From Lascaux to Graffiti, Art as Maps and Maps as Art

February 15, 2023

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Few of us geographers can resist the allure of a beautiful map or atlas, whether on a museum wall, a visitor center, the internet or on a bookshelf. The Guggenheim Museum says this with far more eloquence than I can offer: "Art and geography have {...} together been implicated in transformations in the ways we represent and conceptualize our world.

Regardless of their simplicity or complexity, most maps can be pieces of art. From the earliest rock art to the masterpieces that decorate National Geographic's Explorers Hall (even on the ceiling!), humans have used maps to tell stories, provide navigational aids, convey practical information and, for lack of a better term, make pretty pictures.

One of my most treasured possessions is a tape that my late grandmother, Ms. Nancy, made for me about her life for an eighth-grade history project. In her elegant Southern voice, she talked about the visitors that would come to her family farm in Kentucky during the Great Depression. "We didn't call them hobos, oh no; they were just visitors, young men looking for food, a safe place to sleep, and they wanted to work for it."

Sorry, Ms. Nancy, but for brevity, I'll call them hobos. Roaming across the land, mostly by freight rails, they carved messages for each other on fence posts, gates and trees—which house was friendly, which had a mean dog, which direction to go, the best place to catch a train and so on. There were no words in these messages, only symbols.

I couldn't find a map of all of the hobo symbols across the land, but there were surely thousands of them. While not directly addressing the hobo symbols, the National Park Service has made a multimedia map describing one hobo's journey. In this case, it was the legendary American poet Carl Sandburg, who kept a journal of his travels across the Midwest. Another site tells the tale of modern day hobos, with a map of the rail lines in the U.S.

The Geography of Art

Maps and art have been around as long as humans, even long before what we call civilization. Ancient art has been discovered all over the world; most, preserved in stone. Perhaps the most famous are the cave drawings in Lascaux, France, along with many others, as illustrated in this interactive map from offbeat France, a travel portal.

This map shows other rock art and paintings around the world, including the Sahara region in Africa and all over the U.S.

However, art is fragile, especially art that is thousands of years old. Lascaux was closed to the public after only a few years due to human impacts; not vandalism, but flash photography and carbon dioxide from the 12,000 visitors per year. Now, in most cases, visitors are not allowed in the caves themselves, but the visitor centers offer detailed replicas.

At Lava Beds National Monument, the destruction of petroglyphs is primarily the result of environmental factors, although there has been some vandalism. There, generations carved into the volcanic rock along the now-drained lakeshore. Due to centuries of aeolian erosion that continues to this day, these petroglyphs are fading away. The National Park Service and the University of Arkansas’ Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies used ground-based LiDAR to build an enduring snapshot of these ancient carvings for future archaeologists to analyze.

The Altai Mountains of northwest Mongolia are a remote and seemingly inhospitable region, yet they are home to a rich history of rock art and other archaeological resources, perhaps because it is a crossroads between what are now Mongolia, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, as well as the headwaters of two major rivers, the Irtysh and Ob. This art was documented by a multidisciplinary team from the University of Oregon and local people. The effort took 15 years and resulted in an award-winning atlas and an interactive map and website.

Maps have also been used to discover and relocate lost art. While the adventures of archaeological explorers across the globe have been heroically documented, more humble endeavors are not as famous. Although dramatized for fictional effect, the movie “Monuments Men” tells the true story of a U.S. Army unit in the late stages of the European theater of WWII. Their mission was to find and recover troves of priceless art stolen by the Nazi regime during their occupation of Europe, including Michelangelo’s Madonna.

The team included artists, archivists, historians, professors, and others along with (of course) a cartographer. Recovered intelligence from the Nazis kept turning up with one prefix: “salz.” On maps they searched for every city with that prefix. They knew that salz means salt, and using yet more maps and intelligence, they discovered that every one of those cities had, nearby… a salt mine! Over 60,000 works of art were recovered from these mines. The story is too complex to tell here, but you can get a glimpse of it in a Smithsonian map.

Maps as Art

We all know that in our modern era, our primary duty as mapmakers is to create maps that are accurate, based on the best available data. We also know that we should make maps that are digestible to our audience, so we like to throw in some creative design — good symbology, maybe an image or two, and explanatory text, especially if our names are on the map.

Some maps, however, are designed specifically as art, with spatial accuracy being secondary. A great book, “The Map as Art,” showcases maps made by modern artists in a wide variety of media, including paint, ink on leather gloves, and threadwork, to name but a few. Another contemporary artist, Susan Rodriguez, has traveling exhibitions featuring her map-based artwork, primarily in paint.

However, using artwork on maps is hardly new. The European Renaissance in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries was also known as the Age of Exploration, and extended into later centuries as well, when many explorers began traveling to Asia, the Americas and the vast Pacific. The navigators made many maps of varying accuracy, but since they were only looking at coastlines and the routes they sailed, there was a lot of empty space on the charts, which they often filled with fanciful artwork. (“Here be dragons!”)

There are many sources for viewing these maps online or ordering reprints, and original maps are coveted by collectors and scoundrels alike (read "The Island of Lost Maps”). DailyArt Magazine offers a succinct and visually rich history of artistic maps from ancient times to the 17th century, including a mosaic of the city of Jericho and Leonardo DaVinci’s first attempt at making a globe from gores.

Many original maps are in private collections and museums, some of which are difficult to access. The most comprehensive collection is arguably the David Rumsey Collection at Stanford University, which hosts more than 150,000 original maps, primarily from the 16th to 21st centuries. Yes, a visit there is definitely on my bucket list.

Following WWII, the U.S. Navy produced a series of artistically rendered maps of the various theaters in which it was involved: The North Atlantic, the South China Sea, the North Pacific and the Mediterranean. The landforms are shown accurately, overlaid by fascinating graphics of campaigns, as well as informative text, and they are clearly hand-drawn.

Will It Make It to the Wall of Fame?

To me, and many other geographers and cartographers, every map is a work of art. One of the assignments in our freshman GIS course is to make a hand-drawn mental map. I'm glad to know that students are still using paper — many of them sent images of lined paper in spiral-bound notebooks.

Maps fire the imagination, whether real or fictional.  My brother has always had a vivid imagination, and sometimes a lot of spare time, so to keep his mind busy, he made meticulous and beautiful maps of places he made up in his creative brain, like the one you see here.


Image credits: Photo by Chris Wayne of art drawn by Stephen Wayne

He neither is nor was a cartographer or artist, but somehow his eyes, hands and brain came together to make what can only be called c-art-ography.

My office and classroom walls are covered with maps, and only a small number of them are mine. Few of us will likely reach the heights of eminent cartographers like Stuart Allan or Tom Patterson. However, I like to think that every map I make is a piece of art in its own way. All good maps tell a real story, and if the story is told artistically... maybe they will end up decorating somebody else's wall.


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