which is now in Pasadena.

Posted by
1400 posts

How about research via Historical Fiction? Not necessarily as as fact based part of research but as a method to better appreciate what you are seeing. Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback Of Notre Dame to bring attention to the sorry state that the cathedral had become and the book became a hit and reignited interest in it and another of its many restorations.

I had read a couple of novels based in the time of Elizabeth the 1st. Because of these books, I further researched her and was blown away when I actually saw her tomb in Westminister Abbey. It definitely made my visit more meaningful.

And let's not forget Outlander. I read and article that Scottish Tourism is up 70% thanks to the books and tv series. My wife is one of those that has thoroughly researched Scottish history for our upcoming visit, all thanks to Jamie Fraser....I mean Outlander.

Posted by
593 posts

Yes, this is SUCH an interesting topic! People who know me and know that I have visited hundreds of churches and art galleries to see medieval and Renaissance art both in Europe and in the States, and talk about it all the time with my husband and best friend, and read heavy-duty books about art, and have thousands of photos of such art, and a few years ago took 5 weeks of daily art history classes at the British Institute in Florence, would be surprised to hear me say that I don't really appreciate art as art. I never feel "moved" by art or feel any interest in stuff like "the lyric grace of the artist's lines" or the composition or the painterly qualities or any of that.

Nope, but I find art intensely interesting and often wish that I was with a guide who really knew a lot and could talk about things like "What does it mean for Renaissance art to be more 'realistic' or more 'modern'?" "Why did haloes start being rays of light around someone's head and then become flat discs behind the head and then for a while start to obey the laws of perspective as if the person had a gold dish stuck to the back of his or her head?" "Why are babies so often portrayed in Renaissance paintings as not only not cute or realistic but positively ugly and malformed and out of proportion?" I used to feel sort of bad that my main emotion was curiosity, not a love of artistic beauty, but it is what it is.

The few guides I've tried were not interested in my interests, but wanted me to appreciate the color scheme or the tension or something. Luckily for me, both my best friend and my husband also like to wonder (out loud) about practical details like I do and so we go around together trying to figure out what the artist was thinking or trying to portray or experimenting with or revealing about his or her own culture and time period.

People can enjoy art or not enjoy art, also particular periods or kinds of art, for so many different reasons. People who start out with a sightseeing checklist or wanting to see only the famous celebrity art like the David or the Mona Lisa to take a selfie in front of may well come to appreciate other aspects of art later.

One online source for learning more about art that I found surprisingly helpful (even though I find both narrators' voices slightly irritating) is the Khan Academy video series about the history of art. It's free. Check it out. There are also good videos at the library.

Posted by
3009 posts

Emma , above , lists several BBC presenters of art documentaries ( The Simon Schama , " Power of Art " , has long been a favorite ) . For those who are somewhat long in the tooth , and fondly recall Michael Palin , of the Monty Python era , these art essays that he presents are among the best ( Wyeth , Hammershoi , and The Scottish colorists ) they are well worth your time - , ,

Posted by
3009 posts

I can't resist posting this as well - From 1996 , this wonderful presentation about the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh , and his brilliantly gifted wife , Margaret MacDonald . - ( 45 minutes , in three parts ) -

Posted by
2347 posts

And let's add Sister Wendy to the list of great art history teachers!

Posted by
1217 posts

I think my favorite modern artist is Calder because his works were often literally and figuratively kinetic and it plays into my preference to have a sense of motion in art.

There are also times when you'll discover an interesting connection that it's very unlikely a tour guide would make because they've just from a different background than you are. I grew up in a part of the USA that was strongly ethnically Netherlands Dutch, and when we decided to go for a wander through The Hermitage-Amsterdam, we found a section on the historic role of the guilds in Dutch culture and how they were closed in some ways while still working to better the community as a whole in other ways and it was like 'so that's why West Michigan is often like that when it comes to community issues'.

Posted by
7013 posts

I think it’s important to distinguish modern art from contemporary art. When someone says they don’t like modern art, do they mean from Matisse on, or the Impressionists on as some date modern art, or do they really mean post 1970s, which is contemporary art?

