In 2015, I walked into the glass building of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario only because it coolly curved 600 feet along a street I happened to pass. It was my first day in the country, and entering some place that resembled a canoe or a silvery spaceship seemed like the wise thing to do.
Inside, I looked at the works of Emily Carr, a trailblazing Canadian artist I’d never heard of. But her dramatic paintings of moist rainforests, brooding cedar trees, and old brave totem poles told me stories of a Canada we rarely see: a land of rich but fast disappearing indigenous cultures, way beyond its first-world shininess. Carr’s fierce art protested against European settlers erasing her homeland’s cultures. Slowly, Canada’s newness slipped away and I didn’t feel as much of a stranger.
Until late last year, I’d travel for unforgettable places and people. I savoured the getting away, and the arriving at a place where foreign tongues fill a bistro during breakfast. I travelled for boisterous cities, camped in wild forests, or followed a lover to new lands. But things changed last October, when art began ruling my itineraries in Paris, Barcelona, and Amsterdam. From being quarter-day plans squished between long spells of roaming a city, museums became delightful dawn-to-night affairs in themselves.
I discovered, for instance, that being in the Louvre building is like being all over the world at once. One never knows what one might find. My interactive Nintendo guide took me to a corner of a room where a marble sculpture of a woman stretched out on a mattress, a lone flimsy sheet wrapped around her left leg. She was dreaming. The eroticism, her sinuous grace was palpable; until I walked over to the other side and realised that “she” wasn’t a woman. It was the androgynous figure of Hermaphroditos, carved as if to half-shock, half-tease a viewer. It was made between the third and first centuries B.C., yet there I was, abashed and amused by the effect it was having on me. Someplace else was a painting of a man dressed in a frilly red-and-black costume. He smiles mischievously at someone we cannot see; his eyes are crinkled, and face flushed. The merriment exuded by the “Buffoon Holding a Lute,” by Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals can ward off the greyest of moods.
Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, on the other hand, is a map of what the city was like at various points in time. The nightlife and show business of Paris in the 19th century are brought to life by the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Edgar Degas’s “The Ballet Class” is a window into the moods of Parisian ballerinas once they’re off the stage. One scratches her back absentmindedly, others only half-listen to their ballet master. Here, centuries collide and Paris’s many histories move about freely. In the evening, strains of waltz filled this railway-station-turned-museum and at least 80 dancers filled the atrium for a spectacular surprise.
Isn’t this what we travel for? To be astonished and entertained; tickled and thrilled, mostly by people we will never meet? Given the range of discoveries it entails, art doesn’t feel very different from travel itself. And while it is a great way to see the world, it is also a way to see myself. Being in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, for instance, had the most cathartic effect on me. I went chasing a teenage favourite and found myself wrapped in the life stories of the artist’s hope, tragedy, and great perseverance. In the Rijksmuseum, watching a local art student sketch Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” calmed me as much as the original painting itself. I also discovered that artists who hang out in museums make for great conversation: Louvre turned extra special after I met a Portland-based artist and we sat on a bench thumbing through his sketchbooks filled with Michelangelos, da Vincis, and other works I’d never have checked out if I were alone.
If you, like me, ever feel slightly daunted by museums, step into Room 19 of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. There is a man’s head poking from the floor. The life-size wax sculpture rises from a gaping hole in the ground, looking inquisitively at a roomful of Dutch Romantics around him. Fifty-six-year-old Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan created this installation because he still feels like an outsider in the art world. Yet he breaks new ground, literally.
Travelling for art, above all, is a reminder of what is most important to me: to seek beauty and joy, and to be playful while I can. There is no such thing as being too happy, too emotional, or too moved by an artwork. They are safe places.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.