Travel, one of life’s great experiences, opens us. Exposing us to different palates of color, sound and taste, travel challenges us to navigate, not only across geography but across the contours of the self. What does the place I’m visiting have in common with me and my life? What differences seem to be of value? Can I incorporate useful diversities into my own life and sense of self? Washington is a traveler’s city, to be sure. Not only is our home a destination, but from here our neighbors go to the four corners of the world for civil, military, humanitarian, or commercial purposes. So travel seems a worthwhile subject for meditation when we look at DC through eyes of faith.
One way to engage in such meditation is a visit to the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. To begin with both galleries are dedicated to Asian arts, subject matter that is foreign to most Americans’ experience… Beyond the art, the very design of the [Sackler] building is wholly different: the entire gallery is subterranean. It’s a wonderfully wrenching way to open one’s mind, leaving not only the “West,” but even the surface of the earth to be immersed in a culture that is so “other” than one’s own.
Two exhibits, currently on view at Freer/Sackler focus specifically on the power of travel travel art: “The Traveller’s Eye,” and “Fine Impressions.”
Unlike many exhibits of travel art, which look at other parts of the world through western eyes, The Traveller’s Eye shares travel art by Asian artists about voyages on their own continent. Abstract East Asian miniatures, painted with single-hair brushes populate some incredible silk scrolls. There’s also a collection of brilliantly colored photos by Indian photographer Raghubir Singh that, for the first time in my life, made me think, “Maybe I should visit India.” To see these works is to be transported, to question all one’s own aesthetic assumptions, and, arrive at newer deeper understandings of them. I visited the exhibit a week ago and I’m still chewing on how to incorporate what I saw into my own understanding.
Fine Impressions is -for me- more familiar. It’s James McNeill Whistler’s Venetian prints. Having studied in Italy for five years, Venice is one of my favorite places in the world. The curator’s praised the artists’s ability to capture light in black and white etchings. For me though, examining Whistler’s prints, I was struck by how – with ink and paper -he could communicate the “creakiness” of the city. I could hear the squeak of doors opening, the rustle of long-withered canopies in the breeze and the aged yawning of gondolas plying the canals. Perhaps the greatest witness to Whistler’s ability is that these prints inspired Charles Lang Freer to begin his collection art from overseas, eventually expanding into Asian arts… and bequeath it to the nation as a gift for all citizens. Behold the power of travel!
For more on The Freer and Sackler Galleries, visit their WEBSITE. For more on American artists who studied/worked abroad, consider reading David McCullough’s excellent work: The Greater Journey. For classic books that demonstrate the power of travel and travel art try: The Italian Voyages (by, Goethe), The Stones of Venice (by, Ruskin), The Voyage of the Innocents (by, Twain), likewise works by Frances Mayes, and Bill Bryson.