SKYCTC art teacher outruns Coronavirus to tour European museums
By Matthew Kirby, SKYCTC Art

Posted on April 30, 2020 8:13 PM

SKYCTC Art Instructor Matthew Kirby went on a solo trip to London, Paris, and Amsterdam during the college’s spring break. His goal was to view in person many of the artworks he introduces to his students. When he left Kentucky in early March, the Coronavirus was drawing dangerously close. In fact, he had to change one of his destinations to art-rich Venice, Italy. Kirby outran the virus and left Europe just before severe international travel restrictions were imposed. He tells the story of his educational venture in the following article:

I landed in London on Saturday morning. Like most people, my first stop after dropping off my bags at the hotel was the library. I walked past King’s Cross Station, keeping clear of any muggles looking for platform 9 ¾, and made my way into The British Library. Of course, after an overnight flight I was fairly exhausted so I grabbed an americano, a sentimental order rather than a practical one, and a snack before checking out a small exhibit of immensely pivotal works including the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and hand-written lyrics by the Beatles.

If you’ve ever travelled with an artist and art teacher, then you might know we tend to spend the majority of our peregrination indoors, slowly moving from artifact to painting to sculpture, gazing from one gilded frame to the next. I teach an introductory art class at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College and many of the preeminent works of art on my bucket list are located in London.

If conversations with my friends and family are any indication, I can say that most people do not spend as much time in museums on vacation as I would prefer. However, as this was a solo journey, I was able to indulge myself and spend as much time as I wanted looking at art. After a quick interlude at the library, short rest at the hotel, and a quick stop to buy a coat for my underprepared wardrobe, I went to Tate Britain.

Tate Britain has a modest collection of paintings that made it a perfect destination for my first day in London. Now with that said, I don’t really remember much about Tate Britain because I had been awake for 36 hours and—let’s face it, museums are not exactly known for their rousing nature. I do remember spending an inordinate amount of time standing in front of Millais’ painting of Ophelia and wondering if I should ever pick up a paintbrush again. It is an excellent painting for Tate Britain’s collection, as it’s a humble size, features a character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and is painted by one of England’s greatest artists.

Despite sleepwalking through most of the day, it was a great introduction to the profusion of art I would encounter over the next week in Europe.

After a good night’s rest, I hopped on the underground and arrived at The National Gallery as it opened. The museums in London are free, so I quickly walked to the location of a certain painting on my list, The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck. It’s always strange to experience a work in person after spending so much time only seeing it in textbooks and photographs, and here I was, the only person in the room with van Eyck’s painting of a young couple from centuries ago. The painting is strange in many ways and filled with esoteric symbols and minutiae, but even a casual viewer can appreciate the delicate rendering of the subject matter. The dials on the mirror in the background have identifiable scenes from the life of Jesus painted on them, and they’re no bigger than your fingernail.

After looking around the rest of the room I glimpsed another great painting, Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, in an adjacent room. There are actually two of these in the world and I was looking at the second. Leonardo was commissioned to make the first and felt that his completion bonus was insufficient so he sold it to a different buyer. The original patron still wanted the painting so they paid him more money to make another.

After bidding a silent farewell to Leonardo’s Madonna, I spent about four hours trying to see every work of art in the museum, and I think I was successful. In general, I don’t believe it’s sustainable to look at everything in a museum, and so I recommend seeking out what’s called “significant form,” basically, artwork that strikes you as particularly interesting, that stops you in your tracks, or demands your attention more than any of the other paintings in the room. This is a problem at The National Gallery because it’s such a great collection that nearly every painting was a candidate for embodying significant form. Eventually, I emerged from the museum and walked to the next one, Tate Modern.

Tate Modern was cool, or should I say, it was posh. The museum is in an old factory so it has a contemporary aesthetic to match the work it houses. While I tend to enjoy older work, the museum has a number of interesting paintings, sculptures, and installations, but the view from the top of one of the towers makes the museum a must-visit. The bar at the top of the tower also had a serendipitous phrase in neon decorating the wall above the elevators that said, “Everything will be okay.” At the time, the threat of Coronavirus was still being underestimated by many, and the neon inscription would become a mantra as I read the news during my trip.

The next day I left London to travel to Paris by train. I love riding on trains, and getting the chance to take  the Channel Tunnel to the French capital was a fun experience. Shortly after arriving in Paris, I quickly stowed my bags in a locker at Gare du Nord and jumped on the Métro bound for the Trocadéro. A short walk from the Métro station led me to Passy Cemetery for a chance to pay my respects to a personal favorite artist, Edouard Manet. Without much time, I stopped by Musée de l'Orangerie to gaze at Monet’s Water Lilies.

