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April 29, 2004

“The Art of Travel: What I Didn’t Know Until I got There” – David Wilkins

After 37 years of introducing Pitt undergraduates to the glories of Western art, mentoring graduate students, producing scholarly works on Italian late-Medieval and Renaissance art – and peregrinating all over the world – David G. Wilkins says he was hoping to “creep away in the middle of the night,” back to his New Hampshire home, upon retiring as art history professor and chair of Pitt’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture. But his colleagues were having none of that.
Last weekend, they held a symposium in Wilkins’s honor called “Travel Into Art,” exploring how travel has influenced and energized artists through the ages. Departmental faculty and staff, former students, family members, and other colleagues and fellow travelers attended.
On April 23, Wilkins himself lectured in the Frick Fine Arts Building auditorium on “The Art of Travel: What I Didn’t Know Until I Got There.”
“I only agreed to embarrass myself today because this lecture is part of a fund-raising strategy to establish an endowment for a travel fellowship for graduate students,” announced Wilkins, who is retiring in at least two senses of the word. “Travel is crucial for the success of our graduate students as they engage the research for their M.A. and Ph.D. dissertations. We have had generous donations for travel, but we’ve not had an endowment.”
In truth, Wilkins did not embarrass himself during his lecture – except, perhaps, by screening a few slides of himself as a boy growing up in Battle Creek, Mich. One slide showed him on a Christmas morning, gazing rapturously at the very gift he’d most been hoping for: a typewriter. “I don’t have any idea what my peers wanted for Christmas, but it probably wasn’t a typewriter,” Wilkins acknowledged.
Talk about dweebs…the only thing missing was masking tape to hold his black-framed glasses together.
“When I checked the etymology of the words ‘nerd’ and ‘geek,'” Wilkins quipped, “I discovered that both originated in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the 1950s, probably among those girls who kept turning me down when I asked them for dates.”
A self-confessed “much-indulged” only child, Wilkins was encouraged by his parents to travel in order to broaden his education and reach his full potential. “The basic purpose of travel was not to have fun,” Wilkins recalled.
But he did anyway, during family trips to Mexico in the 1950s and as a Pitt faculty member leading a summer seminar to Italy in 1970, sailing on Semester at Sea in 1988 and 1993, and teaching a term in London in 1997. Among those accompanying Wilkins on his Pitt-related adventures were his wife, Ann, and their three children.
“Travel has continuously changed my views about works of art,” said Wilkins. He told the following stories, among others.

During his first long trip to Egypt, Wilkins visited Giza to marvel at the Great Sphinx and pyramids…Saqqara, to see the even more ancient Step Pyramid…and Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, where King Tut’s treasures dazzled him.
After all of that, Wilkins said, he was “definitely not excited” about capping the trip with a scheduled visit to Abu Simbel, home to colossal statues of Pharaoh Rameses II and other notables.
Wilkins said he suspected that Abu Simbel “was only famous because it was so big or perhaps because it had been cut apart and moved from its original site to prevent it from being flooded by the Aswan Dam. By the time I was in Egypt, people were even questioning the dam itself and the way it was changing Egypt’s ecology. Abu Simbel had somehow become tainted by the questions about the dam that had caused it to be moved.
“I did enjoy the plane flight south from Aswan, because I found myself looking down on an absolutely incredible landscape, despite the fact that it is, in part, flooded by the dam. “We landed and were bussed to the back of the monuments and, with my group, I walked around the corner and, without being too dramatic, that’s when it happened.


“I don’t know how to describe it except to use clichés: I was awe-struck, dumb-founded, had my socks blown off.
“The rebuilding had saved not only the temple but also the cliff into which it had originally been set, and also the slightly smaller monument erected in honor of his favorite wife, complete with the cliff from which it had been carved.
“On my second trip to Egypt, I didn’t tell the people in my group about how impressive Abu Simbel was. I didn’t want to prejudice their experience. But I rushed ahead of my group and stood facing them as each one saw the monument for the first time. I wasn’t alone.
Jaws dropped and socks were knocked off.
“So what’s my point? That bigger is better?
“Well, it’s partly that. But as we all know, bigger is sometimes merely bigger and nothing more. We could point to a skyscraper or two in every large city in the world to make that point. But when bigness works for me, as it did at Abu Simbel, the relationship between me and the monumental object creates an awed effect that’s never captured in reproductions. “But this wasn’t just about size. Remember the landscape of which this was once a part, the landscape that I stared at for the hour that it took us to fly south from Aswan? Well, Abu Simbel was cut out of that landscape. It’s a rock-cut monument, cut into what’s sometimes called ‘the living rock.’
“I began to wonder whether Abu Simbel was created, in part, in response to that landscape. What I mean is that I suspected that an unusually dramatic landscape like that at Abu Simbel suggests that God must somehow be present. When the rock is carved, it’s an attempt to reveal the divine that humanity sensed within the rock.
“Rameses thought of himself as a god-king, of course, and I wondered if the landscape at Abu Simbel made him confront his own divinity in a novel manner.
“There’s a fallacy with that argument, of course, because I’ve made it all up; we can’t know what Rameses was thinking. What we can know is that in this exceptional place it was decided to expend huge efforts to build unforgettable temples to Rameses and his wife. And that they were carved directly into the cliff face, down by the shore of the Nile.”

The notion of sensing the divine in a landscape later helped Wilkins to appreciate another remarkable rock-cut site, one that he visited during a Semester at Sea: Mahabalipuram (or Mahamallipuram), a complex of temples and sculptures along the southeastern coast of India. His favorite feature was a giant relief carved into the side of a boulder.


“Over the millennia,” Wilkins said, “this boulder developed a pool on top that, during the monsoon rains, overflowed down the side of the boulder. Over the centuries this flow of water created the cleft you see here. This too became part of a Hindu myth, the story of how the Ganges – the holiest of Indian rivers – was given as a gift from the gods in heaven. The myth represented here is the flow of the divine river down to earth, in the presence of some of the multitudinous Hindu deities.
“But to explicate this story more clearly, the boulder needed to be carved with a multitude of Hindu deities and stories, including a family of elephants that come down to the edge of the holy river to drink. There are even baby elephants. There is also a holy man, standing on one leg and meditating, and if we look closely, a cat who imitates his stance. The cat’s mimicking of the holy man is so convincing that the cat is worshipped by mice and, as the story goes, the cat was thus sustained both spiritually and physically.”

“I find it’s hard to ignore religion when I travel,” Wilkins said. “Perhaps it’s the Semester at Sea influence, but when I’m in another culture I want to go beyond the art historian’s approach to painting, sculpture and architecture. I want to try to reconstruct how religious places and sacred representations and objects were used by those who created them. And if a religion is still active, I want to see how contemporary individuals are still using those places and things, or how they use new religious spaces and objects.


“I was really moved by this temple in Hong Kong, which is full of these big spiral pieces of incense, all of them burning. When someone had a petition or a need, they would light one of these and its smoke would rise up to heaven for 30 days, continuously. That’s a very consoling thought, I think.”
– Bruce Steele

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