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You know what they say about traveling: You can’t see everything. But the corollary is that as long as you don’t try to—as long as you set reasonable expectations—there’s no reason you can’t have a fulfilling journey.
That’s pretty much the case with “The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia,” a new exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The exhibit’s mandate is broad—thematically, in investigating how the creation of travel imagery has shaped our ideas of foreign lands; temporally, in its coverage of the 1600s to the present; and geographically, cutting a wide swath through the Middle East and Asia. Any limited number of objects in a museum can’t possibly encapsulate this entire attempted sweep. However, like any well-planned journey, “The Traveler’s Eye” is loaded with visual treasures, along with some smart commentary from the curatorial tour guides.
The exhibit opens with a pair of large, six-panel screens from 17th-century Japan that feature the arrival of missionaries and merchants from Europe. It then offers a variety of well-preserved Chinese scrolls showing commoners traveling through the countryside, images that advanced the notion that road- and infrastructure-building reflect enlightened leadership.
The most striking objects on view were created centuries later, in the 1800s. Two series of renderings by then-prominent artists—Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige—colorfully document the Tōkaidō road, a major thoroughfare that was largely open to those conducting commercial, religious, and political business in eastern Japan.
Hokusai’s version, consisting of three accordion-fold books of wide-angle panoramas, presages both the format of Edward Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” and the visual style of 20th-century comic books (the work is even described in the exhibit as being “comic verse”). By contrast, Hiroshige’s work, created three decades later and then periodically tweaked and republished, consists of individual woodblock prints that depict the 53 stations along the road. In its format, and even in its color scheme, Hiroshige’s episodic approach calls to mind Jacob Lawrence’s famed “Migration Series.”
The divergent but complementary approaches of Hokusai and Hiroshige not only produce memorable imagery—gracefully arched bridges, cheerful cherry blossoms, delicate marshlands, soaring mountains, and creeping fog—but also effectively communicate a sense of linear journey. Beyond that, the two artists’ bright color palettes and proto-modernist styles provide a striking bridge to some of the exhibit’s final pieces: a matrix of mass-produced postcards from the 20th century that represent realistic, but also idealized, depictions of far-flung locales. “Views intended for the tourist market,” the exhibit notes, “served to redefine local communities’ perceptions of their own pasts and traditions.”
Photographs by the late Indian photographer Raghubir Singh are the latest works in the exhibit, made in the 1980s and ’90s. In one of his most noted series, Singh assembled a varied visual travelogue based on images of the signature automobile of India, the Ambassador. However, his more cohesive collection follows the Ganges River from its glacial source, where a porter naps unobtrusively on the rocks amid stunning mountain scenery, to its wide, lazy banks, where rivermen pass the time wrestling, and where swimmers dive horizontally into the water.
Singh’s images of the Ganges find success less by their inherent drama—they are relatively low-key, with a muted color palette—than by fulfilling the same linear approach as Hokusai and Hiroshige, producing their own inevitable momentum in the process. Singh’s work is proof that some ideas in art never really go out of fashion.
1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. asia.si.edu