10 of Europe’s Best (Lesser Known) Art Museums

August 8, 2014 by

Art & Museums, Europe, Places to Go, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Here's a famous European museum, but what about some of the other ones?

Here’s a famous European museum, but what about some of the other ones?

Europe is blessed with an abundance of art museums that extends well beyond the indisputable acclaim granted to places like the Louvre or the Prado. While these art museum giants tend to leave a visitor dizzy after covering hundreds of years of art in one afternoon, the lesser known museums frequently focus on a single artist or time period. This narrower scope is less overwhelming and often provides a unique opportunity to see how an artist evolved and matured.

Here are ten lesser known art museums guaranteed to surprise and charm.

1. Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy

Galleria Borghese is an intimate 20-room art museum housed in a former villa surrounded by the lush Borghese Gardens. Access is by reservation only in 2-hour time slots ensuring a peaceful visit. The museum’s impressive collection focuses on Italian works that once belonged to Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579–1633), a ruthless art collector who stopped at nothing to get his hands on a coveted work. He once arrested a man on trumped up charges and only released him after receiving a ‘gift’ of two Caravaggio paintings.

The riotous colors of the fresco-covered main salon give a hint of what lies beyond. Above the main doorway, a dramatic bas-relief depicts a stumbling horse and rider who appear ready to tumble right into the room. This remarkably realistic sculpture was created by Pietro Bernini. Following in dad’s footsteps, his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini became one of the greatest sculptors of the Baroque era, and his dazzling works are the highlight of the museum. Bernini’s ‘Pluto and Prosperina’ is a miracle in marble with Pluto grabbing Prosperina’s leg so forcefully that the imprints of his fingerprints are visible on her seemingly soft skin. But Bernini’s best work is the astonishing ‘Apollo and Daphne’ which captures the moment when Daphne, being hotly pursued by Apollo, is turned into a tree to escape his advances.  The leaves that sprout from Daphne’s hands exemplify artistry at its most impossible. The delicacy seems to defy the rules of physics. It is said that if you brushed over the leaves with your hand, they would sing like chimes.

2. Skagens Museum in Skagen, Denmark

The unassuming Skagens Museum holds an enchanting collection of Impressionist-like paintings by young artists drawn to this northernmost  part of Denmark by the unspoiled landscapes and the amazing Nordic light. Traveling to Skagen in the 1870’s was so risky that some artists nearly lost their lives getting there, but the journey was worth it to work in this idyllic environment. The artists painted the local fishermen, the villagers going about their daily lives, and they painted each other, often strolling along the shimmering beaches.

These ‘painters of light’ soon formed a friendly artist colony with P.S. Kroyer and the husband and wife duo of Anna and Michael Ancher as the most famous of the group. Kroyer loved to paint what he called the ‘blue hour,’ the time when day fades into night. A good example is ‘Summer Evening at Skagen,’ a painting featuring his wife Marie and his dog Rap on the beach at dusk.

The aim of the Skagens Museum is to display the art in the environment in which it was created. The best place to sense the spirit of the artists is in the dining room of Hotel Degn Brøndum, once the center of social life in the community, which has been relocated to the museum. It became a custom for the artists to donate portraits of each other to the hotel owner, and the old friends are still here, gazing down from the paintings that line the wood-paneled walls.

Note: The Skagens Museum will be closed for approximately six months from October 2014 to May 2015 for a major renovation and expansion project.

3. Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, France

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is housed in a 13th c. palace of massive proportions; a stark contrast with the diminutive artist whose work is on display. Born in Albi, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from a genetic disorder (perhaps a result of inbreeding among his aristocratic family) that caused severely brittle bones. He broke both of his legs as a teenager, stopped growing at barely 5-feet tall, and needed a cane to walk.

Perhaps because of his physical deformities, Lautrec felt at home in the uninhibited atmosphere of bohemian Paris, and he lived in brothels for weeks at a time creating intimate portraits of the ‘working girls.’ He is considered one of the greatest painters of the Post-Impressionist period, and the museum collection, donated by his parents, follows Toulouse-Lautrec’s life and work culminating in an odd mix of heartbreaking paintings of life-worn prostitutes and stylish posters of cabaret singers.