Posted by
1400 posts

The few guides I've tried were not interested in my interests, but
wanted me to appreciate the color scheme or the tension or something.

It can be the luck of the draw. The guide we had for the Vatican had a Masters in Art History, and she told us the history behind the art and stories about the corruption of the church and how it lead to the reformation. I don't believe a brush stroke was ever mentioned. On the other hand, our guide in Arles was a dud. He just had a plain monotone delivery as he walked us around the city showing places where Van Gough had been, but no stories, just facts I could have got out of a book. At the Palais de Papes in Avignon we had a tablet for a video guide. It was useful because the place is pretty barren but you could bring images up on the tablet to show what it used to look like. That was interesting, but personally not as effective as a good guide because it still lacked the personal story telling.

All three examples though, our visit was enhanced because we had researched our sites and the history behind them in advance.

Posted by
1583 posts

I recently watched a NOVA episode on Da Vinci——made me appreciate the painter and his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa so much more. I saw it 36 yrs ago (I was 18) and now we are heading back. Then, I didn’t appreciate it, I thought it was a dark painting and preferred the Impressionists. I think with age and knowledge, I will appreciate it more when I see it again. Of course, now there will be more crowds then back then so that might also interfere with my enjoyment of the piece. So, my point is, there are a lot of factors that go into how much you might enjoy a site or art. Age, crowds, knowledge etc.

When we went to Norway, in my husband’s ancestral hometown of Skudenshaven, there was an app ( called Time Travel In Skudenshavn) you downloaded onto your phone and as you approached a site, the app had actors that told you about the history of the site. I think that was the coolest audio guide we have ever had!

Posted by
1511 posts

For me, back story is also what helps me appreciate a work of art. Reading (and watching) the Rape of Europa story of WWII and stolen (and recovered) art had a huge impact on me. I purposefully sought out the daVinci piece Lady with an Ermine in Krakow and had a once in a lifetime experience viewing that piece (a solo show not long after its restoration). I do think audio guides (or a real life guide) can vastly improve the enjoyment of art. I had some fantastic guides (on RS tours and otherwise) that helped give context and meaning. My college roommate was a fine arts major and did a yeoman's job telling me about why "modern" art mattered, often because the artist was taking on a new format, a new technique, or was speaking to a social issue of the time.

But sometimes you don't know what will speak to you until you see it. I vividly remember the first painting that literally made me sit down in awe - The Flower Carrier by Diego Rivera. I can't even explain why - but it sparked an avid interest in learning more about art in general. So if art doesn't speak to you - keep trying! It reminds me of this poster of a local mayor that kind of says it all (in a goofy way).

Posted by
11778 posts

I really enjoy everything from Cave Art to Impressionism. After Impressionism, there are some works I really like, many I think are clever and many others (probably most) I don't like at all.

These days I typically just visit museums/sights by myself. I know what I like and I like to study/enjoy those either at a gallery or in situ. I've read, and continue to read, books/articles about art - so I'm not just taking a quick glance and moving to the next piece (unless it's something I don't really like).

As CJean says, certain museums aren't on my must see list because I'm not interested in the art they offer. IMO (and I know others have differing opinions) art during the last century went from being about the work to being about the artist. In the old days, an artist made a name for themselves by producing lots of good work. Now the artist becomes a celebrity and the value of the work is based on the level of celebrity they achieve - think Warhol, Leroy Neiman, Salvadore Dali...

Posted by
1400 posts

I was recently reminded of this post I started in December when someone on this Forum asked me about it after reading this post I created recently about the statue of David
I had asked what am I supposed to be looking at when I'm looking at David? and some of the replies were bordering on frustration with me for having to ask. Since that post I have been researching about David and I've come to the conclusion that it's not the art or workmanship that particularly interests me, but the history behind the creation of David. So to answer my own question, 1 month ago, seeing David would have simply been ticking off a bucket list item, but now that I have researched it, I'm sure I'll have a greater appreciation when I do make it to Florence.

