HomeTown Tourist: WONDER

 

Washington DC will never be a mecca for what’s on point in fashion, sports or art. But, the Smithsonian is working overtime to at least put us in the conversation.  (Thank you, Smithsonian!) Exhibit A: 2014’s American Cool at The National Portrait Gallery.

After two years of renovations, The Renwick Gallery reopened at the end of  2015 and is the latest proof point that we are not a city full of stodgy politicians and presidents who don’t live up to the hype.

The current exhibit, entitled WONDER, is delightfully just that. (Yes, I used the word delightful.)  The gallery lends its space to nine contemporary artists who created “site-specific” installations. In English, each exhibit is customized to the room, hallway or ceiling that serves as host to the finished masterpiece.

What results is unique series of massive works of art that are simply beautiful. You can wander through each room, walking around or, in the case of Patrick Dougherty’s exhibit (below), through enormous pods of willows and saplings.

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To truly enjoy WONDER, don’t rush from room-to-room. Slow down. Stand on your tip toes to peak down the center of the reconstructed hemlock. Circle through rubber tires a few times. Stand in the corner to marvel at the “wallpaper” Jennifer Angus created. And, lay down in the grand salon to really marvel at the waves Janet Echelman installed. (Trust me fellow, germaphobes, put your jacket up over your head and lay down.)

PROTIP: Thanks to press like this, WONDER is P-A-C-K-E-D on the weekends. To miss the worst of the crowds, take a lunch break or leave work early. Make sure your camera or iPhone is charged. Photos are encouraged and you are going to want to photograph the heck out of WONDER.

The Renwick is open daily from  10:00 – 5:30 pm. The first floor installations will be on exhibit through May 8, 2016. The second floor installations will be on display through July 10, 2016.

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A Graffiti Tour of Lower Manhattan. Yes, Please!

I previously mentioned a New York City tour that unfortunately, was just not something I could recommend. However, I cannot recommend a Graff Tour enough. Whether you are a tourist or born and raised New Yorker, you should make a point of catching one of these Graffiti Tours.

Based on my travel schedule, a Downtown Manhattan tour fit perfectly into my Friday afternoon. After registering via email, I realized I goofed and booked the wrong date. I fired off an email and within a few minutes got, “no problem, see you Friday.” When a company makes a minor slip-up that easy to resolve, you know you are in good hands.

The tour meets participants down in the East Village outside a coffee shop. Our guide was actually a retired graffiti artist. I’m honestly not sure what kind of guide I expected. But, I can tell you I thought this was brilliant. It would be like the equivalent of George Lucas giving you a tour of the original Star Wars film footage. Of course a former artist should give the tour. I mean who else could point out so much about the craft?

As we got started, we talked a little bit about graffiti and how it should be perceived as a culture or a lifestyle, not a nuisance. We also learned there are three different types of graffiti: hand style, throw up and pieces and these days art is typically by permission, illegal or on commission. By nature, graffiti comes and goes. What I saw on a tour may not be what you see when you go (hint, hint).

In my entire 10 years living in New York, I’m pretty sure I was in the East Village twice. And once was because I got lost. The idea of walking around for a couple of hours exploring a new area was a big draw. The added allure of seeing interesting, colorful art was gravy. Sadly, it seems like the graffiti that is synonymous with the East Village is disappearing as industry moves in and takes over the neighborhood. Really, it’s gentrification but I hate writing that. I think graffiti artists are moving towards Bushwick, Brooklyn, an area that still has a gritty versus corporate feel. Either way, get on one of these tours. It was well worth the time and money. In fact, it was so good, I tipped the guide (who never once mentioned tips) at the end.

Here is a gallery with outtakes of my favorite pieces from the day.

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Museu Picasso

The Picasso Museum in Barcelona has got to be one of the most heavily trafficked attractions in Catalonia. The museum itself is located in the Old Town area, spanning a series of adjoining rooms. These rooms run across several houses described as “medieval palaces.” They didn’t strike me as palaces, but I supposed by European standards at the time these were quite large. I’d say they were mansions. But it’s what these mansions contain that makes the place a constant thrum.

When you visit this museum, don’t expect to see many works from Picasso’s blue or rose periods. But I promise, you will not be disappointed. There are only a few of those on display. You also won’t see what many consider his greatest single work, Guernica.

