I went to MoMA for Monet’s Water Lilies but what stayed with me was what I learned about myself – namely, that I can leave the country, but I’ll take Australia with me wherever I go.
Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art held the two pieces I’ve been most excited about seeing, impressionist masterpieces Water Lilies by Claude Monet and Starry Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.
Claude Monet’s painted his ethereal Water Lilies series from 1914-1926. The prolific artist painted more than forty large scale paintings and scores of smaller ones at his house in Giverny, in northern France, which is now a popular tourist site. Many of the large paintings are simply called Water Lilies.
When I was on exchange in Paris a few years ago, I visited the tiny Musee de l’Orangerie, in the Jardin des Tuileries and saw a Water Lilies series for the first time. There, they were wrapped along the walls of an oval shaped room, overwhelming the stark white space with flutters of lilac, blue and green. The Louvre had been lost on me but here in this tiny, silent gallery, I felt like I finally got what all the fuss was about. The room was silent – the museum’s rule for viewing Water Lilies.
Water Lilies can be found at three museums in Paris, two in New York and a handful of others across Europe and America, including unlikely homes in Kansas City and Cleveland. Somehow, none made it to the Southern Hemisphere.
I worked my way slowly through the gallery, stopping to look at any pieces that grabbed my attention on the way. I’m a firm believer that you should never look at anything boring in an art gallery. I look at the things that draw me in and happily skip over the rest. If you force yourself to appreciate every painting in an art gallery, you’ll hate art galleries and appreciate nothing. I took a few photos, of paintings and their plaques, as I found interesting artists and artworks that I wanted to remember later. I don’t think there’s much point fussing over photography in a gallery of paintings – a quick snapshot is a small memento but nothing compares to the real deal. There was lots of artwork to look at on the way, but my nerves became more frayed with every passing minute.
Mostly it was the usual, insufferable tourist behaviour. As my Mum would say, my tail was twitching. I found a painting that wasn’t surrounded by people and settled in. A guy in his early twenties asked if he could take a photo with me in front of one of the paintings. He didn’t introduce himself, or comment on the painting or make any attempt at a normal conversation and at the request for a photo my walls went up. I don’t know why I agreed – probably because it felt too awkward to say no – and I chose a particularly depressing one by Henri Rousseau. He asked if I’d prefer the cheerier one beside it, but I’d made up my mind. I made my best attempts to vanish once he’d taken the photo and naturally, he continued to pop up all over the museum. I was a little ruffled.
I could hardly see a painting by Salvidor Dali because two women stood centimetres away from the painting, obscuring the entire thing with their big cameras. They had no qualms about walking up to it when people were clearly admiring it from a few feet back and a security guard had to ask them to stand back to avoid damaging the painting. They inched back, and continued to hog the painting.
Water Lillies were hard to find. I felt like I was on a wild goose chase as security guards dotted throughout the museum pointed me towards the next room, and the next and the next. Finally, I found them tucked away in a small, separate room. The three painted panels spanned the long side of the room, making it necessary to stand against the opposite wall to take them all in. There was a bench to sit on, so I sat and drank it in.
The room was empty when I’d found it but seconds later it was flooded with tourists. The noise was deafening. Half of the people in there didn’t even seem to be aware that there were paintings on the walls, until it was time to pose for a selfie. They hollered and howled and screeched and squealed and generally performed their best impersonation of bulls in a china shop. By this point, I was bristling.
The shimmering Impressionist paintings have an otherworldly quality that whispers, not shouts. Unfortunately, unlike Paris, New York is a city of shouters, not whisperers.
Art is special for the way it makes you feel. The soft, tranquil effects of Water Lillies was lost in the chaos of MoMA.
Hardly anyone seemed to actually look at the artwork in front of them, without the filter of their camera, iPhone or iPad lense. They rushed around playing museum bingo, stopping only to snap a photo before dashing to the next piece. I seriously doubted whether they’d every sit and pore over their snapshots from a museum if they didn’t know what they were seeing in the first place. The beauty of a painting on a wall is lost in pixels. Would they take half as many photos if there wasn’t a social media account to share their cultural escapades on?
Maybe it was because MOMA was one of the last museums I visited in New York that my fuse was shorter. It might been because after I finally waited a few minutes in the queue to see Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night, a woman walked up right in front of me, standing so close to me that she actually stood on my toes, and whipped out her iPad. Maybe I was just tired of the New York state of mind (although, to be fair, it’s unlikely that many of these museum-goers were New Yorkers).
With a bit of distance, I’ve realised that more than anything, my reaction to MoMA tells me more about myself. Yes, watching people rush around museums snapping photos and selfies without actually looking at their subjects is the visual equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. But who am I to tell people how to visit a museum? Art is for everyone.
Considering most people were tourists, I should have kept in mind that, like me, they could have travelled a long way to see this art. I might have been happy to sit and enjoy it first, but they might have been swept up in the “importance” of visiting and a frantic trip schedule, and were trying to squeeze as much “must-sees” in as possible.
Finally, the most obvious: what I consider rude behaviour is not everyone’s idea of rude behaviour. Tourist traps exacerbate cultural clashes. I’d been in New York for nearly two months and I was tiring of the New York mentality of every man for himself – even though, without realising it, I was starting to slip into it myself. Inside the museum, it was no different. There were a million different mentalities from all around the world crammed into a small space.
At home, I enjoy a pretty large bubble of personal space (except on the peak hour tram). Pushing and shoving is next-level rude and most people are hyper-sensitive to infringing on someone’s personal space (or enjoyment of something shared). The general gist is to chill out, shut up for a second and let everyone have a go. I can’t believe how much these minor breaches of my own social norms got under my skin, but this is what makes travelling so interesting. It didn’t bug me as much as I walked around the chaotic streets of New York City where I invited the unfamiliar, but once I’d paid for my MoMA ticket and set my eyes on the prize, my expectations changed.
Being tolerant of people who think and act differently than the way you do is easy when you’re spending the day walking around a fascinating city, keen to rub shoulders with the locals and experience another way of life. It’s amazing how quickly tolerance falls by the wayside when you’re squeezed together in a small space, squabbling over resources. Even when those resources are just oil on canvas.
Despite my grumbling, I really enjoyed wandering through MoMA’s magnificent collection. Seeing my favourite paintings in the flesh was a genuine delight and later in the day, I discovered a smaller, less-popular exhibition with artists that I’d never heard of, who absolutely inspired me (more on this soon). Visiting MoMA allowed me to dip into a wealth of cultural treasures and it also pushed me to examine my own attitudes and beliefs, and think about how that applies a filter to my experiences. My morning at MoMA is why I love travel in a nutshell: it’s a chance to draw the outside in and to bring the inside out.
How has travelling made you change the way you see yourself? What have you learned in unexpected places?