Author: Cynthia Houng

Bernini at the Borghese

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng

In Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is nearly unavoidable. Walk down the center of the Piazza S. Pietro and look up. All along the great curving wings of the Piazza’s colonnades stand Bernini’s saints–carved and executed by other sculptors, but envisioned by Bernini. There he is in Piazza Navona, with the Fontana dei Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Those are his angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo. That playful little elephant bearing an obelisk in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva? That belongs to him, too. Only by leaving the historic city center can one escape him. Much like Michelangelo, another sculptor turned architect and impresario, Bernini transformed himself from a maker of precious objects to a maestro whose vision re-shaped the city. If Bernini is synonymous with the Baroque, it is due to his success working on this grand scale, shaping and molding the fabric of Rome to suit the dreams and needs of the Church and its princes.

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In the fall of 2017, a monographic exhibition on Bernini opened at the Galleria Borghese, curated by Anna Coliva (also director of the Borghese) and Andrea Bacchi (director of the Fondazione Federico Zeri in Bologna). By the curators’ own admission, there has been no shortage of Bernini-related exhibitions in the past decade. So why mount another one? Their rationale is deceptively simple: “We have attempted for the first time to cover Bernini’s whole career,” with the exception, of course, of those site-specific works (fountains, altars, the baldachin in St. Peter’s) that cannot be moved. What this means, in reality, is that the curators have collected an extraordinary range of freestanding works by Bernini and his workshop. The exhibition also includes Bernini’s paintings (seldom exhibited en masse), sculptures by Bernini’s father, Pietro, and preparatory works for monumental commissions like the Four Rivers Fountain.

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Galleria Borghese. All photographs by Cynthia Houng

So much has been written on Bernini in recent years that it seems impossible to propose anything new. But the experience of encountering Bernini’s work is always new. Each encounter is a dance, a performance that requires the beholder’s participation. There are no passive audiences here. Bernini’s orchestration of the pilgrim’s approach to St. Peter’s exemplifies the performative, relational nature of his work. As a series of impressions leading the pilgrim out of the quotidian world and into another world altogether, the work is, to use the language of another time, site specific and performative, requiring activation by a participant in order to be complete. The power of the encounter, and the effect of the performance on the participant-beholder–Bernini’s partner, really, in the work–is ecstatic. In Rudolf Wittkower’s evocative description, the performance of approaching St. Peter’s cathedral via the Piazza transports the viewer “beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world.” In St. Peter’s, “the beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he is therefore submitted to an extraordinarily powerful experience. A mystery has been given visual shape, and its comprehension rests on an act of emotional participation rather than one of rational interpretation.”

“The challenge that Bernini set himself in his religious architecture,” Fabio Barry argued, “was always to create visions whose credibility depended upon them being experientially fleeting but permanent in the mind. God had created a heaven, but because its unveiling at the end of time was eternally distant yet perpetually imminent, Bernini must create a heaven just for us.” And who wouldn’t want to experience heaven again and again, each time anew? And so both scholars and laypersons find themselves drawn back to Bernini, each return an attempt to parse their own experiences of Bernini’s art.

The Borghese show makes full use of the relational, performative aspects of Bernini’s work. It is an object-oriented show in the fullest sense, all of its arguments and propositions originate in the objects gathered for the exhibition, in the relationships formed between them, and in the possibilities of close observation and comparison. It invites the visitor to participate in a hermeneutics of looking.

The show is both ambitious and ravishing. It makes full use of the Villa Borghese’s fabulous setting, occupying both the ground floor galleries (where Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne has resided since its creation), and the smaller, more intimate rooms on the second floor. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition, “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” was a marvel, but the show was installed in the antiseptic Lehman wing. The Met did not have the benefit of the Borghese’s setting, with its sumptuous ornamentation and rich installations of Old Master paintings and Classical sculptures. Though the Borghese was largely redone in the eighteenth century (by the architect Antonio Asprucci, under the patronage of Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV), it had always served as a site for the display of art. These eighteenth-century renovations codified the building’s role as a site for the display of art. In her study of Asprucci’s renovation of the Galleria Borghese, Carole Paul noted that “Asprucci coordinated the decoration of each room to form a sumptuous ensemble unified in form and content, including the statuary.” Asprucci took everything–from the marble floors to the carved cornices–into consideration, creating new juxtapositions between the paintings, sculptures, and their environments. He also shifted Bernini’s statues, David (1623) and Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), from their original seventeenth-century locations. Today, neither sculpture can be viewed as Bernini intended. Though one can no longer see Bernini’s sculptures in their seventeenth-century settings, the richness and intensity of the Borghese’s environment is closer to how these works were meant to be seen than the clean, white galleries of the modern museum. More importantly, the placement of Bernini’s sculptures in the Borghese maintains their connection to the painting of his time, a connection that is particularly important to the argument of the Borghese’s “Bernini” show, which dedicated an entire section to Bernini’s own practice of painting.

Due to its constraints, “Bernini” is more heavily weighted towards the artist’s production for private patrons. However, Bernini’s greatest patron was the Church. As Wittkower noted in his 1955 study of Bernini (the first English-language study of Bernini intended for a broad audience): “it was Bernini’s tremendous achievement in the area of the Vatican that secured his reputation as the first artist of Europe.”

Appropriately, for our secular age, the major patrons of the Bernini exhibition at Villa Borghese were a bank and a fashion house–Intesa Sanpaolo and Fendi. And this is no accident. If, in Bernini’s time, the Church was the greatest orchestrator of spectacle, then commerce must be the Church’s contemporary analogue. We have grown comfortable with the imbrication of aesthetics and capital. We have even come to expect it. When I saw that Fendi sponsored the Borghese’s Bernini show, my first reaction was, “Of course.” Fendi has been funding various cultural initiatives around Rome, where the house has its headquarters, as part of the house’s mandate to invest in the city’s cultural capital. (Fendi also sponsored the restoration of the Trevi Fountain.) My second reaction was to note the exceptionally spectacular quality of the exhibition’s presentation–the display cases, the lighting, the installations, the quality of the fixtures–which matched the quality and finish of those intended for luxury boutiques.

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Installation View, Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo and Pietro Bernini, Galleria Borghese

The Borghese’s “Bernini” exhibition presents a narrative weighted towards the earlier stages of Bernini’s long career. This emphasis was dictated, in part, by the show’s constraints: it could rely only on freestanding, movable works to make its arguments, and much of Bernini’s later output can be characterized as site-specific installation work, literally inseparable from its architectural setting. (The Cornaro Chapel is not going anywhere.) Walking through the show, visitors witness how Bernini became Bernini. The show presents some of his earliest works–including collaborations with his father, Pietro as well as early independent works. Pietro Bernini’s sculptures are also part of the Borghese presentation, and through the younger Bernini’s sculptures we witness Gian Lorenzo’s talent unfurling.

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Model for the Four Rivers Fountain, Galleria Borghese

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Installation view of bozzetti and modelli, Galleria Borghese

More interesting–and startling–is the development of Bernini’s aesthetic, the emergence of a strong and powerful stylistic vision, though again the show references Bernini’s mature works largely through proxies–through sketches and models for large-scale projects such as the Four Rivers Fountain, Cathedra Petri, and Ponte Sant’Angelo. And for almost all of Bernini’s works–even the bozzetti and modelli–there is always the question of authorship, of hands and facture. (The Met show addressed this problem of the “hands” in remarkable, technical detail.) The Borghese show is less interested in these questions. The curators take it as givens that Bernini operated a large workshop, and that he often outsourced work to other sculptors. As Bacchi and Colivo note in the introductory essay, the show aimed for “a direct dialogue with the works,” and many of the objects are on display together for the first time. The two monumental crucifixes have never been gathered in the same space before.