Picasso's Guernica (image compliments of Wikipedia)
Picasso’s Guernica (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Instead, this museum spans his lifetime of work, showing the progression of his artistry. Think of it as a tasting menu that begins in a master chef’s teens, and ends with their signature dish. Pieces were donated by Picasso’s friend, Jaime Sabartes. After Sabartes passed away, Picasso himself donated more paintings including an abundance of his early works. His family has since donated other works.

This is where even the most non-art-inclined person (that would be me) can appreciate his talent. As you walk through the rooms from front to back, you’ll see sketches and paintings beginning in his teenage years and progressing to another of his greatest works. But seeing his early work is impactful because by the age of 15 his talent is clear.

An early sketch of Picasso's "Science and Charity," before he painted the canvas (image courtesy of http://fr.wahooart.com)
Picasso’s “Science and Charity,” before he completed the the canvas, shows his considerable talent at 15 (image courtesy of http://fr.wahooart.com).

Outside of this collection of paintings, and in many ways most impressive, the museum also includes all 44 pieces of Las Meninas, inspired by the Velázquez masterpiece of the same name. What I loved about these paintings (and they are the most famous on display at the museum) is that it shows all the work, and planning, and consideration that is involved in a painting. What goes where, how each piece is portrayed in position, mood and color is all broken out…it’s like seeing each rewrite of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

Picasso's Las Meninas, a highlight of the museum.
Picasso’s Las Meninas, a highlight of the museum.

As I said, this is the most popular room, and it’s what is basically the end of the exhibit. By then, I was pretty overwhelmed, and the room was crowded. In fact, the rooms that house the study of Las Meninas, and the piece itself, are elbow to elbow with people. For background on Velázquez and his connection to these Picasso works, refer to my previous post on The Prado.

For comparison, Velazquez own Las Meninas.
For comparison, Las Meninas by Velazquez.
 
Travel Tip: If you are planning to visit the Picasso Museum, a few suggestions. Buy tickets ahead of time—as I have mentioned before, many of these museums have tickets online. The line for people without ticket is incredibly long and you will spend a  nice chunk of your morning or afternoon snaking your way to the ticket counter. You can roll the dice and try going at noon for a slightly shorter line, but I don’t recommend it. I do encourage a visit during traditional siesta hours, as it is comparatively less crowded.
 
Photographs are not permitted in the museum, however it is not strictly enforced. What will get you in trouble quicker than a New York minute is using flash. It’s frowned upon by tourist and guide alike, but using a smart phone to click a photo is possible. I suggest respecting the guidelines (which I did) and purchasing postcards in the gift shop.
 
I would also strongly recommend purchasing the audio tour. It’s informative and a great way to occupy time hearing about the works while waiting your turn to get in front of the paintings. In fact, across Spain, when you’re at these museums the audio tour makes your visit a lot more enjoyable. It’s worth it, and we were never disappointed by a single audio tour.

 

Because Picasso left Barcelona for Paris in his early twenties, we non-art enthusiasts may forget his Spanish heritage and think a museum like this is out of place Barcelona. He did in fact return to the city several times. However, after the Civil War his opposition to Franco kept him in France, where he continued to paint and design for the Barcelona College of Architects. Franco was later persuaded to allow the city to open this museum.

Outtakes from the MEAM

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One post just wasn’t enough to capture how amazing MEAM is. We took about 400 photographs while visiting and it seemed appropriate to share a small selection of them.  I’m intentionally not publishing all of our photos, otherwise you wouldn’t need to go visit this amazing museum yourself. All photos property of MEAM and printed/posted with permission.

The Best Museum in Barcelona You’ve Never Heard Of

Barcelona, for me, will forever be associated with truck loads of museums. There is a museum for just about everything: Modern art? Check. Catalonian Contemporary Art? Architecture? Check Check. Chocolate? Yes, Chocolate. Check. In all fairness, that’s just my impression because we visited more museums in Barcelona than in Madrid and Seville combined.

We set out in search of classic art, wanting to first visit the Picasso museum. Go big, or go home, right?

Upon arrival, we were met with a line that disappeared down the narrow medieval street. Its length and its lack of progress towards the entrance had us quickly rethink our approach. “Go home,” was looking more appealing by the second. After a few minutes i had visions of Mr Os and i spending an entire day waiting just to get to the ticket counter. Not the smart way to spend ones time on holiday, for sure.

