Extraordinary museums: a selection to stir your soul
Updated: Apr 10
LOUISIANA MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
I spent one of the best days of my life in this museum. It’s located approx 40 kilometers from the city but there is a good train connection from Copenhagen’s Central Station: direction Helsingør. The building is perfectly integrated into the natural environment and all the more impressive for it. It’s situated right on the coast (you can see Sweden in the distance), and the grounds are dotted with diverse sculpture from artists such as Miró, Calder and Dan Graham. It had been snowing while we visited, which made for a pretty Baltic outdoor experience, but all the more pretty for it. The architects really made the best possible use of the site: the glass corridor walls and huge windows frame the spectacular natural environment and sculpture beyond: there is always something to see, no matter which way you turn.
The museum has an incredible permanent collection of work from 1945 to present day showcasing all art forms but with a particular emphasis on painting and sculpture. I particularly loved the work of Danish artists Per Kirkeby and Asger Jorn. It also hosts approximately six to ten exhibitions annually. If you take a look at their website and scroll through the past shows you’ll immediately see the standard this museum operates at. They’ve had shows by Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, David Hockney, Lucien Freud, William Kentridge, Barnett Newman… Need I go on. We were lucky enough to catch American artist Tara Donovan’s outstanding first European show. Tara uses simple everyday objects like straws, toothpicks and buttons to create monumental works of great intrigue and beauty. The way she experiments with materials challenges the viewer’s interpretation of what they are seeing. What looks soft and fluffy from a distance is sharp and spiky up close. What looks like a wall of snow is actually an undulating wall of drinking straws. In the hands of a lesser artist it could have been gimmicky, but instead it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. My husband and I still talk about it. Also, kids were mesmerised by it and were really enjoying the work, which is always a marker of a great show for me. It’s an outstanding museum and one to write off an entire day for. There is a restaurant and café on site when you need a break. One to enjoy at your leisure.
GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, BILBAO
This one is an obvious choice but for a very good reason. It’s one of the most spectacular buildings you’ll ever encounter. To be honest, the art is almost secondary. The building itself has to be one of the greatest buildings on the planet. Designed by the architect extraordinaire Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, this building was part of a massive rejuvenation project for the city of Bilbao and is one of the main reasons why tourists travel here in their droves every year. It is an extraordinary spectacle at any time of day, and any time of year. In summer, the shimmer from the rays of the sun on the titanium and steel structure creates a sensation of movement, as if the building is floating on water; at night the warm lights of the building are reflected in the surrounding pool below. The design is wild and full of expression, yet the building sits nicely in its environment on the banks of the Nervión river in the old industrial part of the city.
I’ve been twice and the second visit was no less impressive. It's definitely got that wow factor when you catch your first glimpse of Jeff Koons giant ‘Puppy‘ set against the backdrop of the museum. ‘Puppy‘ is like nothing you’ve ever seen before – a giant real live sculpture made from bedding plants which is literally still growing. Outside the giant portico at the front of the building is another of his works: ‘Tulips‘ – a series of multi-coloured balloon flowers made from stainless steel which creates some fantastic reflections on all sides. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Jeff Koons but I really love these two pieces and they work so well with the building. Then there’s the amazing ‘Tall Tree and the Eye’ by Anish Kapoor, one of my favourite sculptors. It’s a stunning sculpture consisting of a series of mirrored orbs reflecting various parts of the buildings, while distorting your sense of space. You can also walk beneath the monumental spider ‘Maman‘ by Louise Bourgeois and experience the strange ‘Fog Sculpture‘ of Fujiko Nakaya where in timed intervals the entire pavilion is enveloped in fog. It’s very cool not to mention a strange experience on a sunny day.
All that before you even go inside! Start in the towering glass atrium and work your way up. The permanent collection has works by Mark Rothko, Anselm Kiefer, Alex Katz, the Pop artists, to name but a few, with a strong collection of work by Basque sculptors Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza. You can also get completely tripped out in Richard Serra’s site-specific ‘The Matter of Time‘ which is made up of a series of ellipses, spirals and spheres in his trademark steel. You are invited to walk through and around them as the heights drop and rise and as the width narrows, then widens, which has a very disconcerting and dizzying effect. The Serra piece is permanent but other rooms of works in the permanent collection can close to accommodate temporary shows. Check online before you go.