The show also invites viewers to consider different facets of Bernini’s practice in relation to each other. At the Borghese, visitors can view Bernini’s early putti in relation to his classically-inspired sculpture, The Goat Amalthea (an early work dated before 1615, probably made when Bernini was about 16), in relation to his restoration of ancient Roman sculptures–such as his restoration work on the famous Hermaphrodite sculpture, and to the angels and putti that he imagined for the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the Baldachin and Cathedra Petri projects in St. Peter’s cathedral.

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A room full of bozzetti, Galleria Borghese

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Installation View, Portrait busts and paintings, Galleria Borghese

The portrait busts and paintings, displayed together in one long gallery, form an interesting dialogue. Bernini is not often thought of as a painter. The paintings gathered for this exhibition will probably not elevate him to the pantheon of great painters, but they are very interesting as windows into his creative practice. They also provide us with clues to his relationship with the painting of his time. And the Borghese, with its impressive collection of Old Master paintings–though several of the Borghese’s most important Caravaggio paintings were on loan to the Getty during this show–provided an apt location to think about Bernini’s style and aesthetic in relation to the painting of his time.

Tightly focused on Bernini, this show was both an investigation and a celebration. It is a testament to Bernini’s magnetism as a subject that the wider world seems to pull in and collapse around him. The Roman Baroque narrows down to the Age of Bernini. The show is both spectacular and ravishing, and it reminds us of how far we can go–how much we can do–with an intense focus on the works themselves. It is their world that we wish to enter. And once there, we linger in pleasure.

At the same time, the Borghese show does not present the full breadth of Bernini, the man, or Bernini, the artist. It is a highly specific vision, one that presents him as a great genius, on par with the other “giants” of Italian sculpture named by the show’s curators in their introduction: Donatello, Michelangelo, Canova. Bernini had another side, one not revealed in this show. As Alexander Nagel once pointed out, “Just about everyone who knew him hated him.” He was domineering, violent, and ruthless. He slashed his mistress’s face in anger. One didn’t have to have to know Bernini to loathe him. In his biography of Bernini, Franco Mormando quotes anonymous pasquinades directed at Bernini, critiques affixed by unhappy Romans to the statue of Pasquino in the Piazza di Parione. The expensive transformation of the Piazza Navona by the Pamphilj family–which included the construction of Bernini’s spectacular Four Rivers Fountain (completed in 1651)–elicited such pasquinades as “Dic ut lapides isti panes fiant [Turn these stones into bread]!” Ordinary Romans, tired of poverty and hunger, railed against the Church’s immense expenditures on projects that did not benefit the populace.

Mormando quotes an impressive kaleidoscope of criticisms, describing Bernini as selfish and avaricious, and accusing him of robbing the papal treasury to enrich himself. Mormando cites an avviso from August 30, 1670, blasting Bernini as “the one who instigates popes into useless expenditures in these calamitous times.” By this time, Bernini was a wealthy man. (Pietro da Cortona was one of his few contemporaries who achieved comparable levels of wealth, and Cortona was, by all measures, also not a very nice man.) The construction of the Piazza San Pietro, with its colonnades and statues, cost 1 million scudi, roughly half of the Church’s yearly revenue. For Bernini’s critics, whether or not ordinary Romans enjoyed the aesthetic experiences of encountering the Four Rivers Fountain or progressing through the Piazza San Pietro was beside the point. Aesthetic pleasure provided no relief from poverty:  “We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want!”

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In 2017, Fendi initiated a three-year partnership with the Galleria Borghese, providing support for the establishment of a Caravaggio Research Institute. This description of the partnership between Fendi and the Borghese comes from the press release for the “Caravaggio” exhibition at the Getty Museum: “The partnership between the Galleria Borghese and FENDI is part of a patronage begun by the luxury goods House in 2015, and is based on the company’s belief that beauty must be shared and spread, and that the incomparable richness of the Galleria Borghese, a reflection of the Eternal City, is a powerful, cosmopolitan pathway to promote a refined cultural sensitivity, both contemporary and universal, in the same way that FENDI pursues in its collections a true example of aesthetic research and the absolute sign of ‘Made in Italy.’”

In our time, commerce has replaced the church as art’s great patron. Private sponsorship of public patrimony raises difficult questions–of appropriation, commodification, profit, and control. It pulls the public patrimony into a process where values inherent in the cultural ‘patrimony’ or ‘heritage’–sometimes called ‘heritage values’–are captured, accumulated, and commodified by private entities. The process is widespread enough to merit its own neologism,“heritagization.” And it is almost always twinned with commodification. Salvatore Settis has written and lectured extensively–and passionately–on this subject, arguing that the transformation of cities rich in cultural heritage–such as Venice and Rome–is almost always accompanied by ossification and decline, as the city ceases to be a city for the living and transforms into a museum city, a set piece for the delectation and consumption of tourists. And yet the profits from the heritagization process flow, not to the public, but to the private entities who sponsored–capitalized, really–the process. As Pablo Alonso Gonzalez noted in his study of the heritagization process in Maragateria, Spain, the process can alienate the community from its heritage or patrimony, eliciting resistance and even fury from community members.

The relationship of the past to the present is always tricky, but perhaps exceptionally so in a place like Italy, where the past is all pervasive, where there is so much value to be extracted from the past (via industries like tourism), and where the past weighs heavily upon the present. History can feel, at times, like a straitjacket upon the present, as the city ossifies into an open-air museum. There is the Rome for the past–but where is the Rome for the living?

Fendi is not the only Italian luxury house to invest in Italy’s cultural heritage, in order to capture and accumulate “heritage values.” Tod’s sponsored the restoration of the Colosseum. Bulgari chose to restore the Spanish Steps. Telecom Italia (also known as TIM) is sponsoring the “re-launch” (the verb employed in the press release announcing the project) of the Augustus Mausoleum through its Fondazione TIM. But investment in Italian cultural heritage is not limited to Italian entities. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, the minister of culture, Dario Franceschini, said, “Our doors are wide open for all the philanthropists and donors who want to tie their name to an Italian monument. We have a long list, as our heritage offers endless options, from small countryside churches to the Colosseum. Just pick.”

Sponsorship isn’t the only mode of privatization. In a 2007 article, Roland Benedikter noted that a set of laws, introduced in 2002, allowed the Italian government to sell objects and monuments “to international investment firms and private investors for amounts that many Italian experts consider well below the median market price.” Benedikter noted that, since 2002, the privatization of Italian cultural heritage has been “the subject of heated public debate [for it] concerns the limits of privatisation, and could lead to a broad new anti‐capitalism movement.” Settis, too, frames his argument in terms of opposition not only to commodification but also to neoliberalism.

One might argue that Bernini would have understood this process–that, perhaps, he would have encouraged and embraced it. After all, only a hair’s breadth separates the tourist from the pilgrim, and Rome made a mint off pilgrims. (Rome continues to make a mint off pilgrims. The 2000 Jubilee drew 35 million visitors to Rome.) But one might also argue that we live in different times, with different ethics and ideals–and the society we wish to live in looks nothing like the one Bernini knew.

Our wishes, though, are not always consonant with our realities. Neoliberalism, globalization, and capitalism have all incited resistance and fury from the people of Rome. I am no expert on the intricacies of Roman or Italian politics, but it would not be an exaggeration to say, given the recent elections, that Italy is in a difficult place. And– Bernini would also have been familiar with this–the fury of the people is neither predictable nor easily channeled. We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want.

Or perhaps more pointedly: We don’t want to live among the patrimony of the past. Nor do we want to alienate our heritage to enrich certain select private coffers (does this sound familiar, again?). We want to be able to create a patrimony that we can call our own.

Bernini was on view at the Galleria Borghese in Rome from Nov. 1, 2017 – Feb. 4, 2018. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue (available in Italian or English).

 

 

A conversation with Prof. Surekha Davies: From our occasional podcast series


In our inaugural podcast, Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng speaks with Prof. Surekha Davies about her book, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge University Press, 2016), winner of the 2016 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history.


Below, you’ll find some of the maps and objects that we discuss in our conversation. Follow the links to explore each object in greater detail.

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Vallard Atlas, 1547, Map 2, Terra Java. The Huntington Library, HM 29.