After retrieving a baguette, and snapping a few pictures of the Eiffel Tower to make my social media followers jealous, I went back to the train station to go to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam was an unexpected and largely unplanned portion of my journey. Originally, I had booked an overnight train to Venice, but the Coronavirus was wreaking havoc in northern Italy and I had no choice but to cancel my bookings in Italy. At first, Amsterdam was a consolation destination and I thought that at least I would get to visit the Rijksmuseum and view some Dutch art. Little did I know that Amsterdam would become my favorite part of the trip.

First of all, the Van Gogh Museum was an unexpected surprise. Obviously, Van Gogh is a great artist, but I’ve always been bothered by the general “prettiness” of his paintings that has led to their ubiquitous presence on calendars, coffee mugs, magnets, and other sources of kitsch. Much of his life and work has been appropriated by the decorative arts industry and he has become the unwitting poster child of the starving, struggling artist misunderstood in his own time, beset by mental health problems that fuel the genius of his work. It’s a frustrating stereotype and I had low expectations for the Van Gogh Museum, but what I found was an earnest, honest examination of the artist’s life, work, and authenticity. After all was said and done, my experience of van Gogh’s work was the most poignant, moving part of my journey.

After a couple of nights in Amsterdam, I took a short day-trip to The Hague to see a girl. We had never met but I had seen pictures and knew she was beautiful. Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring is one of the world’s most famous portraits, right behind Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (famous and overrated, skip the Mona Lisa and admire the hundreds of other paintings at the Louvre instead). Vermeer’s portrait is located at The Mauritshuis, one of the Top 100 Dutch heritage sites, and one of my favorite museums for the luxurious interior and peaceful views of the surrounding area.

The Rijksmuseum is the Louvre of Dutch art and I shamelessly spent five hours exploring as much as I could. That amount of time is enough to see most of the paintings, certainly all of the headliners in the collection like Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and most of the artifacts. If you’re interested in model ships, walls of timeworn pistols, and charming cannons then go to the Rijksmuseum. However, I spent most of my time looking at the work of Vermeer and Rembrandt, two painters that were so good they will make you wonder if painting is really just some kind of sorcery.

Unfortunately, Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch, was undergoing conservation and the painting was slightly obscured. While I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t get a clear view of the painting I came to see, I teach an entire section on art restoration in my classes at SKYCTC and I was pleased to have some first-hand references on the subject.

After leaving Amsterdam with a short stop in Paris to board a different train, I made my way back to London. There were only two more museums on my list and I’ll be honest, a little bit of art-fatigue was starting to set in. But I remembered the looming menace of the Coronavirus, a pathogen that threatened to close any and all museums, and persevered.

First, to the British Museum. A historian’s dream but a little too dense for my wearied legs and eyes. I joined the crowd around the Rosetta Stone and admired the controversial Elgin Marbles, the statues that used to reside on the Parthenon’s pediments but remain in London despite calls for their return to Greece.

There are an incredible number of artifacts from every region and time period but one of my favorite pieces of history would have to be a small, clay tablet written in the ancient Sumerian script of cuneiform. It’s essentially a complaint written by a dissatisfied customer after buying a lower grade of copper than originally agreed upon. Think of it as the world’s first Yelp review. As someone who spent years working in customer service, it hit a little too close to home, but there’s a connection to humanity across time and space that I find to be somewhat comforting. There’s something so relatably human about taking the trouble to write a scathing complaint using clay and wedge-shaped reeds, and for a brief moment I felt a connection to this individual who lived thousands of years ago and could never have conceived of the circumstances that would bring me to a place in front of that little clay tablet.

The final museum before my flight back to The States was The Wallace Collection. It was a pleasantly small museum and I was really only there to see one painting, Fragonard’s The Swing. It’s a perfect example of Rococo sensibilities; frivolous, superficial, and beautiful.

In my classes at SKYCTC I always look forward to the questions surrounding a piece like The Swing. It’s incredibly well-made but the subject matter boils down to a scandalous love affair between French elites and so offers very little in the way of intellectualism, edification, or moral enlightenment. But the conversation around it is compelling. I’ll ask my students, “Is it okay for art to just be beautiful? Must art have a deeper meaning?”

As you might imagine, the answers can be fraught with underlying assumptions, personal preferences, and varying opinions so the classroom becomes a debate stage, and I’m often left to play the devil’s advocate. I always like to challenge, “What if I asked your friends to describe you and the only thing they could say is ‘so-and-so is beautiful.’” It seems like a compliment at first but then you have to face the reality that they couldn’t be bothered to mention your intelligence, sense of humor, kindness, thoughtfulness, or any other qualities that actually make you who you are. It’s a fun class.

By the time I was ready to fly home, the Coronavirus fears were being taken very seriously and flights out of Europe were becoming increasingly tense. Fortunately, I left London at just the right time and successfully avoided any major headaches, and the virus itself as far as I can tell. Hopefully soon the travel lines will be open again and I can start planning my next museum marathon.

If anyone wants a private tour guide on their next trip to Europe, please let me know. My rates are affordable as I’ll work for plane fare and pasta.


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