I spent my two weeks of Spring Break on the opposite side of the Atlantic house hopping between New York, New Jersey and Toronto. Although the purpose of my trip was to visit with friends and family, I can’t deny that New York City’s incomparable collection of artwork made the decision to book flights a whole lot easier. I have visited the city once before, before I began university as an Art History student. The first time I visited, I was interested in seeing things I’d heard about on television or read about but this time I really wanted to experience the city from an art historian’s point of view. It was refreshing to see the city in such a light; to walk past buildings and be truly appreciative of the work put into them. It was wonderful to visit museums and be excited about the art I was in front of. Seeing the city for more than I had before was important to me and I truly feel that approaching my trip in this way made me appreciate it on a much deeper level.
I think New York City itself is a work of art. Manhattan’s grid composition reminds me of an early Mondrian; the streets as the overlapping horizontal and vertical lines and the many parks as the spaces between them filled with bright, intense colour (admittedly the green of the parks was not part of Mondrian’s palette). I found in NYC that small cafes, restaurants and bars all featured more art than I was used to at home. I found the way the glass buildings looked when the sun was shining utterly stunning; like mirrors of several hundred feet. Undoubtedly what I found best of all was the view of the city at night from the Staten Island Ferry; only lights could be seen against the black sky and water and unlit parts of the buildings. Every street in New York City offers something interesting to see, whether it be a Broadway show or a gallery. The streets are fascinating, full of life and worth walking a hundred times to truly absorb.
Filling the streets is a hypnotic array of architecture; for me the tell-tale sign that this city is home to so many nationalities and consequently so many architectural styles. Even more interesting, however, is the contrast between traditional and modern buildings. The vast New York Public Library was built over a century ago in a Beaux Arts style, its façade grand and impressive with composite pilasters and stunning stonemasonry. When I stood in front of the building it seemed endless, the colossal pilasters followed by pediments pointing towards the sky. Standing across Fifth Avenue to observe the building, however, it is dwarfed by skyscrapers behind it. Whilst the library is so extensively composed of stone, the buildings in the background boast a glass façade. In comparison the library seems heavy and small, whilst the office buildings look light, bright and futuristic. My personal preference between these two types of buildings would undoubtedly be the library as I find Classical design riveting and love the way stone looks so timeless.
Further uptown, amongst one of the greatest shopping districts in the world, lies the truly stunning St Patrick’s Cathedral. Having seen cathedrals in this style all over the world, I can truly say that nothing blows me away like Gothic architecture. The second I stepped inside I was speechless; the sheer size of the building was enough to be impressed by, but the detail within it was otherworldly. The huge rib vaulted ceiling is framed exquisitely by pane after pane of stained glass, supported by vast columns. Walking around the interior of the building, it was fascinating to see the frescos and hung paintings as well as sculptures that had been built for it. Even for those who have little interest in architecture of this type or at all, I would highly recommend visiting this wonderful building as it truly is breathtaking.
As a student of Art History, I feel there’s no better way to study than to visit a museum showing works you need to write about and remember. There’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing the work in the flesh and being able to understand what the artist was trying to portray and how they done so, and encountering the work makes it so much easier to remember. In my final semester of Second Year, within the course we have covered works from the Early Renaissance to the present day. Finishing our course with modern art, I visited the Museum of Modern Art to help increase my grip on the different movements, artists and works of art from the period – and to see my beloved Gauguin. The MoMA boasts six floors of works, but the one I was most interested in was that showing works from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Inside the first room, you are guided through the time period beginning with works from Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin to the stunning Pointillism of Seurat. I truly adore this period of art history; and I stayed in this room far longer than any of the others. I find Primitivism and Orientalism two of the most fascinating themes I have ever studied across all of my school and university subjects and so to see so many of Gauguin’s Tahitian works in one place was a wonderful experience for me. His The Seed of the Areoi, in my opinion, embodies Primitivism and all its artistic tropes and connotations. I felt so privileged to be standing in front of the work of such a genius and to be surrounded by people who had appreciation for work of this nature. In the next room was a glorious exhibition of Braque and Picasso. The largest painting in this room was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a wonderfully complex painting with deep Primitivist, sexual and racial connotations. The sheer size of the work made these underlying themes all the more startling to me; there was no escaping them as from every part of the room the painting could be seen. The rooms further along take you through the works of Kandinsky, Marinetti and Mondrian and the floor ends with Warhol. With a coherent layout and an extensive range of works, I’d undoubtedly say it is one of the best museums I’ve visited to date. My favourite part of visiting the MoMA was how the entire time I was thinking critically in terms of the art. I felt I appreciated the visit so much more than I would have several years ago, and I was grateful that I had waited to visit the museum until I had a genuine interest in the works within it. It was wonderful to be excited by works I knew and intrigued by those I never, to get lost in paintings created by artists I admire so much.
With this being said, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was – for me – the greatest part about NYC. The building itself is a work of art and before I even began to become immersed in the paintings and sculpture behind the vast glass doors I took some time to explore the building. My favourite part of the Met had to be after heading up the stairs and taking a left, a balcony that overlooked the floor below. This secluded little part of this vast museum was undisturbed, peaceful and boasted artistic prowess comparable with the masterworks inside. The detail of Romanesque architecture never ceases to astound me, and this corridor was no exception. Stone archways were decorated ornately and framed by composite pilasters. The molding was layered and fluently led the walls into ceiling which arched away from the eye, lengthening the room and making the space feel endless. Like the MoMA, the Met has a comprehensive layout and, better yet, maps guiding you through each section of the museum. After the balcony I found a gallery beginning with Orientalist works from Delacroix and Gérôme, two of my favourite artists because I find Orientalism to be fascinating and still incredibly relevant, followed by Impressionism and beautiful portraits and landscapes by Manet and Monet, followed by more of the Post Impressionists that I admire so dearly. After ending my visit to the late nineteenth century, I moved to the Renaissance wing of the museum. Before starting university, I had never studied art in my life; I knew very little about very famous paintings, had never visited a museum voluntarily and never expected to have interest in it. When I started university one of my flatmate’s suggested I take up Art History, and so I did. I can so vividly remember the first lecture on the Early Renaissance sculptors Giovanni and Nicola Pisano, and being fascinated by how they imprinted their emotion and the emotion of the scene they were sculpting onto the marble. After my first lecture I was undeniably hooked, and I found learning about the course of the Renaissance, about terms and themes I had never heard of in my life. It fascinated me how one colour came to represent an array of things during the period, how a small symbol so understated within a more than life sized could represent so much and indicate the story the painting was attempting to evoke. I fell in love with Renaissance art before I fell in love with art, and so seeing works in the Met starting at the very beginning of the period from Duccio and being led through to the end with Raphael was a wonderful experience. Every room brought something new; a new stylistic element or a new prominent artist and the museum beautifully explains the course of the Renaissance by leading you through it chronologically.
Visiting these two museums as well as many of the other wonderful architectural feats and tourist attractions that New York City has to offer made my Spring Break a truly wonderful two weeks. To be surrounded by Renaissance art and to then step outside into a concrete jungle is an experience that I have never felt in another city. To be surrounded by people from all over the world who have come to see the city is something special; it has an inescapable energy and I already cannot wait to visit again.