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Pierre Desceliers, Detail of World Map (Mappe monde), 1546. The University of Manchester Library, FR MS 1*.

Explore other parts of this large map (it is 260 x 130 cms in size!).

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J. Hondius, Nieuwe Caerte van het wonderbaer ende goudrijcke landt Guiana, gelegen onder de Linie Aequinoctiael tusschen Brasilien ende Péru. nieuwelick besocht door Sir Water Ralegh Ridder van Engelandt in het jaer 1594, 95 ende 1596 (New Map of the Wonderful, Large and Rich Land of Guiana…), Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-14317.

Explore this map on Gallica.

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Detail of the frontispiece to J. Hondius, Kurtze wunderbare Beschreibung. Dess Goldreichen Königreichs Guianae im America, oder newen Welt, vnter der Linea Aequinoctiali gelegen: so newlich Anno 1594. 1595. vnnd 1596. von dem wolgebornen Herrn, Herrn Walthero Ralegh…, Nuremberg, 1599. The John Carter Brown Library, Accession Number 0918.

Explore the entire book.

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Jan van Kessel, America (from The Four Continents), 1666, oil on copper. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. no. 1913


A note on the music in this podcast:

The music on this podcast was recorded by Paul Bowles in Morocco in the late 1950s.

Today, we remember Bowles as the author of The Sheltering Sky, but he was also a composer with an interest in ethnomusicology. That interest, coupled with his belief that Moroccan musical traditions were threatened by post-Independence modernization efforts, led Bowles to propose, in 1957, that the Library of Congress sponsor a project to record Moroccan music in all of its breadth. The project was, in Bowles’s words, “a fight against time.” In 1959, with the support of the Library of Congress and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles criss-crossed Morocco, setting up recording sessions in towns all over the country. He would make three more trips between 1959 and 1961. Bowles had no formal training in ethnomusicology, and his choices were guided by the contingencies of geography and travel–and by his own aesthetics.

In that sense, Bowles shares something with early modern travel writers and cartographers. They made forms of knowledge that bear some resemblance to modern-day academic disciplines, but belong, properly, to their own times. Bowles once told an interviewer, “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

The Library of Congress maintains the Paul Bowles Music Collection. If you like what you hear, some of these recordings are available from Dust-to-Digital as a four-CD set, the Music of Morocco.

An “Extreme Turn”? Some Thoughts on Material Culture, Exploration, and Interdisciplinary Directions

By Contributing Writer Sarah Pickman

In 1848 Peter Halkett, a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy, published his designs for a most curious invention. Halkett was interested in the numerous exploratory expeditions the Navy had sent to the Canadian Arctic during the previous few decades. In particular, he’d learned that British explorers desired small boats for expeditions that were lightweight and could be carried overland when not in use. Halkett’s proposed solution, illustrated in a series of published engravings, was the “Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat,” an inflatable craft made of waterproof rubberized cloth – with a stylish windowpane check pattern, it might be added. Deflated, the boat could be worn as an outer cloak. When confronted with a body of water, the wearer could simply take off the cloak and inflate it. While Halkett’s craft was designed for polar explorers and not urban dandies, the figure in his illustrations wearing the deflated boat cuts a dashing silhouette for an 1840s London gentleman. Since Halkett assumed his wearers would be carrying walking sticks and umbrellas, he proposed that these fashionable accessories be used as shafts for boat paddles and sails, respectively.

 

Images from Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat, Constructed of MacIntosh India-rubber Cloth, Umbrella-sail, Bellows, &c. Also, an Inflated Indiarubber Cloth-boat for Two Paddlers. Invented by Lieutenant Peter Halkett, R.N., 1848. Image reproductions from National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

While the Navy never adopted Halkett’s design for general use, the “Boat-Cloak” was an early example of a solution to challenges posed by Western exploratory voyages in extreme environments that also had an eye towards style. This melding of utilitarian expedition gear and high design is the subject of the exhibition Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, now on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York. The exhibition, curated by MFIT’s deputy director Patricia Mears, is the first major study to address the work of high fashion designers inspired by Western exploration, particularly by expeditions of the last two centuries. It’s organized around five types of “extreme environments” that have been the subject of exploratory interest: polar, deep sea, outer space, mountains, and savannah/grasslands. Within each of the five environments, the exhibition draws on MFIT’s rich holdings and several unique loans, such as an Inuit-made fur ensemble worn by Matthew Henson, to juxtapose the work of twentieth and twenty-first century fashion designers with expedition garments that inspired them. For example, in the mountaineering section visitors can view original Eddie Bauer down-filled jackets and pants, made for high-altitude mountaineering in the 1930s, with iconic high fashion “puffer coats” by Charles James (1937), Norma Kamali (1978’s famous “sleeping bag coat”), and Joseph Altuzarra (2011) that were inspired by utilitarian down-filled outerwear. The interplay between designer, utilitarian, and in the polar section, indigenous-made, garments not only blurs the lines between categories like “fashionable” and “functional,” but asks visitors to consider the creative ways humans respond to extreme environments, or their perceptions of such environments, and their impact on them.

 

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Norma Kamali “sleeping bag” coat, c. 1977, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technolgy. Gift of Linda Tain.

I was fortunate to be able to contribute an essay to the exhibition catalogue on the role of dress in polar exploration at the turn of the twentieth century. As someone interested in the material culture of exploration, especially clothing, it was gratifying to see Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme come to fruition, since both exhibition and catalogue (and also a symposium on the topic of “Fashion, Science, and Exploration,” organized in conjunction with the exhibition) are contributions from fashion scholarship to the growing body of work in the humanities on humans and the “extreme environment.”

In the last two decades, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of academic books on aspects of exploratory history, particularly European and Euro-American exploration from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Ten years ago in an essay for History Compass, Dane Kennedy identified two main strands of inquiry in this area: one encompassing “the institutional, social, and intellectual forces…that inspired the exploration of other lands and oversaw its operations,” and the other addressing the “cultural encounter between explorers and indigenous peoples.” Kennedy himself has been a standard-bearer for such work, along with Michael F. Robinson, Felix Driver, Michael Bravo, Beau Riffenburgh, Helen Rozwadowski, Lisa Bloom, Johannes Fabian, and D. Graham Burnett, to name just a few. To the areas Kennedy identified we can now add studies of textual and visual media produced by expeditions; historiography of explorers; material tools of exploration; work on race and gender in exploration; and broad global surveys of exploration. This is to say nothing of the rich bodies of writing across the humanities with ties to exploration: work from history of science on scientific fieldwork and the role of local informants or go-betweens; studies of representations of landscape from art historians; work across disciplines on genealogies of natural history collecting and scientific museums. And the list goes on.

Along with the “cultural encounter between explorers and indigenous peoples” Kennedy described, “exploration” as a category provides a space for thinking through different human encounters with, and approaches to, environments. In this space, we might dovetail the growing body of work on exploration to new scholarship from history of science on the history of physiology in extreme environments. In this category we can include recent and forthcoming work from Rebecca M. Herzig, Sarah W. Tracy, Philip Clements, Matthew Wiseman, Matthew Farish, David P. D. Munns, and Vanessa Heggie, whose article “Why Isn’t Exploration a Science?” is a succinct entry to thinking about knowledge produced in the context of exploratory expeditions. These studies (by no means an exhaustive list) of European and Euro-American actors examining bodies in extreme environments – largely in the polar regions, on mountains, and in outer space – might be seen in conversation with scholarship on histories of tropical medicine, but in different geographic contexts.

Yet an examination of science in extreme environments specifically also provides a bridge between the “heroic” exploratory voyages of the long nineteenth century and the development of modern field-based sciences. It also allows us to think through how we, as humanities scholars, use the categories of “extreme” and “normal.” In other disciplines these terms are fairly well defined. In biology, for example, “extreme environment” is a category that has been in widespread use since the 1950s. Textbooks note that it describes places hostile to all forms of organic life save for some very highly adapted microorganisms. These places range from the rocky deserts of Antarctica, to extraordinarily alkaline lakes, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the world’s oceans. In 1974, R. D. MacElroy introduced the term “extremophile” in an article in the journal Biosystems as a grouping for these lifeforms.

