You might dread it and it does take time, but it's always worth making an effort for art, even if you're in a rush - as it helps to build understanding
On the move: why everyone should visit art galleries abroad
My mother was an artist, and the walls of our house in east London were covered with murals of fantastical locations filled with jungle, exotic birds and wild animals; her studio had oil paintings and sculptures, and tables inside were cluttered with home-made masks. In the evenings my brother and I would be signed up for craft-based activities (some of which our mother was running) and at weekends and on holidays we’d be dragged round art galleries. She even sent me to school next to the Barbican Centre, so there was really no escape.
While I found it a chore at the time, I must thank my mother for the fact that before I reached the age of 12 I had been familiarised with what I now know to be some of the world’s best art galleries: London’s Tate and National Portrait Gallery, the Louvre and Musee Rodin in Paris and the National Gallery of Ireland. For art is like learning a language; the younger you are introduced to it the more you absorb. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to visit an art gallery now for the first time – it would be literally impossible to “catch up”; I’d effectively be culturally illiterate.
Cultural illiteracy is one of the scourges of our age, usually going hand in hand with political illiteracy, and often it’s wilful. I’ve been on numerous press trips where other members of the media have complained about the presence of art galleries on the itinerary and lobbied instead for more shopping, pool time or “me time.” I myself have sometimes been tempted not to visit a museum or art gallery, especially if there’s only an hour or two to spare. How on earth can one do justice to a museum such as Spain’s Prado in one or two hours?
Do it. It’s important to visit art galleries abroad, even if you’re tired and so tempted not to. On a visit to Madrid last month, I only had two days but forced myself to visit both the Prado and the Reina Sofia. Both are huge museums which you could easily spend a day at. But try. Try because art offers keys to understanding and looking at art is a process you must begin before its benefits become clear. If nothing else, go first to look at the building. Look at the people at an art gallery; the staff, the visitors. If you’re despairing at humanity, go to an art gallery, anywhere. This is where the smart, stylish people are.
If you’re short on time, take a free guided tour offered by the gallery. You can tell a lot about the real character and history of a country by the way it presents and describes its art. What I now notice about old European countries such as France and Spain is how regimented they are about their collections, how inflexible, despite their different self-image. Contrast that with the light quirkiness of galleries in Finland and Sweden.
Last month, I saw that my hotel, the Barcelo Torre de Madrid, offered guided art tours with local expert Pilar Berrozpe (pictured above). I went with her to the Reina Sofia, widely believed to be the most important museum of contemporary art in Spain. She crammed the history of the building (a 19th-century military hospital), the approach of the museum (stressing the ideologies behind art) and the entire history of Spanish art from pre-Civil War to the present day (“in the early 20th century the avant garde went to Paris because the government didn’t like modern art”), into 90 minutes. My head was spinning with the intensity of it, but I know that at least some of it went in, even if only by osmosis.
The piece de resistance, Guernica, sadly isn’t shocking any more even in the original – a telling, important and frightening comment on war and human suffering.