Posted by
4873 posts

I think the degree to which you do anything (Art, Churches, food, History, fashion, etc) should be a function of your interests, not forced, with the exception that when travelling you should push your boundaries a bit.

I think it a shame if someone were to spend time in London, for example, and not devote at least a small amount of time to the British Museum, the National Gallery, or even the Tate Modern, even if thinking history is old stuff and a painting a poor excuse for a photograph. London of course is an easy example, since cost is not an issue and even lines are rarely a problem.

I think the same goes for food and other opportunities, even if your interest is limited, at least try a bit, maybe you learn, maybe you like, maybe you decide you tried and it was not your thing...but you broadened your horizons a bit.

Posted by
1400 posts

We also took a guide in the Vatican and it was the right decision
because there is an enormous amount of masterpieces and different
details you'll never imagine and never had an idea that they can
symbolize something.

I guess this is one of the examples that give me a lack of appreciation for art-whether it be from the Renaissance or modern, what good is making a statement or being symbolic if nobody knows what the artist is trying to say? Take Voice of Fire owned by the National Gallery of Canada, apparently its worth around $40 million, but I remember the controversy when the gallery bought it with public money for $1.8 million in 1989, apparently the explanation was that it's a piece worth having because the artist says it stimulates our optical senses. Huh? I guess I need a guide.

Posted by
723 posts

The old punch line was, "I don't know art, but I know what I like."

I grew up around people who appreciated craftsmanship, and learning how to make things, not only the easy way, taught me a lot of what's involved in being able to render something artistically. To be able to actually envision what a final result should look like and then create it is, to me, artistry. Too many people cannot do that. Myself, I am a fairly good machinist and woodworker, but I cannot approach the levels of artistry involved in creating a masterpiece. I look at almost everything with those same attempts to prove a skill set.

I've been lucky enough to know some true artists, an old friend had a career as an illustrator of children's books, another taught me the basics of photography and developing of films, and over the years I've met a number of fairly famous people who have the ability to make a living thru their creative artistry. I have some pieces gifted hanging today.

I took the basic art history courses in school, and toured a number of the worlds better museums, but it took a fair amount of time for me to develop an appreciation for the specific mediums I take the most pleasure from. And travel helped. I've bought Easter eggs in Prague, etchings of places I've been, glass I've seen blown, the occasional painting in galleries, carvings, and even sculptures. Everything on display in my home has a meaning and memory for me, and those are the values I put on a piece.

I love being able to walk through a museum and try to guess the artist/school/or nationality or the works before I read the information plaques. It's like a puzzle, or test, and it forces me to learn. I love going out an finding an exhibition going on as I travel; it gives me the opportunity to talk to the artists and I find I usually can get them to explain the processes they use in creating their pieces. Talking about the new printing processes for photographic images on glass, or metals, would never be possible if I didn't know what I do about handling films. Talking carving with a sculptor or joinery with a cabinet maker; material properties in a glass studio; or the use of layering in painting with modern acrylics are things I would never have thought I'd be able to do 40 years ago. But if I'd never got out into the world and met the people in it, I'd never have learned these things.

But as much as travel has added to my love of art, reading has likewise contributed to my understanding of it. I have to admit I still don't fully understand the fashions for clothing that people wore, much of it seems more uncomfortable than useful, but knowing something about history helps tremendously in understanding art. The influence of religion is tremendous, no matter what part of the world you're in, and major events, coronations, battles, miracles, etc, all get their strength from art. That which survives today tells us of what happened 200, 500, 2000 years ago, and what was important enough to actually be worth the effort to record it.

To look at a picture painted in 1816 and wonder why Turner made the sky so orange, tells us of the effects of a volcanic explosion in Sumatra. To see the paintings of Van Eck and realize that the middle class of merchants was gaining the wherewithal to put the time and money into having portraits painted (previously exclusive to nobles and the clergy) , to see the fresco's of Thera and realize those birds and monkeys once existed in the Med, that is a major part of the value of art.

But, in the end, if you like something, enjoy it. If you don't, move on.