But the history of the category of “extreme environment” as it pertains to human life has less to do with common inherent features of those environments and more to do with the kinds of historical actors interested in them. As Vanessa Heggie discusses in her forthcoming book Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology, by the first half of the twentieth century some field physiologists were beginning to group the Arctic, Antarctica, and high-altitude mountain ranges together. They often shared research and advice for traveling through these areas. Occasionally seasoned mountaineers took part in polar expeditions, and vice versa. But as Heggie notes, “There is an artificiality to these connections, since they are inventions of the human mind rather than necessarily reflecting an objective ‘natural’ relationship between very different geographical regions…So what really connects these environments is human beings – their motivations and specific interests.” “Specific interests,” in this case, referred to the performance of what Heggie calls “temperate-climate bodies” in these places. When indigenous populations existed in these places, nineteenth-century European and Euro-American explorers usually ignored them or employed them as guides but later downplayed their contributions to expeditions. Over the course of the twentieth century, some American and British physiologists were increasingly interested in isolating what they assumed must be innate biological features that allowed the indigenous inhabitants of these regions to thrive, but often with the goal of using this information to select soldiers for mountain or polar combat. (The U.S. military’s Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center, established in 1942, was an example of grouping disparate environments together based on their challenges to conventional Western warfare).

While “extreme environment” may be a twentieth-century actors’ category, we can find earlier antecedents for grouping environments together in this way. By the late nineteenth century, there were numerous organizations in Europe and the United States that supported exploration, such as the Royal Geographical Society in Britain and the Explorers Club in the U.S., and their ranks were filled with members interested in a wide range of geographic settings, from the rainforests of Central Africa to the icy Arctic Ocean. Though they may not have used the term “extreme,” the members of these clubs arguably created a social space in which these disparate places could be talked about in the same breath. These were locations that tantalized Western explorers as “prizes” to be claimed via expeditions, while at the same time (or because) their environmental conditions resisted agriculture-based settler colonialism. Arguably, one can find the roots of the “extreme environment” even earlier in the “sublime environment” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which overwhelmed the viewer and provoked awe and terror at nature’s grandeur – but was also predicated on Western ways of seeing and understanding.

In short, the historical study of the human body in the extreme environment – considering exploration, field science, lab-based physiology, recreation, anthropology, travel and other related areas – is a fruitful space for scholars, and a place with the potential for productive, interdisciplinary work across the humanities and a way to reach beyond to the sciences. It poses questions for historical research: How did this “extreme” grouping work for historical actors, and how did they conceptualize the “normal” body in opposition to one transformed by harsh environments? How does extreme field science’s roots in heroic exploration inform the work of current scientists, such as those published in journals like Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments and Extreme Physiology and Medicine? Of all of the ways of pursuing knowledge, why did certain actors choose paths not in spite of their high risk for bodily harm or death, but because of it; as Michael F. Robinson has written, research where “Danger is not the cost of admission, but the feature attraction”? Most fundamentally, who sets the terms for which environments are considered extreme, particularly in places with indigenous populations? What’s at stake when one’s home region is the extreme to someone else’s normal, when human populations are considered to be biological extremophiles? It is important that we fully historicize our definitions of “normal” and “extreme” in the contexts of the body and the environment, especially at a time when anthropogenic climate change, biohacking, post-humanism, and commercial space travel – not to mention terrestrial “adventure tourism” – have the potential to shift them. The body of recent historical research cited here can provide a way to tackle these questions. Does this research constitute the cusp of an “extreme turn”? Possibly. But even if it is too soon to call it a “turn,” it is already a rich pool for study, and with work currently being undertaken by emerging scholars, a pool that is not likely to dry up soon.

I’d like to suggest that museums have a critical role to play in this ongoing conversation about the extreme, as spaces to engage not just with texts, but also with objects, which represent the tangible ways humans mediate bodily experience of environments. It’s notable that organizations like the Royal Geographical Society or the Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center often served as clearinghouses for information about appropriate gear for explorers and soldiers headed to particular places. As Dehlia Hannah and Cynthia Selin have written, climate “must be understood as a lived abstraction,” and clothing especially “is a sensitive indicator and rich site for the critical exposition of our increasingly turbulent seasons.” Put another way, what we put on, in, and around our bodies reflects how we conceptualize our normal environment, and in contrast to it, the extreme environment. For example, let’s return to Halkett’s boat-cloak. It is an object that, at first glance, appears comically unusual. But the device was Halkett’s attempt to solve a problem posed by an unfamiliar environment – how to traverse both land and water, without carrying extraneous, heavy gear – while also appealing to the Victorian British sense of the comfortable and the familiar, by reconfiguring the expedition boat as an extension of the ubiquitous gentleman’s cloak. The polar environment might require the explorer to do something extraordinary, outside of his comfort zone. But rather than turning to, say, indigenous Arctic technologies, Halkett’s invention reassured users that recognizable British items could solve any problem with enough foresight and some creative reconfiguration. The boat-cloak demonstrates the power of the extreme, as a frame, to make sense of unusual things, and to reveal which boundaries, both physical and cultural, historical actors were and weren’t willing to cross.

Objects can provide entry points into how historical actors understood these categories, and since the study of material culture has always been interdisciplinary, it also allows a way of thinking about extremes that is interdisciplinary as well. “Fashion’s greatest designers have…continued to pursue the outer limits of their own creativity as they seek inspiration from the extreme,” Patricia Mears writes in the catalogue for Expedition. Likewise, historians, historians of science, and other humanist scholars can find in the idea of the “extreme” a space to push the boundaries of their own research in exciting and productive ways.

Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme is on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York until January 6, 2018. The accompanying catalogue, which contains the author’s essay “Dress, Image, and Cultural Encounter in the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration,” is available from Thames & Hudson.

The author would like to thank Michael F. Robinson, for his thoughtful comments on an early draft of this post, and Vanessa Heggie, for sharing a draft of her forthcoming book Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology.

Sarah Pickman is a Ph.D. student in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her research centers on American and British exploration, anthropology, and natural history museums in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on the material culture of expeditions, particularly in the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctica. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center of Bard College.

Houses of Glass and Veils of Secrecy: Metaphor in Discourses of Political Publicity

By guest contributor Katlyn Marie Carter

We often use metaphors and analogies to talk about politics. The legislative process, you may have heard, is akin to sausage being made. Such metaphors stand to tell us a lot about how we think about politics and different aspects of government. In the case of sausage being made, one might think back a century to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the meatpacking industry in Chicago as a horrifyingly dirty, disgusting, and degrading affair. In our popular culture, sausage making carries generally negative connotations. When we talk about lawmaking like this, the implication is that it is messy and, though the outcome may sometimes be good, getting to the product is not something that bears scrutiny well. On the flip side, so-called “sunshine laws” are proposed as remedies to corruption or foul play in government. The moniker suggests transparency as a potential cure for the worst aspects of the sausage making process. The use of these particular metaphors sheds light on how we, in early twenty-first century America, think about the ills of the legislative process and how best to remedy them.

Studying the metaphors and analogies people in the past used to talk about politics can similarly enrich our understanding of their thinking and help us identify constitutive relationships between thought and practice. If we want to understand how revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century thought about the legislative process, at the moment when modern representative institutions were first being founded, we would do well to consider the metaphors and analogies they used to describe it. These expressions provide us with ways to deftly discern how thinking about such practices was evolving and how ideas were being shaped through experience with their practical application. Furthermore, paying attention to the way concepts were described metaphorically can reveal anxieties as well as ideals by anchoring ideas more firmly in the cultural context in which they were being applied and developed.

