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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
If you'd like to better understand a place through its art, you could start by asking yourself the following questions:
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.
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.
Part of this article is based on an earlier contribution by Lizzie Davey, founder of Wanderarti.com.