As we debated our options, Mr Os pulled out a pamphlet a young woman handed us in passing, on our way to the Picasso Museum. The brochure was for MEAM: Museu Europeu d’Art Modern and, as fate would have it, the MEAM was located just around the corner from the Picasso museum. Without tipping our hand to the hundred people in front of us, we casually stepped out of line and made our way to try our luck at a museum neither of us knew anything about.

While I’ve never found any museum visit to be “life changing” the MEAM certainly altered the course of our time in Barcelona. Up until that point, we had been somewhat underwhelmed by Barcelona. It was too much like New York or other major metropolitan cities with which we were familiar. It was crowded, and felt over run with tourists. Our first hotel off of Las Ramblas was loud with a somewhat shoddy room.

Simply put, nothing seemed to match what we’d been told to expect in Barcelona. To make matters worse, we’d left what was an amazing experience in Seville.But MEAM had the effect of hitting a “reset” button.

MEAM is actually located inside an 18th-Century Palace and is anchored by a large courtyard with a stone arch and sweeping stair case that leads to the second and third floor where the collection is housed. When the museum moved into the building, special attention was clearly paid to the restoration. The decorations, ceilings and walls have all received decorative awards. The result is a spectacular contrast between the physical structure of the museum and the modern art collection that calls MEAM home. It is truly remarkable and the architect artfully ties everything together (pun intended).

A glimpse down on the MEAM's ground floor courtyard.
A glimpse down on the MEAM’s ground floor courtyard.

Beyond the building, the collection itself is jaw dropping, unbelievably compelling, and for those of you familiar with me, I’m never this effusive in my praise. It is not hyperbole, though, just wording that I hope will convince you not to miss this stop.

The works range from sculpture to paintings. In fact, many of the paintings were so vivid, we mistook them for photographs.  Case in point: if you visit the MEAM website there is an image of a man with blue paint in his beard. This is a painting and even when standing right in front of it, your eyes will still argue that it’s a photo. This is not the case with every piece of art, but each piece stands on its own merits, and though pieces can be dramatically different from room to room, there is an overall common thread. If I had to suggest what I think it is, it would be the museum’s goal of selecting works that “stand out for their exquisite realism. Forcefully contemporary painting and sculpture that awaken the pleasure of the senses.”

One of my favorite pieces at MEAM. The level of detail in the sculpture is just mind-blowing.

As you wander through Barcelona, you’ll notice many of the museums and major tourist attractions are heavily promoted. This one is not. In fact, most people probably pass by it’s glint as quickly as stepping over an engagement ring in a gutter. Why isn’t it better known? Perhaps because the government promotes state funded places, versus private museums and exhibits. It’s a shame because this is one of Barcelona’s true gems. Truly, it is worth visiting while you are in Barcelona.

I’ll post a gallery with more of these amazing works later this week. One final note, many of the pieces contain nudity. It’s not gratuitous by any means but to be clear this is not a place to bring children as it can be jarring.

One of my favorite pieces of art at MEAM. It’s such an accurate depiction of how people stop in wonder to see what an artist is doing.

Crafts Creation Space: A Cool Concept Brought to Life

I’m not all-that connected to the U.S. ‘creative’ scene. Creativity is something i struggle with professionally and at home. I admire and respect people who are gifted—especially those folks who have enough creativity and drive to strike out on their own.

That is why Rompe Moldes impressed me so much. Dubbed a “crafts creation space” it’s a combination living area and artisan studio, and I’m sure the concept exists in America…I just don’t know where. It’s something that the local government had a hand in creating and it brings local artisans together into a supportive community. In the street level courtyard you’ll find artists working with a variety of mediums: paper, ceramics, and glass seemed to be the most popular.

If you want to find Rompe Moldes, look carefully in the old part of town for this sign.
If you want to find Rompe Moldes, look carefully in the old part of Seville for this sign.

Each artist has a medium-sized studio and shop that visitors can wander through—often right below where they live. As you move from one studio to the next, you’ll get a strong vibe of community. We saw shops left open by the owner, with neighbors looking in on tourists to answer questions while kids played on tricycles in the courtyard. 

The courtyard artisan craft space, above the courtyard are artists living quarters.
The courtyard artisan craft space, above the courtyard are artists living quarters.