I am by no means the first to suggest paying attention to metaphors in revolutionary politics. More than two decades ago, Lynn Hunt urged analysis of narratives and images of the family applied to politics during the French Revolution—a metaphor which was also ubiquitous in struggles between Britain and the American colonies.  Mary Ashburn Miller has pointed to the application of images and analogies from the natural world in order to argue that French revolutionaries often portrayed political events and violence as beyond human control. Perhaps the most widespread analogy used in political discourse in the late eighteenth century was that of the theater, which scholars of the French Revolution in particular have examined at length. Paul Friedland and Susan Maslan have both pointed to the rampant application of the language of theater to politics and read it as anxiety over the evolving meaning and contested implementation of political representation. Describing politics in terms of theater could carry implications of debauchery, debasement, and downright danger. Examining the connotations of such metaphors and analyzing the way they were applied to politics enriches our understanding of the conceptual development and practical implementation of ideas central to the revolutionary period.

Veils of secrecy and houses of glass, along with references to working “behind the curtain,” “unmasking” traitors, and penetrating “conclaves” permeated both American and French political discourse during the Age of Revolutions. These metaphors were particularly prominent when discussing elected representatives and legislative deliberations among them. They were part of debates—in both France and the United States—over the questions of publicity, or transparency as we would call it today, and secrecy in government. In 1788, Patrick Henry critiqued constitutional provisions allowing for the discretionary use of secrecy in the future federal government, declaring on the floor of the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention: “I appeal to this Convention if it would not be better for America to take off the veil of secrecy. Look at us—hear our transactions” (Convention Debates, June 9, 1788). A year later, in response to a proposal to shut the doors of the Estates General meeting to the public, Third Estate deputy Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf de Volney proclaimed: “I cannot respect he who seeks to hide himself in the shadows; the fullness of day is made to shed light on the truth, and I am proud to think like the philosopher who said that all his actions never had anything secret and that he wished his house was made of glass.”

The question of when secrecy was appropriate versus what should be done in public view was central to the conception and implementation of representative government in the late eighteenth century. Such references are evidence of this fact; but the way in which these concepts were articulated merits further scrutiny. Interrogating the metaphors and analogies employed can help us identify the concerns underlying calls for more publicity and the way in which critiques of secrecy were linked to understandings of how representative government should (and should not) work. Likening the exposure of the legislative process to public view to removing “the veil of secrecy” was not an intellectually or culturally neutral way of describing the procedural decision to deliberate with open doors. Exploring its connotations illuminates the way in which deploying this particular metaphor was both constitutive and reflective of thinking about the purpose of publicity in representative government.

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“Les Aristocrates anéantis,” Artist unknown, 1790. Hand-colored etching on paper. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie.

This 1790 depiction of a National Guardsman revealing a formerly masked “demon of aristocracy” provides a visual representation reflective of the language used to talk about secrecy and the value of publicity in revolutionary politics. An eye appears in the right-hand corner of the image. Rays of sunshine emanate from this eye. This image resonates strongly with the iconography used in popular society publications urging vigilance over elected officials as well as potential enemies.

We know, for example, that veils—which were often referred to in both American and French political discourse—were associated on the most basic level with hiding and thus could have implied intentional obfuscation. In the Dictionnaire critique de la langue française of 1762, a voile was defined as a piece of cloth used to hide something, especially the faces of women who were widowed or residents of the so-called “Orient.” Referring to a veil could thus carry feminine connotations as well as a link to the “East,” which was often associated with despotism in the eighteenth century. A common figure of speech, the dictionary definition went on to detail, was that “a man has a veil covering his eyes when prejudices, biases, love, hate, or other passions prevent him from seeing things as they are.” Though curiously not defined in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary of the English language, when Noah Webster released his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, a veil was similarly defined as “a cover; a disguise,” and the verb form was defined as “to cover with a veil; to conceal,” or “to hide.”

Even a cursory look at contemporary dictionary definitions provides some leads when it comes to better understanding the implications of the term’s use in calling for publicity or criticizing the secrecy surrounding legislative deliberations. The metaphorical lifting of a veil—when it came to publicizing political activity or government work—suggests that publicity was conceived of and portrayed as a remedy to combat active and intentional concealment. Such hiding, which could have carried connotations of femininity or despotism, might even have implied the operation of prejudice or the prevention of adequate information among those who were covered by the veil: the representatives who were deliberating. Talking about removing the “veil of secrecy” from a representative legislature may have been a way to posit publicity as constitutive of such a regime, in contrast to a despotic one. More than that, it also suggested specific purposes for publicity in such a system. Representatives were not only to deliberate in public view for the purposes of honesty and to combat implications of conspiracy or corruption, but also to maintain communication with the broader public for the purposes of their own information.

This is just one example; further unpacking the cluster of metaphors and analogies that eighteenth-century actors applied when they were talking about government secrecy and calling for greater publicity could continue to enrich our understanding of how these concepts were being defined and deployed on both sides of the Atlantic. When Volney made reference to working in a house of glass, he gestured to an ancient sage who reportedly declared his wish to live in a house that would allow constant monitoring of his actions. Referring to a house could have conjured publicity, or transparency, in a Rousseau-ian sense, as making one’s soul legible to the outside world for the purposes of guaranteeing authenticity. Further use of the metaphor in the context of defending one’s individual actions as a representative enforces such a connotation. In 1793, deputy Bertrand Barère responded to suspicions of potential past links to the monarchy by citing the same metaphor, stating: “A Roman citizen said: ‘I wish that a house open to all gazes would be constructed for me, so that all my fellow citizens can witness my actions.’ Citizens, I would have wanted to live in such a house during my time as a member of the Constituent Assembly.” A member of a representative assembly, such references suggested, was obliged to live transparently, perhaps without separation of private from public. Furthermore, the reference to ancient Rome was rife with republican signaling. Using the metaphor of a house of glass to describe the way a representative should live, think, and deliberate on behalf of the people illuminates the way in which transparency was constitutive of an ideal representative as republican and completely open to public scrutiny in all his actions.

In discussing publicity using these metaphors and analogies, politicians, polemicists, editors, and theorists implicitly laid out a case for why it was necessary, for what they felt they were combating by imposing it. They also defined secrecy as a particular type of threat, linked to dissembling, eastern despotism, femininity, carnival (in the case of masks), or religious superstition (in the case of conclaves), among many other references. Metaphors matter when trying to explain how people in the past thought about and articulated concepts; they give deeper meaning to what might otherwise be encountered as ideas isolated in the intellectual realm of philosophical tracts or constitutional frameworks. Looking at metaphors and analogies has the potential to firmly anchor political ideas to their social and cultural contexts and, in so doing, to expose the way ideas were interdependently shaped and translated from thought into practice.

Katlyn is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, where she is currently working on a book manuscript about the relationship between state secrecy and representative government during the Age of Revolutions. You can contact her at katlync@umich.edu.

Vive les Satiristes! Caricature during the Reign of Louis Philippe, 1830-1848

By guest contributor Erin Duncan-O’Neill

Beginning in a small hallway on the second floor of New York’s Grolier Club, the exhibition Vive les Satiristes! Caricature during the Reign of Louis Philippe, 1830-1848 displayed prints and bound illustrations of French caricature from the collection of Josephine Lea Iselin. The exhibition, which ran from March 22 to May 27 of this year, focused on a period where King Louis-Philippe fought fiercely with the press over the limits of political speech. Iselin’s collection draws primarily from two journals run by Charles Philipon during the Golden Age of French caricature, La Caricature and Le Charivari. On one remarkable masthead of Le Charivari, displayed in the Grolier Club show and created by J.J. Grandville in 1837, a laughing central figure resembling Philipon holds a drum on his lap, grasping the instruments of both jester and puppeteer (fig. 1). Behind him, three drawings adorn the wall, a thin figure appealing to Louis Philippe, a fashion panel, and a portrait in profile, together forming a succinct summary of the driving interests of the journal: political satire, social caricature, and celebrity.