Often called the father of poster art, Lautrec’s advertisements for Paris hot spots like the Moulin Rouge turned local singers and dancers into celebrities and raised the lowly poster to the level of fine art. Sadly, the licentious life caught up with him, and he died at the age of only 36 from the combined effects of alcoholism and syphilis (which he is said to have caught from a red-haired prostitute called Rosa la Rouge).

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

4. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain

Oddly enough, the highlights of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao are outside, beginning with the extraordinary $100 million Frank Gehry building,  a groundbreaking 20th c. architectural landmark. The complex sculptural design required the use of computer software initially developed for the aerospace industry, and the flowing outer skin of the building consists of 33,000 paper-thin titanium sheets that change color with the weather.

Much of the art resides outside as well, including the spider sculpture called ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois that looks like something straight out of a sci-fi film and the lovable plant-covered sculpture ‘Puppy’ by Jeff Koons. The 43-foot tall West Highland Terrier actually blooms in a profusion of marigolds, begonias, impatiens, and petunias. In 1997, two days before the museum’s grand opening, ‘Puppy’ was almost the unwitting accomplice in a terrorist event. Fortunately, the three ETA Basque separatists, who arrived dressed as gardeners with Puppy-like flower pots filled with remote-controlled grenades, were apprehended. Today colorful ‘Puppy’ stands guard on Aguirre square, named for the policeman who was killed foiling the terrorist attempt.

5. Cluny Museum in Paris, France

Housed in a beautifully restored 15th c. monastery (one of only two surviving medieval mansions in Paris), the Cluny Museum offers one of the world’s greatest collections of medieval art with paintings, sculptures, tapestries, stained glass, and items from daily life. The somewhat rambling layout includes a small room showcasing backlit fragments of stained glass, providing a rare opportunity to get a close up view of the original glitter. And the basement holds a real surprise: the ruins of ancient Roman baths built at the turn of the 1st c.

Most popular by far is the circular room devoted to the six ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries. Little is known about the origin of these exquisite wall hangings although they are assumed to have been woven in Belgium during the 1500’s. Described as one of the great masterpieces of western art, the tapestries represent the five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. And an enigmatic sixth sense that carries the inscription ‘À mon seul désir’ (to my only desire) which has been interpreted to mean understanding, intuition, or love. Whatever the intended message, this is the only tapestry where the lady has just the faintest trace of a smile!

Cycladic female figure

Cycladic female figure

6. Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece

The Museum of Cycladic Art  has one of the finest collections of Cycladic art in the world including marble figurines, bronze tools, and pottery. Although Cycladic art is over 5,000 years old (dating to the 3rd millennium B.C.), the many sleek female figures look remarkably modern, much like a Picasso creation. Which is not surprising since artists like Picasso, Modigliani, and Brancusi were heavily influenced by these ancient masters.

The abstract female figurines stand proudly in well-lit glass cases eliciting a sensation of quiet reverence. The simple sculptures follow a strict design formula: geometric forms posed in frontal positions with arms folded across the stomach and each face empty of any features other than a prominent nose. The elegant female figures are assumed to be fertility goddesses, but little is known about this ancient culture and the statues’ role in Cycladic life remains a mystery.

Song of Songs

Song of Songs

7. Marc Chagall Museum in Nice, France

The Marc Chagall Museum contains the largest public collection of Marc Chagall paintings in the world and was designed in the 1970’s with the help of Chagall himself who decided on the exact placement of each of his works. The museum contains an auditorium with stained glass windows portraying the creation of the world and a mosaic overlooking a pond, but the heart of the museum is a series of 17 paintings based on Biblical themes.

A central room displays twelve large paintings illustrating the first two books of the Old Testament. Chagall’s paintings are filled with fanciful folk art reflecting his Russian childhood and radiating a gentle playfulness; even serious subjects like ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ come with an upside down angel and a flying tree. A smaller hexagonal room holds the museum’s greatest delight: the exuberant 5-painting series called ‘Song of Songs.’  This may be the art world’s most romantic room. The series had a biblical inspiration, but Chagall made it personal, dedicating the room to his wife, ‘my joy and happiness.’ The rosy red canvases are covered with young lovers including the famous image of newlyweds flying over Jerusalem on a winged horse. Chagall once said, ‘In Art as in life, everything is possible if, deep down, there is Love.’

