The Traveller’s Eye

Swimmers and Diver (1985) Scindia Ghat by Raghubir Singh, Varanasi, India, 1985, chromogenic print on Kodak Ektacolor paper. Gift of the artist, Arthur M Sackler Gallery

TRADITIONALLY, travel equated some level of affluence, in both East and West. The idea of travel for commerce is as old as man, with the Silk Road and Roman roads being prime examples. Travel for pleasure, however, began as a Western notion in the 18th century, first on horseback, then carriages, followed by railroads, great ocean-going boats, automobiles, bigger and bigger air planes and finally cruise ships, and ever bigger air planes. The air planes no longer resemble the human scale of the Pan Am Boeing 707s and modern cruise ships that resemble long, horizontal office buildings have nothing in common with human-scale vessels like the Queen Mary, the France, the Normandie, or even the QE2. Cole Porter’s song, Why Do the Wrong People Travel and the Right People Stay at Home? sums up the feeling by anyone who has been stalled in large, densely packed airport waiting areas and then stuck in the middle seat of the middle section of economy.

On a brighter note, by using over 100 works from the collections of the Arthur M Sackler Gallery, Freer Gallery of Art and Freer and Sackler Archives to look beneath the surface of prints, paintings and photographs, the exhibition is able to reveal travel within Asia for its use at that point in time to transform ideas about beauty, culture and tradition.Travel in Asia was a very different matter from that in the West until the second half of the 20th century. Travel in Asia was the realm of monks and merchants, the monks to carry Buddhism to Korea and Japan by boat and Central Asia on foot. Merchants, by necessity had to travel, either by land or by sea. In neither case were the travellers tourists and the journeys were not undertaken for pleasure. Commerce is absolutely vital to the economic survival of a state and it is the state’s responsibility (and benefit) to both encourage and support commerce in all its forms. The Grand Canal was the great highway for China and it was built to serve commerce. In Japan, the two main roads – the Tokaido and Kisokaido – stretch both south and north from the capital at Edo and again, served as a boon to commerce.

The objects on view are an odd bunch. They include great masterpieces of Asian art, woodblock prints, ink paintings, art photography and archaeological drawings to quirky souvenirs, vintage postcards and diaries – works by artists, photographers and scholars who recorded actual journeys, as well as works by artists who created imagined journeys to and across Asia. The exhibition is divided into four galleries and begins with a magnificent pair of early 17th-century Japanese gold paper screens depicting in strong colours Portuguese seafarers in a Japanese harbour. These namban (Southern Barbarian) screens reveal the Japanese fascination with, but not the seduction by, things European. It sets the stage for the subsequent galleries by revealing the deeper meaning beneath the surface of a seemingly straightforward image. Created at a time when the Japanese were grappling with an influx of European merchants and missionaries, the screens have been traditionally interpreted as scenes of cultural encounter with exotic foreigners. However, the screens are rich in visual clues that suggest that the screens were actually commissioned by wealthy Japanese merchants as symbols of good fortune.

The second gallery features five rare late Ming to mid-Qing Chinese scrolls and paintings. Even though they appear to be traditional landscapes at first, closer viewing reveals merchants en route through mountain roads and passes and along rivers and canals, important means of commercial transportation in Ming- and Qing-dynasty China, portrayed in these works as a peaceful and well-ordered kingdom. Within these works, the overpowering beauty of vast landscapes, rather than any specific starting point or destination is always central. At the same time, they buzz with human activity such as outdoor meals at mountain rest stop, or boatmen grappling with narrow river passes.

Among the highlights in the third gallery are Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai, which depict scenes along the famed Tokaido road. Connecting the two largest cities at the time, Edo and Kyoto, the Tokaido road with its 53 way stations served as a symbol of national unity. As travel on this route was highly restricted to individuals of great stature and wealth, such prints became an immediate sensation among the vast populace, many of whom could only imagine the journey.

Routes and rivers anchor the work of photographer Raghubir Singh (1942-1999), whose work is also on show in the third gallery. Singh maintained a lifelong interest in his country’s vast and vibrant landscape as a means of capturing the changing complexity of modern India. Influenced by photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) and William Gedney (1932-1989), he travelled frequently to observe the ebb and flow of daily life in bustling cities, along trunk roads, and across mountains and deserts. Sublime images of the mighty Ganges River contrast sharply with saturated, dense compositions framed by India’s iconic Ambassador cars, which until their recent discontinuation were the nation’s only consumer sedans.
The exhibition concludes in the fourth gallery with travel to and in Asia in the early 20th century. It first focuses on two early 20th-century Western travellers, who travelled to Asia to learn about its cultural heritage: museum founder Charles Lang Freer and pioneering archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld, both of whom left their significant records to the Freer and Sackler Archives. Freer’s enthusiastically scribbled diary entries, photos and pedestal-mounted rock collection tell of a man enamoured with China’s artistic glories, while Herzfeld’s exhaustive documentation of the ancient Iraqi city of Samarra show a masterful understanding of place.

The exhibition’s final installation features picture postcards from their golden age in the 1890s to 1920s. The advent of global commercial travel networks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the invention of photography led to an explosion in mass-produced images, particularly postcards. Serving a multitude of functions from the personal to the commercial, they were made for both tourist markets and local audiences. They eventually became so ubiquitous that they created enduring and iconic representations of Asia for global audiences, referencing the pasts and traditions of local communities. All works are from the collections of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Freer Gallery of Art and Freer and Sackler Archives.

MARTIN BARNES LORBER

Until 29 May, 2015 at The Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Museums of Asian Art, 1050 Independence Avenue, Washington DC, www.asia.si.edu