Fig 1 Le Charivari 74 p1 Sixième Année March 16 1837 J.J. Grandville(1)

Figure 1: Le Charivari 74, p.1, Sixième Année, March 16, 1837. Wood-engraved masthead by J.J. Grandville.

The journal’s title–Le Charivari–refers to a rural folk tradition in which a crowd would call attention to inappropriate behavior of members of the community (dalliances, second marriages, large age gaps between partners) by congregating at their residence and creating an embarrassing disturbance, shouting and banging pots and pans. Philipon’s journal Le Charivari announced its ambitions to act as a popular regulatory mechanism with this name, using the drum and noisy clamor of the crowd as an analogy for the journal’s mission to hold the jurists, politicians, and soldiers dangling as puppets beneath the editor’s lap in Grandville’s cartoon accountable to their public.

In a more combative lithograph from the Grolier Club show, Charles-Joseph Traviès draws a clown with a drum and a feather-capped archer, personifications for Le Charivari and La Caricature, sawing the body of the king in half (fig. 2). Because Louis-Philippe, the so-called “Roi populaire,” had emerged from the barricades of the July Revolution and was selected because of his liberal leanings and perceived willingness to respect a constitutional charter, the extent to which his continued legitimacy relied on public opinion was an open question. For this reason, he met unprecedented criticism not only from staunch republicans like Philipon but also from those to right of center.

Fig 2 Charles-Joseph Traviès La Caricature et Le Charivari sawing the back of Mr What_s-his-name (the king) Le Charivari 1834 or 1835(1)

Figure 2: Charles-Joseph Traviès, “La Caricature et Le Charivari sawing the back of Mr. What’s-his-name (the king),” Le Charivari [1834 or 1835].

Tolerating most of the critical political caricature in the early 1830s, Louis-Philippe’s anxiety about the importance of his popular appeal eventually led to intense scrutiny over public activity and periodic repression. Part of this stemmed from the intensity of the criticism. Honoré Daumier’s lithograph “Gargantua” earned the artist a six-month prison sentence for its deeply unflattering depiction of the king’s body and Daumier’s unmistakable accusation that the king was corrupt (fig. 3). Courtiers trudge up a ramp leading to Louis-Philippe’s open mouth, delivering bribes that are expelled below his throne in the form of royal medals and honors. As we can see in “Gargantua,” the corpulence of the king was a popular trope, as it was understood to stand in for broader institutional ailments and bureaucratic gluttony, and one can imagine why the king would be particularly sensitive to this sort of attack. As a result of cartoons like this one, Louis-Philippe instituted the first major reversals to the liberalizations of 1830 with the September laws of 1834, specifically targeting cartoons and illustrations for censorship rather than the written word.

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Figure 3: Honoré Daumier, “Gargantua,” 1831.

While the September Laws allowed that “Frenchmen have the right to circulate their opinions in published form…,” they hedged that “when opinions are converted into actions by the circulation of drawings, it is a question of speaking to the eyes. That is something more than the expression of an opinion; it is an incitement to action not covered by Article 3.”  This law demanded that drawings, lithographs, engravings, and prints require prior approval by the Minister of the Interior of the Prefect of the Provinces before their exhibition or sale. The fear was that drawn illustrations were exceptional because they communicated directly with the folks that brought the king to power and were therefore potentially destructive to his popular appeal. Caricature relied on people’s ability to read gesture and expression and were therefore more threatening to the repressive authority of the government than articles or books, which were seen as less immediate in their impact, not to mention inaccessible to the significant illiterate portions of the population.

Traviès’s lithograph, published in 1834 or 1835, around the time of the September Laws, is a fantasy of violent retribution against the censor’s shears and provides some insight into the creative strategies that artists used to evade them. The saw bites into the fleshy back of a figure lying face-down on the ground. We cannot see the victim’s face, but it would have been obvious to contemporary readers that it was the body and pointed tuft of hair of the Roi populaire.

Issues of censorship and the embattled limits of political critique emerge in the exhibition without explicit analogies drawn to current events. It is unavoidable, however, to connect the scathing caricature in the Vive les Satiristes! show with present-day criticism toward the current American president, not least because the Grolier Club, on East 60th street in New York, sits just across the park from Trump International Hotel. In the 1830s and 40s, French illustrators sharpened strategies for ridicule, exaggerating the physical flaws of powerful figures, mocking groveling bureaucrats (fig. 4), and fretting over the future of hard-fought liberties. And tropes persist, bruising the skins of the politician with lessons learned from the Golden Age of caricature in France nearly 200 years ago. A recent cover of the New Yorker, “Broken Windows” by Barry Blitt, published on April 10, 2017, draws upon the same pear-shaped body cartoonists used again and again to mock Louis-Philippe in cartoons like “Hercule vainqueur” from 1834 (fig. 5).

La Cour du roi Pétaud honoré La Caricature 193 23 aout 1832

Figure 4: “La Cour du roi Pétaud,” La Caricature 193, August 23, 1832.

La Caricature 383 Hercule vainqueur 1 mai 1834

Figure 5 : “Hercule vainqueur” La Caricature 383 , May 1, 1834.

French caricature was perhaps at its most biting and politically-engaged during the reign of Louis-Philippe, In the years targeted in this exhibition, however, as we can see in the beautiful, small pen drawings of Gulliver’s Travels by J.J. Grandville (fig. 6) that 19th-century caricaturists were themselves looking to past examples of satire.

Fig 6 JJ Grandville Original pen and sepia ink drawing for engraving in Voyages de Gulliver Volume 1 Paris H Fournier Ainé Éditeur 1838 p 114(1)

Figure 6 : J.J. Grandville, Original pen and sepia ink drawing for engraving in Voyages de Gulliver, Volume 1, Paris, H. Fournier Ainé, Éditeur, 1838, p. 114.

Grandville’s illustrations of Jonathan Swift and Daumier’s invocation of François Rabelais’s Gargantua suggest that satirical tropes are in perpetual cycles of imitation and adaptation, be they overfed giants or archers sharpening their arrows. This small show of lithographs and hand-colored book illustrations has therefore arrived at a moment when artists and satirists are once again grasping to understand their historical moment and power is once again being tested by jesters outside the gates.

Erin Duncan-O’Neill is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma. Her research focuses on nineteenth and twentieth century European art, and her dissertation, “Media and the Politics of Satire in the Art of Honoré Daumier” (Princeton University, 2016) investigates Daumier’s multimedia art practice and his engagement with literary and theatrical satire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions at the Drawing Center, NYC

by guest contributor Megan Baumhammer

The fieldwork expeditions of William Beebe (1872- 1962) and the Department of Tropical Research aimed to “bring the laboratory to the jungle.” Beebe, an ornithologist affiliated with the New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society), founded the Department of Tropical Research in the early twentieth century.  From the beginning the DTR was part of a lineage of expeditionary, exploratory science after the model of Theodore Roosevelt and the safari-style collectors of the American Museum of Natural History and the Explorer’s Club. The New York Zoological Society poured resources into DTR expeditions to the Sargasso Sea, the Humboldt Current, the Galapagos, Haiti, Bermuda, and elsewhere around the world.

As Mark Dion, Katherine McLeod, and Madeleine Thompson–the curators of the Drawing Center’s exhibition Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions(at the Drawing Center in Soho until July 16, 2017)–made clear in their introductory notes to the exhibition’s catalogue, the expeditions were the investigative aspect of the DTR’s project. The DTR’s ultimate goal was to communicate the ecology of both tropical jungle and oceanic environments to broad audiences. In a remarkable presentation, the curators site the drawings generated by the expeditions within their own ecology, giving a sense of the the network of diverse actors (scientists, technicians, assistants, local guides, sailors, etc.)  that produced the beautiful drawings on display. The exhibition space is divided into realms, such that half of the room covers the jungle expeditions and the other half covers the ocean expeditions, with a map in the middle tracing the geographic context.