The Veiled Christ

The Veiled Christ

8. Sansevero Chapel Museum in Naples, Italy

The Sansevero Chapel Museum is the brainchild of an unusual character named Raimondo di Sangro (1710-1771) who was a lover of the arts and sciences, a prodigious inventor, and an alchemist. Reflecting Raimondo’s distinctive taste, the chapel walls are covered with strange alchemistic symbols, and the paint on the 200-year old chapel ceiling is from a special concoction he invented himself. The amazingly vibrant colors have never been retouched in any way. Raimondo’s scientific side is best appreciated in the basement where his ‘anatomical machines’ are on display: two bizarre skeletons with complete circulatory systems that indicate an understanding of human anatomy highly unusual for the time.

Raimondo was also obsessed with intricate sculpture, and the chapel is filled with remarkable examples. In one statue, a figure attempts to untangle himself from a rope net that is fully detailed right down to what look like actual knots in the rope. The supreme creation is a sculpture called ‘The Veiled Christ,’ a wondrous work created by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753. Somehow Giuseppe created a translucent marble veil that drapes over the features of the Christ figure beneath it. Christ’s fingernails and his crucifixion wounds are clearly visible beneath the veil. This is a phenomenal engineering and artistic feat but gazing at the statue is also extraordinarily moving – almost a religious experience. As you walk from his feet to his head, Christ’s expression changes from painful agony to peace.

9. Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain

Visiting the Dali Theatre-Museum is not your typical day at the art museum. Opened in 1974, this is a surrealist experience beginning with the museum building itself, a rose-colored fortress with walls topped by giant eggs, described as the largest surrealistic object in the world. Dali said, ‘I have Dalinian thought: the one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.’  He certainly outdid himself here in his hometown where he spent over a decade perfecting the presentation of about 1500 eclectic pieces that include paintings, drawings, sculptures, engravings, installations, jewelry, holograms, and photographs. By the way, Dali has not left the building – he is buried right here in his museum.

The inner courtyard definitely has a theatrical quality with niches holding golden figurines that look like oversized escapees from Hollywood’s Oscar Night. In the center of the courtyard sits a black Cadillac that actually belonged to Dalí who was a big fan of the carmaker. Inside, the car is covered with green vines that even engulf the mannequin driver and the two mannequin passengers in the back seat (insert a coin and it rains inside the car!). Another one of Dali’s fantastical works is ‘Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment.’  A viewing platform with a giant lens reveals the face of the sultry sex symbol with a sofa for her lips, a fireplace for her nostrils, and wall paintings for her eyes. Those bright red ‘sofa lips’ look ready to mouth, ‘Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?’

Angry Boy

Angry Boy

10. Vigeland Park in Oslo, Norway

Vigeland Park is the world’s largest sculpture park devoted to a single artist with a quirky collection of 192 bronze and granite sculptures of more than 600 nude figures. Gustav Vigeland began work on the sculptures in 1924, modeling all of the figures out of clay, in full size, in his studio. Then he employed professional craftsmen to do the carving. Poor Gustav worked on the project until he died almost 20 years later and never lived to see the end result.

The bulky, naked figures are weirdly captivating, portraying all types of human relationships: adolescent boys running, young lovers in an intimate embrace, parents holding their children close, and elderly couples with sagging bodies. One of the strangest statues is of a man who appears to be fighting off four babies –one baby rests on the man’s foot as if he is ready to drop kick the child. The most popular is a crowd-pleasing favorite called ‘Angry Boy’ that captures a little boy in the middle of an epic meltdown. However, the park’s most impressive achievement is the monolith: a giant pile up of 121 entwined human figures carved in one piece of stone 46 feet high. It’s hard to say if this is a group effort to reach the heavens or a struggle to climb over one another. When Vigeland was asked about the meaning of the monolith, he replied, ‘This is my religion.’

Contributed by Anne Supsic

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