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How Art Can Amplify Your Travel Experience: The Travel-Art Connection

Women on the Road
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Art is an intrinsic part of travel for those of us who happen to love art in any of its many forms.

We may structure our entire trip around art, or visit important museums or galleries, or even represent what we see in our own art. In every trip I take, I make ample room for art: I know it will be timeless, beautiful and uplifting, wherever I am.

finding art in everyday travel

Art can be found all around when we travel: in museums and galleries, of course, but also on walls and in public gardens, in the architecture around us, in churches or in the foyer of public buildings.

For centuries, art and travel have been intertwined. Whether wall art or graffiti left by early Christian pilgrims or landscapes painted by travelers in the centuries without photography or social media, using art to represent place is a well-worn tradition. Take 19th-century illustrator and writer Edward Lear; in his era, travel was still difficult, few people experienced it, and art was one of the few ways anyone could visualize or understand a foreign destination.

Edward Lear's Temple of Venus and Rome, in Rome, painted in 1840 during a trip to Italy

Painting and drawing were probably the most common travel art forms, with sculptures also commemorating distant lands and events.

But there are many kinds of art on offer — and not just inside the grand buildings of national museums or selective galleries. All around you on the streets of cities, towns, and villages, you'll find murals and street art and art gardens, all vying to unveil some aspect of their location to you.

Travel and art in LisbonThere are many art forms in the world; here, baskets at the Berardo Museum in Lisbon

The significance of street art

Street art is a good place to start, because it reflects the state of a particular society by helping us understand where it stands on issues. Street art can be political, it can be romantic, it can be strictly visual or simply reflect a mood or an opinion.

The great thing about it is its accessibility — it is everywhere. All you have to do is walk.

Street art has now become mainstream and what was once dismissed as graffiti is an art form in its own right. 

It is also quite up to date because it is ephemeral, and often painted over with something newer, better, more contemporary. This gives it a particular vibrancy and energy that can compel you to sit and stare whether you understand what you're looking at or not.

Street art can range from a few daubs on a fence to sophisticated trompe l'oeil murals, like you'll find in Lyon, France, for example, or like this one below in Evian.

Mural in Evian - another kind of travel artStreet Mural in Evian, France, a reminder of the town's lakeside history ©WOTR

A well executed mural can provide a snapshot of a place and time and tell you what is important to residents, what they believe in and what they are fighting for.

Look beyond the colour and brushstrokes and search for telltale slogans, and images and icons that have hidden connotations. Not only will you learn a little more about a place, but it’s also fun to interpret each piece in your own way. 

Travel art: mural in Red Hook, NYBright mural in Red Hook, Brooklyn, hints at its past as a major port ©WOTR

Architecture as history

Do you ever look at your camera roll after a trip and wonder about those hundreds of building photographs you took but don't remember? We all do this and it makes perfect sense to take photographs of things we find interesting or visually pleasing.

Buildings aren’t just great photography subjects. They can also tell us about what design styles were popular in what era and when in history a place thrived the most (most buildings that are grouped will probably be of one particular style).

As well as hinting at history, architecture can offer an insight into the climate – buildings painted white indicate a hot destination, while a series of modern buildings can suggest a potential earthquake or natural disaster from which a city recovered. 

Look to contemporary examples of architecture, too, to get an idea of the kinds of styles that are valued at present, and to get an inkling of what the place might be like in the future.

travel artArchitecture, the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake

National museums, always a must-see

Museums are extremely important for learning about real-life events and about the evolution of a place. You can see how values have changed, uncover what was important in the past and compare that to what is important today. By simply visiting a cultural or historical museum, you'll quickly understand how life has evolved over the years.

Everything can provide you with insight.

Take traditional clothing exhibitions: Why was one item particularly popular in the past? Is it because it went hand-in-hand with a traditional activity?

Sculpture is another example: What tools were available then and now? How have styles changed? How were models clothed? This last one will give you a clear picture of morals and mores at that time.

Churches — all about belief systems

Churches often go hand-in-hand with museums and are a popular attraction for visitors. Even if you’re not religious, visiting churches will help you determine which religions are dominant in a certain place and to learn more about its religious past.

Knowing when most of the churches were built and looking at their frescoes will help uncover a place's religious origins and influences. Stained glass windows offer much the same insight, as do paintings or icons held inside, explaining what aspects of religion were important and what ideas most valued.