FONDATION MAEGHT, SAINT-PAUL DE VENCE, FRANCE
I first heard about this place in an art history lecture and wanted to go ever since. It took fifteen years before I finally made it and then went two years in a row. On a trip around Provence, we booked two nights in the town of Vence (4 kms away but less touristy than St-Paul de Vence) with the sole purpose of visiting the Fondation Maeght. As it happily turns out, we fell head-over-heels in love with Vence and came back again the year after. If you’d like to visit the Fondation, you can read more about Vence here in my blog: A romantic town in Provence
The Fondation Maeght was founded in the 1960s by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght to showcase modern and contemporary art in all its forms. The couple were very involved in the arts and were friends with many of the giants of modern art including Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and Marc Chagall. The relationships they'd formed were the reason the museum came into existence.
The first thing you see upon entering is the sculpture garden with monumental works by the likes of Calder, Chillida and Hepworth. You'll also notice a mosaic on the bookshop wall by Marc Chagall. The St Bernard chapel is worth a look for its gorgeous stained-glass windows by Raoul Ubac and George Braque.
The building itself is undoubtedly modern but the warm terracotta colours and traditional materials ensure it doesn't seem at odds with the natural environment. Instead everything seems to flow together perfectly with galleries and courtyards at varying heights and levels, and there are access points to the outdoor spaces everywhere. The Miró labyrinth is a highlight and a zen-like space with its turquoise pools, sculpture trail and a backdrop of mountains and trees. The Giacometti courtyard is also a must-see, overhung by the most dramatic architectural feature, the distinctive white catchment roof. The views of the surrounding landscape are pretty spectacular from the upper levels.
Their permanent collection includes work by artists such as Chagall, Miró, Ellsworth Kelly, Pierre Bonnard, Kandinsky and Braque but these may not always be on view due to recurrent temporary exhibitions. Just check the website before you visit but either way you won’t be disappointed. It’s a wonderful place in a beautiful part of Provence and shouldn’t be missed.
MUSEO ORTEIZA, NAVARRA, SPAIN
This one is by far the least known of any of my choices but is similar to the Maeght Foundation in its dramatic location and the way the architect brings the surrounding environment into the museum experience by large picture windows. It's quite breathtaking.
Jorge Oteiza was a prolific Basque sculptor who died in 2003. You will see his work everywhere in this region of Spain, but particularly in San Sebastian, his hometown. I was only vaguely aware of him before a two-week trip around Basque country, but was a huge fan upon leaving. Here are some examples of his public sculptures:
The museum holds the most comprehensive collection of his work in the world with over 1650 sculptures, 2000 experimental works, his own personal library, and a collection of drawings and collages. In 1992, the artist donated all of his works to the city of Navarra. He died in 2003 and as requested in his will, this museum was opened to host and document his (extremely prolific) life’s work. Both he and his wife are buried in the grounds of the museum.
The location in the rolling countryside of Navarra is absolutely stunning. The building is modern and the sharp geometrical angles of the roof are reminiscent of his later work. However the contrasting warm stonework and terracotta hues of the walls soften the effect. The interior of the museum is very striking and the lighting, both natural and artificial, shows off his work in the best possible way.
Despite being one of the most significant figures in 20th Century Basque art, you won’t find crowds of people here on your visit. It’s a little off the beaten track (10 kilometres from Pamplona), and you’ll most likely need a car, so it doesn’t get the same throng of visitors as you might in a city -a massive plus in my book. Even in the height of July, there was only a small group of people visiting so you really get to spend time with each work and enjoy the peaceful setting. Bear in mind that it doesn’t have a café so make sure to eat before you arrive.
