MapCarte 355/365: Townscapes by Gerhard Richter, 1968-1970

MapCarte355_richter2Back to the use of maps as a framework for artistic expression with Richter’s Townscapes. Here, artist Richter has created a range of paintings that are based on oblique views of different towns and cities. He approaches each work from a different perspective and experiments with scale that mimics the approach a cartographer takes in determining how much to generalize a feature.

MapCarte355_richter1For some paintings, the scale is smaller and the view is from a higher elevation and so the buildings take on a rather abstract form, perhaps just the general shape and the inclusion of major features. Examples that are at a larger scale inevitably include more of the building’s detail. That said, the large scale paintings are perhaps less easy to recognise due to the larger size of shapes. Because the paintings are all in shades of grey we tend to see large indistinct blocks of grey which are not necessarily immediately seen as buildings. Of course, standing back from the paintings gives us a different perspective, the image occupies a smaller form and we tend to see the images more clearly. At distance they begin to look like monochrome oblique aerial photographs.

MapCarte355_richter3Richter also experiments with different brushstrokes and textures, going from very fluid approaches to strongly geometric. As a collection, they give us a fascinating way to reflect on the urban form and, perhaps, show us a little of the artistry in how we approach the task of generalization as part of cartographic design. Scale, form, texture and viewing distance all strongly modify the viewing experience. These are key processes in understanding cartographic design.

You can view more of Richter’s Townscapes at his web site here.

MapCarte 328/365: Black Scalpel Cityscapes by Damien Hirst, 2014

MapCarte328_hirst1This MapCarte series has attempted to draw attention to classic cartographic design that we recognise in great maps. Occasionally it has also highlighted the work of artists who either approach cartography in an innovative way or use maps as part of their artistic works. This example falls squarely in the latter category as renowned British artist Damien Hirst moves away from the infamous Tiger Shark in formaldehyde as part of his ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ series to explore the structure of maps. The subject of death is, though, never far away from Hirst’s work as these spectacular urban maps are constructed entirely out of medical instruments.

MapCarte328_hirst1_detailBritain’s richest living artist, compared by Tracey Emin to Andy Warhol in terms of his importance to art, has displayed this series called ‘Black Scalpel Cityscapes’ in São Paolo, Brazil, which features surgical instruments arranged as bird’s-eye map views of 17 cities, including Moscow, New York, Beijing, and Vatican City. The works use scalpels, razor blades, skin graft blades, safety pins, stiching needles, wire cutting spools, hooks and gloss black paint to represent buildings, roads and other features of the urban landscape to create faithful vies of the cities.

Hirst uses his art to comment on themes of surveillance and modern imagery based maps such as Google Earth. His use of surgical tools is a metaphor for the dissection of societal wide anxieties over surveillance and the digitization of warfare, as well as Orwellian distopias and the way surveillance imposes on individuality.

MapCarte328_hirst2Hirst suggests these works show portraits of living cities but all of them have echoes of conflict either as sites of recent terrorist activity, epicentres of religious or socio-cultural importance or major world cities. Even Leeds, UK (his birthplace) is represented. Milton Keynes, UK was the inspiration because of the regularity and systematic structure.

MapCarte328_hirst3While some may wittily suggest this is at the cutting edge of art, it’s certainly taking cartography to a new place. Our usual modes of design and production are challenged by Hirst yet the images he produces are familiar, accurate and aesthetically pleasing. He hasn’t created some modernist haze, but the use of sterile instruments to create sterile scenes in black and white that we recognise immediately as a satellite view or an aerial photograph is impressive. The works are beautiful and engaging. They mimic our more usual ways of seeing cities from above. The materials challenge our thinking and challenges our cartographies.

Many of the works are planimetric but Hirst even tackles 3D in the Hong Kong example. While there is no colour at all in the images, the metal of the surgical instruments catches the light as you view the works to create different views of the world. Hirst also recognises that the works have to be a certain size for the instruments to work since at smaller scales the size and shape of the instruments wouldn’t create the curves and lines required. These works are not just random cartographic experiments. Hirst has studied cartography, scale and representation to bring his art to life.

MapCarte328_hirst4More of these works can be seen at Design Boom’s web site here and Hirst discusses the work himself in a short film on the White Cube gallery web site here.

Now then…how much for one of these pieces Mt Hirst?