Artistry of Basilica of BrugesBasilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium

Contemporary art galleries, going local

Where national museums can highlight how things have changed, contemporary art galleries show you what’s important today. As is the case with street art, you can discover trending political issues and which values are important by dropping into a gallery.

Particularly important are art galleries that feature local artists. These artists are often inspired by their surroundings, so their work will reflect the destination but also their own viewpoint, providing an excellent window into how locals themselves view their home.

Visiting an art gallery can be a trying adventure, however. Many are quite snooty, and unless you're decked out in designer clothing, you may feel like the diner seated next to the potted palm. So seek out the right gallery and believe me, they do exist, and are part of a trend of galleries for the people or the community.

My favorite little art gallery is hidden in an industrial area in southwestern France, in the Basque country, in the small town of Anglet. You'd never know it was there if you hadn't heard about it. It is warm and welcoming, and you get the feeling management actually wants you to come in, dirty hiking shoes and all. If you're ever in that part of the world, please drop by Art Traffik and say Hi to Laurent from me, or check them out online for a great selection of emerging artists who are actually affordable. 

Sculptures and statues

Sculptures are common everywhere in the world — whether to commemorate a past leader or simply as an ornament. These days, many sculptures and statues have become the objects and subjects of political statements.

Whatever their intent, they will help shed light on a place. Very rarely will you find a sculpture dumped in an insignificant location for no reason: most often, there is a fascinating story behind why it is where it is, and what it represents.

The vast majority of sculptures will have a label on or near them with the artist's name, as well as the significance of the piece. This is the starting point and from here you can always do more research. Sculptures have a way of pushing our boundaries by educating us about little-known facts or forcing us to reimagine reality through new or unexpected shapes.

Colorful outdoor animal sculptures in PortugalContemporary animal sculptures in Sintra, Portugal

Travel art in action: a Ljubljana case study

Let's look at Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, to see how art can teach us more about place.

Street art

The street art in Ljubljana is bright and with few macabre scenes showing, perhaps, that it is a happy city without major issues. A few little phrases dotted around, such as “Capitalism is boring” and “Normal = Bad word” show another side to this vibrant city. 

Architecture

Ljubljana boasts a wildly diverse collection of buildings – from elaborate, colourful facades to sleek, modern offerings. In the old city you’ll find a mixture of Gothic and Baroque architecture, while the outskirts are more modern, usually low and cubic with masses of glass. Walking into the old town from the outskirts is similar like a walk back in time.

National museums

The National Museum of Slovenia (also the Natural History Museum) has a huge display of rocks and precious gemstones, showing these are an important part of the city’s history. Downstairs, an entire room is dedicated to puppets and puppetry, which demonstrates their importance to some aspect of life in Ljubljana. For example, between the wars, partisan puppetry was popular, representing political view and socially appropriate themes.

Churches

Ljubljana has a number of Catholic churches as well as a central cathedral, which tells us that the predominant religion is Catholicism. The Venetian-style exteriors of the religious buildings point to the Baroque period.

Contemporary art galleries

Ljubljana has a number of contemporary art galleries with work by local artists as well as artists from the rest of the world. The Graphic Design Museum, for example, highlights the value of product design throughout the city, and the Museum of Contemporary Art provides a very pointed insight into what themes and issues are important today.

Sculptures and statues

Ljubljana is home to numerous sculptures, from golden artistic wonders to stone fountain designs. Take the dragon statue, for example, which sits on the Dragon Bridge and represents the city’s coat of arms: it symbolizes strength and courage.

Amazing dragon statuary in Ljubljana - travel artLjubljana's Dragon Bridge, in all its power and majesty (Central Slovenia Tourism)

how to visit any museum when you don't know the first thing about art

Visiting museums is all well and good, but what if you don't have an art background, or if you have no idea of what you're looking at?

Some people are lucky: they may know nothing about art, but they know what they like and that's enough for them. They can simply find art to their taste, and admire it, feeling fulfilled and moving on.

But many of us know little, but would love to know more. We don't have time to study Art History or even leaf through a weighty tome filled with color plates, but we still want to visit this or that museum at our destination. After all, everyone else is going, it's in the guidebook, on everyone’s lips, in every magazine, so it must be THE thing to see.