_MG_2446 (1024x706)Installation of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017

The rooms of the exhibition are concentric framing devices for the scientific images. In these rooms, viewers are immersed in the DTR’s world. The exhibition design drops the viewer into the biography, geography, material and visual culture that composed their world. To heighten the experience, the galleries provide their own aural dimension, through the evocative music composed for the exhibition.

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Mark Dion Installation_2Installation views of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017

The Beebe expeditions were supposed to bring the objectivity of the laboratory into the space of their investigations. The environments themselves would become the source of objective knowledge through scientific collecting, testing, and research. Beebe and his collaborators produced narratives of exploration that drew heavily on the sense of adventure and excitement that surrounded earlier, “romantic” naturalist traditions. The beautiful drawings that are the center of the exhibition were made in this context. The Drawing Center exhibition restages the groundbreaking, work done by this romantic and enterprising scientific research group within a highly aestheticized space.

Mark Dion Installation_3Recreation of an artist’s workbench, Installation of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017

Visitors enter an exploratory space that evokes a mix of different figures and aesthetics, from Jacques Cousteau, Maria Sybilla Merian, and Alfred Russel Wallace to Wes Anderson’s fictional Cousteau doppelgänger, Steve Zissou. Curatorial attention to the environment surrounding the expeditions highlights several issues currently in conversation in the History of Science: women in science; science and colonialism; representation in images and science communication.

All of these elements have been a part of the drawings’ world since they were put into circulation, however this exhibition adds a critical dimension to their presentation of the material. The curators show that women artists, scientists, and technicians played a central role, and that women were hired because of their aptitude and experience. They also argue that the gendering of expedition participants’ roles reinforced the explorative masculinity of the enterprise and of William Beebe, since he wanted “adaptable scientific students who fall in with my plans” on his expeditions. The curators also highlight the colonial nature of the DTR’s scientific enterprise through comments and other materials by DTR scientists and artists. A map detailing the DTR’s sites of scientific practice reinforces the colonial context that both framed and enabled the group’s work.

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George Swanson, “Euchromid on Moss,” Rancho Grande, Venezuala, 1954. Watercolor on paper, 11 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. (29 x 37 cm). Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.

The artwork produced by the DTR was clearly both a tool for research and a means for communicating and disseminating findings about the ecology of the ocean or jungle.

 

Shrimp_webHelen Damrosh Tee-Van, “Snapping Shrimp and Family,” Bermuda, 1931. Watercolor on paper, 14 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. (37 x 29 cm). Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.

At the beginning of the twentieth century these drawings provided a clarity of form and color that photography was unable to convey. But not all of the drawings were produced to satisfy the standards of scientific illustration. DTR artists occasionally took creative liberties, and some of the drawings, such as George Swanson’s Leaf-like Mantis, include jokes. In Swanson’s drawing, a mantis dances around the lower half of the page following the movements of ballet. However, Swanson retained the representational conventions of scientific illustration, and the repeated drawing of poses on this page is exactly like those elsewhere sketched by the DTR artists to record the movements of other animals, such as fish. The joke of a mantis performing ballet looks just like the record of fish as a specimen for future study. Parsing the differences between a joke and scientific illustration thus requires both a certain expertise and knowledge, and familiarity with both the drawing’s context and its community.

One of the most intriguing elements of the exhibition, to me, is the question of representation and imagination. The exhibition explores the theme of the imaginative space generated by and for the images. Margaret Cohen has noted the difficulty that Beebe had in communicating the unseen space found beneath the sea, either because the unfamiliar environments were difficult to describe or because it behooved Beebe to use the descriptive difficulty itself as a rhetorical tool. The curators argue that the drawings themselves are mediated and directed artifacts of research rather than direct representations. The drawings served as a link between the scientists and a reading, viewing, funding public, who accessed these spaces of research through popular magazine articles and Beebe’s bestselling books. Equally important, the images were often produced through second-hand descriptions of the phenomena, although this would have been less apparent to the public. For example, William Beebe descended to the deep sea, but the artists who drew the deep sea did not. Instead Beebe described the underwater world to the artist, who then drew it. These drawings relied entirely on Beebe’s textual cues. They are, in many ways, pure products of the artist’s imagination. This is most obviously demonstrated in Else Bostelmann’s Bathysphere intacta (Circling the Bathysphere), which depicts an impossible situation: the artist is situated outside of the protective Bathysphere diving bell, fixed by the eye of a deep-sea creature.

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Else Bostelmann, “Bathysphere Intacta (Circling the Bathysphere),” Bermuda, 1934. Watercolor on paper, 18 1/2 x 24 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.

The imaginative space of the deep ocean is here reflected in the imaginative space necessary to create it. The image compounds–and highlights–the artificiality of the artist’s experience.

The work of William Beebe and the Department of Tropical Research was a remarkable enterprise of the first half of the twentieth century. The images alone would be worth an exhibition, their beauty and color and character are so absorbing. They conveyed the first sense of a completely unknown life in the deep ocean and a further exploratory sense of the jungle or coastline. The curatorial framing of the drawings enables the visitor to see the work of the Department of Tropical Research clearly within its own context. The images are presented as a glorious production of the colorful, complicated DTR community. The group’s participation in the ongoing colonial relationship between the US and South America, underscored by the locations of its field stations, was an inextricable part of the drawings made from fieldwork, as was the group’s the “exploratory spirit” and its desire to know more about nature. The beautiful, striking images, combined with the self-presentation of William Beebe and his work, provide a world for the viewer’s imagination. Their audience found them thrilling because along with scientific knowledge of new and unfamiliar places, they provided a measure of romance as well. The images provided viewers with a means to recreate the experiences of the DTR crew. In their Drawing Center exhibition, the curators expose the distance between the various levels of an expedition’s documentation and self presentation. The exhibition pulls apart the interlocking framework of the DTR’s work to better show the workings of each part.  The finely rendered portraits of jungle creatures and underwater life are situated within the material culture produced by the DTR; the sociocultural makeup of the participants of DTR studies is shown alongside the films and visual images designed to communicate their work. This presentation lays bare the assumptions and work that contribute to the scientific representations we have come to take for granted, and if you would like to explore these same questions the exhibition is certainly worth seeing before it closes in July.

“Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions” is on view at the Drawing Center (New York, NY) through July 16, 2017.

Megan Baumhammer is a PhD candidate at Princeton University studying the history of science. She works on representative depiction in early modern science, and science and the imagination.

The Great Art

By guest contributor Adrian Young

One can hardly imagine a more audacious ambit for a museum exhibit than that of the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin’s new show, Alchemy: the Great Art, now at the Kulturforum. In the curators’ words:

“Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice – this idea permeates all eras and cultures, shaping Alchemy’s theoretical underpinnings as well as artistic creativity. An exhibition dedicated to the art of Alchemy is consequently predestined for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, whose diverse collections stretch over time from pre- and early history to the present. Alchemy is a universal theme for a universal museum”

As if to underpin its universal sweep, that thesis is inscribed on a wall above Matthäus Merian the Elder’s beautiful image of the cosmos, published in 1617.  Here, the position of the heavens above, the earth below, and humanity in between are assured within a hierarchy ordained by the divine unity of creation. The planets correspond to metals and vice versa, mercury for Mercury, at once products and signifiers of the same heavenly power.

L0029108 R. Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...

Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-1618). (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

From this document, and from the assemblage of some 200 remarkable objects like it, spanning continents and millennia, we are meant to learn something of the universal creative ambition that drove alchemy as a global, timeless, and human craft. As a creative practice, the ars magna (or “great art,” to use alchemy’s medieval European appellation) wedded the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge within the same practical tradition. It was only after the advent of Enlightenment rationality obscured their longstanding relationship that art and science seemed to diverge into bifurcating paths. However, though we rational moderns may have lost sight of a creative unity the pre-moderns knew well, by assembling the material culture of a deep alchemical past alongside the artistic products of a scientifically minded present, the exhibit suggests that “art” and “science” need be understood as separate enterprises. Rather, it claims, we have always been modern. We have always sought truth and beauty alike in the manipulation and transformation of material things. Creators have always been alchemists.

