Meet Tseng Kwong Chi, world traveler.
Tseng stands at the entry of the Tucson Museum of Art’s big summer show, Travelogue: Grand Destinations and Personal Journeys. In a black-and-white self-portrait photo shot in Pisa, Italy, Tseng strikes a classic tourist pose, facing the camera and getting cozy with the nearby Leaning Tower.
This funny selfie, made in 1989 before the word was coined, is part of an acclaimed Tseng series on tourism. A U.S. citizen born in Hong Kong, educated in France and resident of New York, the photographer traveled the globe to take his own picture in tourist meccas from Paris to the Grand Canyon. With his dead-pan face, odd Mao suit and devotion to the clichéd hot spots of travel, Tseng made his pictures hilarious.
But they are also serious critiques of know-nothing tourism. Which is more important: learning about the Eiffel Tower? Or getting the snapshot that proves you were there?
The talented Tseng died young in 1990, but his work makes an apt beginning to a show about travel. His images foreshadowed the mass-market tourism of the 21st century, when impossibly thick crowds disrupt cities and make it almost impossible to visit the very attractions they want to see. In Barcelona, tourists flock as one to Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished temple La Sagrada Família, but the lines for tickets are three blocks long. In high summer, Venice and Florence, rich with Renaissance treasures, are like Times Square on New Year’s Eve: body to body.
Online selfies have a lot to do with the contemporary lust for travel, but we can also blame—or credit—the Grand Tour of old.
Three hundred years ago, the TMA exhibition informs us, wealthy young gentlemen in Europe began traveling the continent when they finished their formal education, primarily visiting Paris, Switzerland and Italy. Often shepherded by a guide called a bear leader, the young men were expected not only to sow their sexual oats but to learn about the culture and arts of these foreign lands.
Many of those who flocked to the continent in 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were artists themselves, and the drawings, paintings and prints they brought back helped to establish the iconic scenes that are now must-sees on today’s selfie tours: Roman ruins, Swiss Alps, Venetian canals and, by the 19th century, the Egyptian pyramids. Young American artists—some of them women—turned up later in the 1800s, eager to learn painting from French or Italian masters, and to make images of the continent’s beauties.
Travelogue is a giant show of some 80 works by traveling artists—paintings, etchings, a few photographs, even a landscape sculpture; some fun offerings are old-time travel trunks and an Asian illustrated travel journal. The exhibition, mostly drawn from the museum’s own collection, is literally all over the map, displaying images of the Middle East and the Americas, with a big section charting the art created by the exploration of the American West in the 19th and 20th century.
A strong contingent of European images can trace their origins back to the influence of the Grand Tour. The artists are not the big-name Europe-dwelling artists like Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, but their work is accomplished.
The drawing adventures of American artist George Elbert Burr (1859-1939) took him to Rome, Sicily and England, where he sketched the lovely “Misty Day, Paul’s Wharf, London.” Rendered in drypoint, it pictures the Thames River and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral softened by fog. In Rome, he captured St. Peter’s Basilica at a distance, framed by trees. In Sicily, he turned toward the picturesque, in a dark-and-light etching of a rural woman carrying a water jug through a shadowy passageway in a stone building. Outside the radiant light of the Mediterranean sun—so beloved of tourists—glows.
Women were arriving as well. American Marsha Bradshaw Bintliff (1869-1947) made a delightful watercolor of Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio, an arched stone bridge dating to the middle ages. Below, her bridge, Bintliff took care to add a paddling gondolier—an image that screams Italy to potential tourist buyers.
A pair of Czechs prove that Americans and the English weren’t the only artists who were traveling to see Europe’s wonders. Tavik Frantisek Simon (1877-1942) made a charming colored etching of the Place du Châtelet in Paris, and his countryman Jac C. Vondrous (1884-1956) made an etching of an iconic Paris scene: the popular book vendors whose stalls line the Seine River.
But local artists also made scenic views to tempt the tourists. “Venice Bridge of Sighs,” by the Italian Cesare Mainella (1885 to 1975), is a delicately tinted gouache painting of the famed limestone foot bridge. As legend has it, criminals marched over the bridge got their last view of Venice before being locked in the dungeons on the other side.
In Travelogue’s large section of on the American West, a star work is by Thomas Moran (1837-1926), one of the early painters of the “sublime” who specialized in magisterial views of the Western landscape. TMA has one of his late works, a 1913 color lithograph of the golden Grand Canyon seen from the distance, through a break in the forest at Hermit Rim.
Two renowned women potters, Nampeyo (1859-1942), of Hopi and Tewa, and María Martinez (1887-1980), of the San Ildefanso Pueblo, are both credited with revitalizing ancient designs. Martinez is represented by her glistening black ware, Nampeyo by a seed jar made around the turn of the last century. It’s a marvelous specimen, with black designs on tan clay.
Their work is important and influential, and even today triggers economic opportunities for Native artists but as the exhibition text notes, it was made in the context of white tourism. Nampeyo sold her works at Harvey’s Grand Canyon Lodge, and her photo was plastered on all manner of tourist brochures, an irony that would not surprise the photographer Tseng.
See Travelogue: Grand Destinations & Personal Journeys at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave., through Sept. 29.