Yet once you stand in line and brave the crowds, you look around — and may have no clue about what you’re seeing. Paintings, sculptures, strange shapes or lines, all being studiously stared at by hundreds of people who, while they appear engrossed, may be every bit as confused as you are about the meaning of that red square inside a green triangle.

You can easily reduce that confusion and take a few steps to prepare your visit so that once you get there, you'll see what you want, and understand what you're looking at.

easy steps to planning the perfect museum visit

  • Do some pre-research: find out about opening hours and days, and buy an advance ticket if you can (you don't want to waste half a day of your precious travel time standing in line). Try to avoid the busiest times (especially when the tour buses arrive!) and pack some comfortable shoes.
  • Visit the museum's website to download and print a floor plan. Locate key spots like bathrooms, places to sit or a cafeteria. Find out about accessibility if this is an issue.
  • Look up the main pieces you'd like to see — perhaps you've always dreamed of seeing a particular painting or statue, or you've heard so much about a work of art you want to see what all the fuss is about. Map out its location.
  • Now do some proper research. Get on Wikipedia or any other reference site (see additional resources below) and read about those special works — even if it's just a paragraph or two. What you then see will have much more meaning.
  • Once you arrive at the museum, get any maps or pamphlets that are available, and ask the desk what are the 'must-sees' of the day. There may be a special exhibition you may not know about.
  • Should you get that audio guide? It depends. If you want a birds' eye view of the museum then yes, by all means. But if you plan to focus on a few key works (this is what I prefer to do but it's a completely personal choice!) then no. You're better off researching those works on your own because the audio guide will be far too superficial.
  • You may want to wander around and get your bearings first. Or look around before you settle down. Or read a few labels. There are no rules: do as you please.
  • Once you've found your art, spend some time with it. Stare at every corner and don't let anyone get in the way of your enjoyment.
  • Be ruthlessly selective. Do not try to see it all or you will ruin your experience and quickly go from awesome to tedious. It is better to bathe in the exceptional than to shower in the mundane.
  • Plan something else in the neighborhood, something that will give you joy, whether it's a good meal or a show or a visit to a special shop. That provides boundaries to your visit and you'll know how much time you have left.

Art questions to ask yourself when you travel

If you'd like to better understand a place through its art, you could start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is it?
  • Who or what made it?
  • What is it made from and is that significant?
  • Why is it in this particular place?
  • What else is around it and can I make any connections?
  • Do I like it? If yes, what do I like about it? If no, what do I not like about it?
  • How does it make me feel? Is there an emotion linked to this piece?
  • Is there a story behind it?
  • What relevance does it have today?
  • Can I learn more about it elsewhere?
  • What does it say about the past of the place? What does it say about the future?

why not make your own travel art?

I realize this isn't for everyone, because we don't all have the right skills. I belong to those who cannot "draw a straight line with a ruler" but I've found a way around that. I'll tell you in a minute.

Yet travel is an ideal platform to practise your art.

  • If you draw, all it takes is a sketch pad, easily portable, along with whatever pencils or charcoals you might need.
  • If you paint in water colors, this is still a portable skill; a box of water colors is almost as easy to carry as a pencil and a sketch pad.
  • Oil painting is a bit less easy to manage while traveling, because there's a little more equipment involved — tubes of paint, brushes, cleaner (which you'll usually have to buy locally because of security reasons) and possibly an easel.

As is the case with photography, your most special times will be outside the crowds, either before they come or after they've gone.

As I mentioned earlier, I have no artistic skills whatsoever but I love to draw and paint. So here's what I do: I buy a postcard (or use a photograph). I enlarge it and lay tracing paper over it, and trace. I then reproduce that tracing onto a canvas or a sketch pad — it won't be perfect but since I stick to landscapes, it is usually close enough. Having delivered my sketch to the pad or paper, I can then add color. I keep it simple: I use colored pencils or felt pens. Nothing fancy, but it tweaks that artistic string in me that sometimes need exercising.

Curious about what kind of art you can produce while you travel? Have a look at these inspiring blogs that combine travel with art: Drawn the Road Again, Sticky Mango Rice, Journey Jottings and Candace Rose Rardon.

additional resources for travel art, or just plain art

Part of this article is based on an earlier contribution by Lizzie Davey, founder of Wanderarti.com.

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