It is a seductive and tantalizing notion. Historians might chafe instinctively at claims of universality, as I did when I read the exhibit’s opening scrawl—“this idea permeates all eras and cultures”? But why not? One is inclined to indulge the thought, at least for a moment, while examining the treasures assembled here. And there are treasures. A ding, or ritual cauldron, from thirteenth-century BCE China still draws viewers in with a ring of intricately rendered cicadas; the metamorphosis of these insects suggest that a similar same property of transformation operated inside this metal crucible, and in remains at work in crucibles like it in laboratories and workshops the world over. Wall scrolls by sixteenth-century Daoist artist Lu Zhi depict the search for truth as the work of gathering herbs in the mountains. These hang near sixteenth-century European allegorical representations of the mountainous earth as a temple in which to mine divine knowledge.  Alchemical correspondences abound.

Whether these artifacts were products of “art” or “science” is of course a nonsensical question. Indeed, the exhibition reminds its visitors that artists and alchemists were practitioners of allied creative crafts, which they often plied in the same princely courts. A small work by Hans Jakob Sprüngli from the early seventeenth century drives that point home well. In his “Venus and Armor against the backdrop of renaissance architecture,” painted figures are ensconced in a field of gold leaf and stained glass. Master artists, like master alchemists, relied on an intimate, practical, and embodied knowledge of the materials from which they produced their works of truth or beauty. Artists today are much the same in their attention to material things, an alchemical affinity they even share with contemporary scientists. Think of Joseph Beuys, for instance, whose works are represented in the exhibition by a 1986 offprint displaying his “goldkuchen.” In Beuys’s use of fur, fat, and gold, physical objects became agents of affect, begetting emotional reactions and transformations. Pieces by a younger generation of artists do much the same. Sara Shönfeldt’s 2013 series “All You Can Feel (Maps)” is an object lesson in the commonalities of practice between science and art. Shönfeldt placed dissolved chemical compounds like the recreational drug MDMA onto pretreated negatives which, once developed produced full-color portraits of chemicals. Their crystalline browns and greens are reminiscent of minerals or landscapes, feeling simultaneously geological and geographical.  It is a use of darkroom technology that recalls earlier work by Walter Ziegler and Heinz Hajek-Halke, also represented in the gallery. Photography and its attendant chemical techniques long provided a practical if little-celebrated bridge between the hands-on work of art and science. Can we meaningfully call those shared practices alchemy? The genealogy, here at least, is manifest.

Continuities with the past need not be happy ones. Deep in the heart of the exhibit, in its lower level, lurks the specter of the homunculus. The artificial being, made living by the alchemist’s manipulation of inanimate matter is also evoked here to suggest alchemical practice’s persistence into our present.  Underscoring the idea’s lingering presence in the popular imagination, images of Frankenstein’s monster sit next to a copy of Japanese graphic novel Full Metal Alchemist. That the notion of a monstrous artificial life still haunts us powerfully reinforces the exhibition’s argument; in our era of genetically modified and artificial life, one of alchemy’s chief ambitions is enacted daily in scientific practice. At the center of the “Homonculus” section is one of the “Ripley Scrolls,” on loan from the Getty and one of the exhibition’s most arresting objects. Unwound inside a twenty-foot-long case, it becomes the body of arcane alchemical knowledge now splayed open for visitors. However, the exhibit which most monstrously evokes the grotesque possibilities of alchemical transformation might well be on the floor above, where another of Sara Schönfeldt’s pieces melds scientific and artistic practice. “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)” (2014) stores urine inside a large glass tank, lit by lamps on both sides. The light only penetrates so far through the liquid murk, fading from amber to blood red before disappearing in a dark center of clotted black.

By assembling in one gallery historical objects and art pieces from across time and space, the exhibition attempts a kind of curatorial alchemy, building a synthesis from diverse elements. Like most grand experiments, it falls somewhat short. Though the SMB is indeed a universal museum, Europe’s heritage dominates. While the exhibit proffers alchemy as a universal mode of creation, there are no representative objects from the New World, sub-Saharan Africa, or Oceania with which to substantiate such a claim. East Asian objects appear much more frequently–the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is the source of a number of fascinating exhibits– though these sometimes seem to reaffirm Western narratives. A section on the “chemical wedding” is a case in point. In a famous alchemical allegory, male and female, corresponding to mercury and sulfur, are bonded and give rise to a hermaphroditic compound.  It was a notion that originated with Jābir ibn Hayyān and spread in alchemical texts throughout the Mediterranean world, though we see it represented directly only by Western European artifacts. However, we are told that the idea shared an affinity with the wedding of opposites in other traditions—enter a bronze sculpture depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati from late eighteenth- or early nineteenth- century Madurai, which gestures at similar alchemical dualities in the Hindu world. The bronze’s precise relation to “alchemy” is sadly unexplained; rather,  we are left to ponder the exact global unities between such dualities on our own.

Those artifacts which do receive closer temporal or spatial framings are all the more compelling for it, even if the resulting narratives are in tension with the exhibition’s universal aspirations. Assertions of timeless continuity might productively trouble our understanding of science and art in the present, but historians of science have long offered more circumscribed historically situated assertions of continuity between alchemy, chymistry, and chemistry. In this show, too, the artifacts that best challenge the too-neat dichotomies that seem to separate modernity and reason from premodernity and magic are those that speak evocatively of their own historical moments. Take, for instance, that eminently enlightenment document, the Encyclopedie, whose entry “Chemie” is represented by Louis-Jacques Goussier’s engraving “Laboratoire et Table des Reports,” (1771).  Here, a table arranges the traditional signs for the elements, rationally ordering notations inherited from alchemy. Or, better, take the image of Sigismund Bacstrom’s “Apparatus to attract the Lunar Humidity” in Johan Freiderich Fleischer’s 1797 Chemical Moonshine, on loan from the Getty. Here, the glassware of the empirical chemical laboratory (an alchemical inheritance, to be sure) is turned toward the goal of capturing the fleeting essence of moonlight itself. It evokes Yoko Ono, but gestures even more strongly toward the tumultuous, contingent, and fleeting worlds that existed on the edges of the chemical revolution.

Adrian 2 Chemical Moonshine 10_1024

Sigismund Bacstrom (German, ca. 1750–1805), “Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity,” ink and watercolor in Johan Friedrich Fleischer, “Chemical Moonshine,” trans. Sigismund Bacstrom, 1797, frontispiece. 950053.4.1 (Image courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)

 

 Was I ultimately taken in by the allure of the exhibition’s universal aspiration? More than I might have expected. Assertions of similarity between art and science abound in books and museum exhibits, perhaps less because we aim to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures and more because we in the fragile arts hope to ally with the slightly sturdier sciences in this era of shrinking funding and diminishing respect for the academy.  Alchemy, by focusing our attention on the practical knowledge required by the work of creation, suggests genuine and overlooked affinities. I am inclined to understand those commonalities as the product of a shared, historically and regionally specific genealogy. But no matter. If the ideal of a common and universal human creative impulse can compel us to study the rich material heritage of the alchemical past, or indeed any past, then all to the good. Like the elusive philosopher’s stone, perhaps the ambition itself is of less consequence than the things learned in yearning for it. What’s more, artists and alchemists alike have long known what some historians have only recently rediscovered: that objects can speak with a vocabulary the written word does not always afford. In this exhibit, aesthetic objects, whether contemporary sculptures or scientific plates, evoke their pasts with a remarkable richness. As windows into the practical histories of alchemy and art, these materials, whatever their ordering, exude a transformative power of their own.

“Alchemy: The Great Art” is on view at the Kulturforum in Berlin until the 23rd of July, 2017.

Adrian Young is a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge, where he is revising his dissertation “Mutiny’s Bounty: Pitcairn Islanders and the Making of a Natural Laboratory on the Edge of Britain’s Pacific Empire” for publication. Though not a historian of alchemy by any stretch, he maintains an abiding interest in material culture and object lessons.