MapCarte 319/365: The Gallery of Maps by Ignazio Danti, 1550-1583

MapCarte319_vaticanWhat could be more carto-artistic than 40 painted map frescoes in a 120m gallery? The Vatican is home to The Gallery of Maps, a stunning set of large-scale paintings that showcase Italy through wonderfully rich and vibrant topographic maps. They were drawn by geographer Ignazio Danti as part of a Commission by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. Others painted (literally by numbers) to fill in the detail.  It was simply designed as a way of decorating The Vatican. The 40 works took three years to complete and cover the whole of Italy as well as a range of panoramic views of major cities.

MapCarte319_vatican2The timing was ripe for maps to be considered an important element in scientific discovery as well as for decoration. The age of discovery had revealed new knowledge and scientific instrumentation such as the sextant, magnetic compass and telescope had improved accuracy of measurement. Mercator and Ortelius were making landmark world maps at around the same time. Pope Gregory XIII wanted The Vatican to join the cartographic revolution through this ambitious project.

MapCarte319_vatican3The maps are beautifully drawn and detailed. The large-scale paintings have a consistency that ensures they are seen as a set. The rich greens and blues for land and water create a beautiful palette that gives the hall a richness of colour. Terrain is well presented with detailed shading and the maps are full of ornate flourishes such as waves in the sea, cities, tents, boats and sea creatures. While many of these elements are totally out of scale compared to the backdrop map, they show a range of important scenes and the design supports the scale, size and purpose of the project as a gallery through which you walk en route to the Sistine Chapel.

MapCarte 245/365: Florida Wildlife Corridor by Mike Reagan, 2013



The general mode of production for maps these days requires a mastery of the computer. Whether you use proprietary software through a Graphical User Interface, or code your map from scratch the basic toolset is one of mastery of a computer. Of course, technology in cartography has always changed and the experts of the tools of the time always rise to become the cartographers of the time. This was the same when it was copperplate engravers, drawing pens, scribing tools as it is today with computer scientists. When we see maps constructed differently they often stand out. It’s also the case that if they are made by someone with a mastery of their specific tools they stand out all the more.

And so it is with Mike Reagan’ map of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, painted in watercolour. There’s a certain human element that one might argue is missing from many maps where our own skills are mediated by algorithms and a computer’s precision but when painted, the artist’s skill becomes visible to all. The landscape is painted in shades of beige and greens and reflects land use types with a consistency of colour hard to achieve by hand. The map is also hand-lettered but again, consistency is upheld which gives the map a sense of uniformity and structure. These aren’t random marks; they’re carefully crafted; each one resulting from a decision.

Paintings evoke emotions because we see them as art. Painted maps can do the same.

MapCarte 223/365: Mammoth Mountain by James Niehues, 2008



The basis of many outdoor recreational maps is a good topographic map. If the recreation makes use of a mountain and it involves descending the slopes whether by ski, snowboard or mountain bike then the interest is in the mountainsides and a planimetric map just doesn’t provide the right aspect. Most ski trail maps show the mountain in aspect or as an oblique image so we see the trails running from top to bottom down the map itself. One of the big problems in making maps of this type is how to fit trails that descend in different orientations down a map so they are all shown equally well.

Many landscape painters and artists have been involved in drawing and painting panoramas that support ski trail mapping for decades. James Niehues has painted many of North America’s resorts and mountains as well as many overseas locations. His unique approach involves aerial surveys followed by a drawing that warps the landscape to rotate the trails toward the front. It’s a form of exaggeration and displacement, long held generalization techniques but here applied to a painted landscape. His final painting in exquisite detail and rich colours is a beautiful object in its own right. Here, his painting of Mammoth Mountain in northern California shows the volcanic peak as the key feature with a good deal of artistic license but nothing that isn’t unrecognisable or topologically incorrect. It still supports on mountain navigation perfectly. His trees are particularly impressive, each one placed and painted individually and the townscape, horizon, haze and skies add to the drama and beauty.

MapCarte223_mammothOnce the skit resort has added their lift lines and trail markings to designate difficulty, the map takes on a more functional purpose but the painting and geometric symbols that overlay work in harmony. Text is applied to name different features and runs and the map has not only form but function.

Painted panoramas give us a beautiful way of seeing a landscape. They also provide the backbone and a perfect canvas for this very specific type of recreational map. Niehues’ work sits at the peak of ski resort panorama mapping.

You can see much more of James Niehues’ work on his web site here.