I took a whirlwind tour of Prague, Vienna, and Budapest this weekend for what was my first time in Central Europe proper. Going into it, I really didn’t know much about the places. I imagined Prague with looming gothic cathedrals and a somber atmosphere, Kafka-esque, and full of espionage. Vienna was grand and baroque, with cheerful colors and Mozart music. And Budapest was exactly like the Wes Anderson movie The Grand Budapest Hotel (never mind that it wasn’t even set in Budapest). Consciously we all know this sort of thinking is silly; no one depiction can capture everything that a place is, and that each representation chooses to emphasize or ignore particular elements, as Nietzsche complains about with the artists. But subconsciously, we all filter the places we travel to through the lens of artistic representations.
Having visited a bunch of brand new places in quick succession, I did become increasingly aware of how what (little) I knew about the places from books, movies, and paintings of the people, things, and places influenced my perception in the manner described by de Botton. It’s harder to put my finger on this phenomenon with regards to Paris because I’ve spent more time here and I knew more, both real and fictitious, before arriving. But in a tavern in Prague, for example, it’s easy to catch myself imagining all of the locals around in mediaeval costumes circa King Wenceslas.
Gertrude Stein also pinpoints the influence of art on her viewing of France in her quasi-memoire Paris, France, when she talks about the painting Man with a Hoe. It depicts a farmer in the fields, but interestingly enough, it’s not lush and green, or bright with the primary colors of Province. Rather it’s a man in a field of dirt, all in muted brown tones. For her this was influential in viewing France as a physical territory and not just a set of ideals: a country that extends beyond Paris in which people work the land.
I went to the Musée Carnavalet this past week; it’s a collection of art and interior furnishings that spans many different periods of history in Paris. There aren’t the big-name French painters, but it’s a well-curated collection of contemporaneous artists that demonstrates the relationship between historical events and their representations in art in Paris. One room in particular that really struck me was a recreation art nouveau salon, complete from carpet to ceiling with the ornate and lush colors and textures of the period. All of the pieces in metal were in the characteristic naturalist style and the chairs were upholstered in purple velvet. Remnants of art nouveau are still visible strongly in Paris, but it’s often a fragmented representation: just a metro sign or a door that you see in passing. I saw similar art-nouveau elements in Prague too. After having been the museum, I think it’s a style that not only catches my eye more than before, but also I have a better imagination for what the buildings and interiors might have looked like at the time. In short, art helped me to view the beauty in my surroundings that I might otherwise have overlooked.