David, our @NotJustATourist friend, showed us this hidden gem and said this is a relatively new community whose housing is offset by the government. Getting an apartment and studio is a very competitive process, since this is only space (at least that he was aware of) in Spain like it.

You can find Rompe Moldes in the historic part of Seville. It’s worth a visit, especially if you are looking for a locally made, unique gift. Mr Os surprised me this necklace and matching earrings at Estudio Ciento 2. (If you’d like to check out their website the URL is: http://www.estudiociento2.com)

This glass amber-colored necklace was a unique gift
This glass amber-colored necklace was a unique gift from  Estudio Ciento 2.

 

The Prado’s Little Sister: Reina Sofia

With families, there is usually one child that steals the spotlight. Even without trying to, this child becomes the center of attention and the star of the show. As a result, other siblings are often relegated to second class status. We know they exist but can overlook their talents. In the case of Madrid, one could argue the Prado is Spain’s “first son.”

If that’s the case, then the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofia is clearly Madrid’s “other art museum.” In fact, there are probably several that fall into “little sister/second child” status, but Reina Sofia has one very special difference that places it above the rest. This beautiful, sleekly designed museum is almost exactly across the street from Madrid’s Atoche train station. It is in Madrid’s former general hospital, and as far as museums go, it has a very good layout. The hospital was built in the 18th century, which gives the museum a very different vibe compared to the Prado. It’s very spacious with massive windows along the corridors so you can look out at the small garden inside the courtyard.

The Reina Sofia’s crowning gem—that “one very special difference” I mentioned earlier—is mostly known for Picasso’ masterpiece Guernica. Picasso created the work in response to the Franco’s horrific bombing of the village of Guernica, in northern Spain. The village was bombed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War and the painting shows the horror and suffering of individuals, particularly women and children. Much of the art of this period uniquely began to focus not on the famous generals or heros, but instead on the suffering and misfortunes of the average person. The piece is credited with bringing significant attention to the War and went on to become a major anti-war symbol. This is obviously not even an abridged history of the painting, but I will say it is very impressive when you see it in front of you. It is the only area of the museum where you are not allowed to take photographs. The exhibit goes into lots of background on the painting, its creation, etc., including all the studies and background information (note: the guided tour is well worth paying for just to hear about the history of Picasso’s painting Guernica).

In case i didn’t make it clear, Guernica is massive, significantly larger than i expected. What’s fascinating about the painting is that it is its own exhibit. The adjoining room contains sketches and drafts of the various studies of figures Picasso painted as he considered the final painting. It never occurred to me that a painter like Picasso would consider every element—not only of what to include, but the position of the horse’s tongue, a woman’s eyes, as well as when and where to use color. Of course, that makes perfect sense, now. But the exhibition illustrates Picasso’s process, which is fascinating in and of itself. I guess i assumed he had a vision in mind, sat down in front of a canvas and presto! Lesson learned.

Most people blow into the Renia Sofia, storm the corridors for the Guernica and then leave. I’m telling you right now, that is a huge mistake. It is a shame because the museum has so much more to offer—Mr. Os actually liked it more than the Prado, because it covers a broader range of painters and time periods, including some interesting works by Dali. Most people are familiar with his surreal melting clocks. The works here go beyond that and demonstrates a very creative, albeit dark, nightmarish and twisted mind. I’m just saying, i think the guy may have had issues.

For whatever reason, I had the strong impression that many consider this museum a second class citizen, something that could be missed. It’s not. Yes, the Guernica is alone worth the visit, but you’ll miss a lot of other masterpieces and an all around fantastic museum.

Travel tip: Again, museum’s in Spain are typically free of charge for select hours, or days each week. Although sometimes it’s only one day a month. But seeing as costs range between 8-20 euro, it’s worth checking. “Free” hours vary from city to city and museum to museum so it’s best to check their website.

Travel tip especially for the Reina Sofia: Because it is so close to the train station, if you’re coming in to Madrid via train, store your bags at the train station and take a short, carefree walk up to the museum. It will save you a trip from wherever you’re staying. In fact, you could hit several of the biggest museums, then return to the train station and grab a cab or metro.

Photography note: Photography and video recordings of the Guernica are not permitted. The museum is very strict about this. But otherwise, click away. However, in this and all museums be aware that they are VERY STRICT about no flash. My camera would reset based on light and when it happened by mistake security appeared out of nowhere.