Friday, September 28, 2007

J’adore Paris — The French Capital in Maps at the Art Institute's Ryerson Library

One of the first tantalizing exhibitions to anticipate the Festival of Maps is now on display in the Ryerson Art Library at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The central pieces in the exhibition, Paris: Capital of the 19th Century, are a series of government-commissioned maps of Paris dating from 1900. They are supplemented in turn with older maps and documents from the Art Institute’s remarkable Percier and Fontaine Collection, which archives the combined libraries of Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853) —- the man appointed by Napoleon I as the official architecte du gouvernement —- and his nephew, State Architect Pierre François Louis Fontaine (1798-1863). The collection, acquired by the Art Institute from the Fontaine family in 1927, is undoubtedly one of the great “hidden” holdings of a museum that has always presented a superlative survey of French art. But as these maps (many of which are too big for display cases) are rarely displayed, it is a rare and welcome occasion to view them now.

The title of the exhibition is taken from an 1938 essay of the same name by philosopher-historian Walter Benjamin. In that essay, as in the exhibition, Paris’s central position in the radical developments of modern Europe is “mapped” along broad social, economic, and cultural lines. And in pouring over these fantastically precise and detailed maps, one starts to realize that as a “capital city,” Paris truly was the metropolis that served as the model for emerging European cities in the 20th century. By 1900, for example, the world’s first grand department stores—Bon Marché (1852), Printemps (1865) and the Galeries Lafayette (1896)—are already clearly labeled landmarks alongside the city’s iconic monuments and museums. Notably prominent, too, in these maps are the train tracks and stations, which by the end of the 19th century had already revolutionized the transportation and industrial sectors. The maps record the railway’s emerging dominance, as illustrated by the many partially-covered or converted canals one sees. And then, in a map of the 7th Arrondissement, we find the newly constructed Eiffel Tower standing alone in a vast field of white, uninscribed page, denoting the still undeveloped surrounding parks. “La Tour” of course, is the essential emblem of Paris for the rest of the world. But it appears here in a way that seems ironically representative of the Parisians’ initial distaste for the project at the time of its construction.

Considering, too, that one is looking at an “Atlas administratif,” the maps are symbolic of the rising standards for urban planning and management that developed across Europe in the post-Napoleonic era. By 1900, Paris was already fully realized in the 20 arrondissements that constitute its administrative and residential districts. In fact, any tourist who has ever consulted one of those pocketbook maps of Paris while wandering her steets, will realize with a kind of amazement that the city we know today was more or less completely formed a century ago.

The exhibition is a brief but elegant introduction to the Festival of Maps. It will surely delight anyone in Chicago looking for a brief promenade through the streets of Paris!

Written by Nikolas Lund, a local scholar on Parisian maps.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Second City," No More! Chicago Celebrates Many Firsts with Festival of Maps

Has any city ever experienced the phenomenon of over thirty cultural institutions collaborating to present an outpouring of visual treasures illuminating one of man’s great intellectual achievements? This is exactly what will happen in Chicago this November. The Festival of Maps, presented by Chicago’s internationally renowned museums, universities, libraries and galleries, will feature maps from the mind of man. During all periods of recorded history, in all cultures, in all locations – from the floor of the sea to the solar system and beyond – maps testify to the special genius of human beings. Amazing treasures across four millennia will illustrate how mapmakers have wrestled with and conquered the problems of graphically presenting our journey through history. The results, from Babylonian clay tablet maps to digitized satellite images, will provide a visual and intellectual feast for visitors to Chicago.

Second City” no more! Chicago will celebrate a series of firsts during the Festival of Maps. Consider…for the first time ever

…twenty-eight venues will host exhibitions; another five organizations will sponsor lectures, seminars, and workshops; a collaboration of four organizations will mount a virtual exhibit on using geographic information systems (GIS) to inform public policy decisions; and one magazine will devote an entire issue to how artists use maps for inspiration. In museums, libraries and galleries…only in Chicago.

…all twenty-seven Renaissance editions of Ptolemy’s Geography, one of history’s great cartographic treasures, will be represented at the Newberry Library. Each volume will be opened to a different map, allowing visitors to see each of the work’s twenty-seven maps. Ptolemy’s maps opened the world to Europeans in the 15th century. Rarest of all will be a 1477 edition, the first ever printed. The Ptolemy 27….only in Chicago.

…the only map George Washington ever drew will be exhibited as part of Mapping Manifest Destiny, also at the Newberry Library. The map records a turning point in the history of the American colonies. At age 23, Washington traveled to the “far west” (as far west as Pittsburgh, that is) to drive the French from the Ohio River Valley. A skirmish with French colonial troops thus began the French and Indian Wars, some say, and led to the eventual domination of the English over the French in the American colonies. George Washington’s only map on view…only in Chicago.

…the first use of colors to depict differences in altitude appears in a relief map of central Italy by Leonardo da Vinci. A rare loan from Queen Elizabeth’s collection at Windsor Castle brings this gem to The Field Museum/Newberry show Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. A first for Leonardo on its first visit to the U.S. …here in Chicago.

Stay tuned for many more “firsts” in future blog posts. But please, don’t leave without checking out a few of the Festival’s venues.

Ken Nebenzahl is a leading expert in the field of cartography and is an advisor to the Festival of Maps.