The world’s finest art is housed in some of the world’s most artistically architecturally inspired buildings, yet often we fail to notice. This month I am forgetting the art on the walls and looking at the walls themselves – for they are more than bricks and mortar, these buildings are literally the foundations that allow great art to be viewed by the public; they are places where we linger, where memories are created and where we take respite from the world, wrapped in the ambience of their cathedral like souls.
The world’s first museum, whilst not devoted to art, was the Old Ashmolean in Oxford and opened its doors in 1683 to house “cabinets of curiosities” that Elias Ashmole gave to the University of Oxford in 1677. The ‘new’ Ashmolean opened in 1894 and remains the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum and famously once housed the stuffed body of the last Dodo ever seen in Europe; but by 1755 it was so moth eaten it had to be destroyed. The interior of the Ashmolean has seen many changes and a major renovation in 2000 allowed for the creation of the Chinese Picture Gallery; now accommodated rather spectacularly into a light well of the original Grade 1 listed building; it is the only museum gallery in Britain devoted to Chinese paintings.
Perhaps one of the world’s most beautiful art museums was constructed for an entirely different purpose; the Musee d’Orsay was originally a railway station, Gare d’Orsay, constructed for the Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans and finished in time for the 1900 Exposition Universelle to the design of three architects: Lucien Magne, Émile Bénard and Victor Laloux. By 1939 the station’s short platforms had become unsuitable for the longer trains that had come to be used for mainline services. After 1939 it was used for suburban services and part of it became a mailing centre during World War II. Saved from demolition in 1970 it took 16 years before finally in July 1986, the museum was ready to receive its exhibits. It took 6 months to install the 2000 or so paintings, 600 sculptures and other works. The museum officially opened in December 1986 by then-president, François Mitterrand.
Classical or contemporary, the design of art museums has been integral to the recognition of art for centuries; it has allowed some of our most architecturally magnificent buildings to be reborn; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg houses a vast collection of art, which includes masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso and Rembrandt. It is said that it would take around 11 years to examine every single exhibit!
After a decade-long renovation The Rijksmuseum reveals the Golden Age of masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals with centuries of fine furniture, Delftware, costume and jewellery. There’s a superb Asian collection reflecting the trade along the old Silk Road to present day.
More personal museums can be found with the Musée National Rodin, the mansion where Rodin lived at the end of his life now contains an unrivalled collection of the sculptor’s work, arranged around its rooms and beautiful garden. In finished works and countless studies for the great Balzac, the Burghers of Calais or the figures that swarm all over the Gates of Hell, you can trace how he revolutionised sculpture at the end of the 19th century.
Of course Musée du Louvre is perhaps the world’s most admired gallery; housed in the former residence of the Kings of France it is mind-boggling in its scale and sheer wealth of treasures: from classical sculpture, Egyptian relics and Mesopotamian antiquities to the unmissable galleries of Italian Renaissance paintings, Rembrandts and Rubens, medieval artefacts and French neoclassical and Romantic painting. The secret to mastering the Louvre is to combine a few key works you definitely want to see with the discoveries you make by wandering aimlessly.
Modernity of art architecture is perhaps best shown with the Guggenheim, its iconic, conch- shell shaped museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, has been drawing contemporary art lovers since it opened in 1959, its unique cylindrical shape a work of art in itself. Inside, visitors take in a constantly evolving collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, modern and contemporary art, including permanent pieces by Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois.
A lesser known, but for me incredibly beautiful, is the Bildmuseet in Sweden; this contemporary art and design museum in the Swedish city of Umeå, was named as one of the most beautiful university art galleries in the world following a redesign in 2012. The building itself is a thoughtful work of art, made with a façade of Siberian larch wood panelling, which will fade to a silver grey colour in a few years’ time, staggered with randomly-placed windows. Its stark white interior is warmed by the natural light piercing through its windows which offer scenic views from the museum’s riverside location.
There are of course numerous magnificent buildings housing breath-taking art collections around the world; here are 10 that, in addition to those shown above, L’Voyage is able to arrange personally tailored private tours to;
National Art Center Tokyo; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; Tate Modern, London; The Uffizi, Florence; Kunstmuseum Basel; The V&A, London; Design Museum, London; Yuz Museum, Shanghai; The Tate, St. Ives, Cornwall; The Getty, Los Angeles.
Remember – the next time you are admiring the art, glance around at the building and admire it too.