MoMA, NEW YORK
It was a difficult decision to choose between MoMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I visit both every time I’m in New York and love both equally, but for different reasons. However this one just pipped the Met to the post. Located on West 53rd St, south of Central Park, the collection has to be seen to be believed. Dreamed of seeing ‘Starry Night’ by Van Gogh? Yep they have it. And yes it’s even more incredible in reality. It's hard to drag yourself away from it. They have a huge collection of Cézannes, an even bigger collection of Picasso’s, including drawings, but most significantly MoMA is home to his iconic and at the time extremely controversial ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ from 1907.
MoMA has one of my favourite paintings ever by Matisse ‘Woman on a high stool‘. And then there’s the American artists: Rothko, Pollock, Alex Katz, the Pop artists… There are too many to mention here but you can probably imagine the standard at this point. It’s astounding. I recommend having a good brunch beforehand, and get yourself caffeined up. You’ll need your energy. The collection is enormous but you won’t want to miss anything.
MUSÉE DE L'ORANGERIE, PARIS
This is my must-visit museum when I go to Paris. The curved walls hold what can only be described as Monet’s greatest masterpiece – his frieze of eight panels depicting the Nymphéas or Water Lilies cycle which occupied the final three decades of his life. Monet donated these works to the French State in 1922, and they have been on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie since 1927, installed exactly to the artist’s specifications. The series of paintings was inspired by the water garden at his Giverny estate in Normandy. The oval-shaped room creates a continuous frieze, and the monumental panels mean you are completely immersed in his landscape of water lilies, weeping willows and pools of water. As you move from painting to painting, the light changes; the season changes; the mood changes. The room is lit by natural light from above, also to Monet’s specification, and the works are carefully placed to take advantage of this: his sunrise scenes are strategically placed to the east of the building, and the scenes of sunset to the west. It’s a very special place and one I return to every time I go to Paris.
And that’s not the whole Orangerie experience. They also have an incredible permanent collection featuring 146 works from the 1860s to the 1930s including outstanding paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso, to name but a few.
SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM, NEW YORK
Controversial I know to include two from New York but while I chose MoMA for its collection, I chose this one for the building. It’s astonishing, both on the inside and outside. It’s situated on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, right beside Central Park and was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, opening to the public in 1959.
It’s truly a unique way to experience an exhibition – in the round. The spiral ramp starts at the ground floor and continues all the way to the domed ceiling. As you follow the gently sloping ramp, you are treated to an unrivaled perspective: not only of the immediate artwork, but of the entire exhibition space, with its multiple levels, all at once.
I first visited the Guggenheim NYC in 2008 and was lucky enough to see a world-class exhibition ‘I want to believe‘ by acclaimed Chinese superstar artist Cai Guo Qiang. I couldn’t think of a more perfect exhibition space for his work. The central atrium saw nine white cars suspended from the ceiling: a step-by-step representation of a car bomb. A pretty explosive start to any show (excuse the pun). And it went from there. It was a totally immersive and unsettling experience which I’m sure would not have worked so well in another space. It’s hard to believe it was not site-specific. As you followed the spiral ramp around you encountered stuffed tigers suspended from the air, pierced by arrows and squirming in agony; on the next level you were greeted by an army of terracotta peasants under threat from advancing soldiers. The most astonishing feat was the enormous pack of wolves advancing up the ramp and chasing each other above the visitors heads, but coming to a nasty end, crashing against a pane of glass.
I cannot imagine a more perfect space in which to experience his installations. This is my only reference point in terms of their collection: as we discovered on our last visit in 2012 the entire gallery tends to close for installations, so if you plan on including this on your itinerary, check the website.
I recommend purchasing a City Pass if you plan on going to both the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and also plan on visiting some of the other key attractions in the city. It works out at about €105 in total but museums in New York are not cheap. Empire State Building and the 9/11 Memorial is included on it but you can also go on the Circle Line Cruise, which is a fantastic way to see the city. Crucially it means you can skip the ticket queues everywhere, which is a great advantage http://www.citypass.com/new-york