Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 22, 2016
Benjamin Schmidt Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe's Early Modern World Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 448 pp.; 24 color ills.; 179 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780812246469)

Historian Benjamin Schmidt’s Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World picks up, chronologically speaking, where his prior book, Innocence Abroad: The Dutch Imagination and the New World, 1570–1670 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), left off—in 1670. In Innocence Abroad Schmidt trained his scholarly gaze on Dutch encounters with and conceptions of the New World in the first century of the Dutch Republic. In Inventing Exoticism he casts a wider net, to describe how around the turn of the eighteenth century “a new conception of the exotic world and a new conceit of Europe came to be, and how these two imaginative constructs also came to shape and rely on one another during this pivotal moment of mounting European expansion in the world” (5).

By “the exotic world” Schmidt means extra-European peoples, places, and objects; exoticos in Greek means “from the outside” or “foreign.” This handsome volume presents printed works, paintings, ceramics, and other luxury goods produced in Dutch ateliers between 1670 and 1730 under the rubric of “exotic geography,” which Schmidt qualifies as a new rhetorical and artistic mode for a “freshly invented and expressly European audience” that “spanned national borders and confessional divides” (5; emphasis in original). The Dutch Republic is well known for having served as European entrepôt for commodities from the East Indies and other foreign locales. In Inventing Exoticism, Schmidt argues that Dutch-made products of “exotic geography” were particularly successful in conveying a new view of the exotic world precisely because they did not emphasize the national identity of producer or consumer. By way of “exotic geography,” “the Dutch exchanged an empire of territory for an empire of geography: they began to trade also in the image of the world” (10; emphasis in original).

In scope and aim, this is a formidable study, commendable for its effort to merge historical and art-historical considerations. In the course of four heavily illustrated chapters, bracketed by an introduction and epilogue, Schmidt presents myriad instances of “exotic geography,” from published atlases containing geographical and chorographical accounts of faraway places and people to maps, and from japanned gilded cabinets and Delftware to wallpaper and Dutch pronk (sumptuous) still-life paintings. Chapter 1, “Printing the World: Processed Books and Exotic Stereotypes,” examines dizzyingly complex Dutch publications, often containing hundreds if not thousands of printed illustrations describing faraway lands, which “instigated a wholesale transformation of how Europeans consumed their expanding globe” (31). Tomes of “exotic geography” printed by Jacob van Meurs in Amsterdam and Pieter van der Aa in Leiden established a characteristic “style of publication and a form of exotic geography” (28) that set a standard that still holds: “think National Geographic” (86). Schmidt explores practical aspects of publication and the complex issues of borrowing and reworking texts and images, commercial considerations and truth claims, and narrative tone and authorial presence.

For all of the marvelous information provided, however, one is left wondering about the reception and impact of “exotic geography.” Did the published compendia engage reader/viewers beyond other publishers and learned authors? Subscribers to and collectors of “exotic geography” are mentioned only in passing. (The English collector Hans Sloane, a keen cultivator of European taste in the exotic, turns up only tangentially.) Schmidt does summarily describe the market conditions for books in Holland (68), but readers learn little, ultimately, about the consumption of printed “exotic geography” by the “freshly invented and expressly European audience” (5) that it is said to address, let alone its role in instigating momentous change.

Chapter 2, “Seeing the World: Visuality and Exoticism,” takes a closer look at the illustrations for printed “exotic geography.” Wonderful agglomerative tableaux of exotic peoples and goods are brought to life, as is the natural history of exotic geography in heavily illustrated accounts of natural commodities such as spices and shells. In geographical scope the chapter extends from Muscovy and Persia to India, East Asia, and the East Indies. Schmidt takes evident pleasure in describing and explicating the copious contents of printed atlases of the era in which exotic realms were figured and made available to armchair travelers of early modern Europe. He argues that the images characteristic of “exotic geography” favor “place” over “time” and tend to be more descriptive than narrative, by which he means that they “avoided narrating recent (and potentially conflicting) histories of Europeans overseas” (105). A lengthy discussion of whether paratextual claims to accuracy or lifelikeness should be taken literally concludes by positing that a general interest in close observation explains the prevalence of pictures in “exotic geography.” “Pictures,” he declares, “prevail” (114), and he provides copious examples of how many and how elaborate the pictures were, emphasizing “the emphatically visual approach taken by print geography when it came to presenting the extra-European world” (160).

Chapter 3, “Exotic Bodies: Sex and Violence Abroad,” focuses on one particularly striking element of the images of “exotic geography”—the human body. The spectacle of exotic sensuality Edward Said identified with Orientalism of a later era figures, Schmidt shows, throughout the early modern era and especially in Dutch printed works, in which “the exotic body was characterized by its sensual appeal, capacity for pain, and racial ambiguity” (167). Passing over images of violence enacted on New World bodies and noting that earlier images of “intra-European” violence are manifold, Schmidt makes the unusual argument that as European violence and representations of it dissipated in the period under study, “depictions of violence . . . were displaced to the exotic world” (209). Schmidt’s observation that depictions of cruelty and tyranny, especially as enacted on the non-European body, enabled European viewers and readers of “exotic geography” to distinguish themselves from their exotic others is important, but not exclusively true of the period under discussion. More perplexing, coming from a historian, is the tendency throughout this chapter to conflate image with event: “Pain and torture moved outside of Europe . . . and were displaced to the non-European body—thus, exotic violence” (222). Is it actually plausible to speak of a “geography of violence” or a “geography of perversion” (221–22) without mooring these rhetorical terrains to historical data? What is lacking is more precise identification of where world-making shifts from a rhetorical to a historical register.

Schmidt’s interest is first and foremost in the rhetoric of “exotic geography.” When, at the conclusion of chapter 3, he tallies the impact of depictions of exotic violence on Europeans, he cites how vastly influential they were “in the graphic and other visual arts” (224). The transmedial diffusion of scenes of “exotic geography” is the subject of the richest chapter of the book, especially for art historians and historians of material culture, chapter 4, “Exotic Pleasures: Geography, Material Arts, and the ‘Agreeable’ World.” It traces the peregrinations of exotic imagery across the decorative arts, pointing to “both the stability and the malleability of exotic imagery, which retains as well as yields meaning as it shifts contexts and media” (302). The parasol, an “icon of exoticism writ large,” appears in images of figures ranging from Asian potentates to Indian queens. (247). (Very much like the Amerindian feather skirt, whose transpositions are studied in Peter Mason’s 1998 Infelicities: Representations of the Exotic [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press], which, however, features nowhere in Schmidt’s book.) “Provenances are casually blended, and subjects, even when ostensibly affixed to place or region, could swiftly decamp to other exotic locales” (246–47). “Looseness, capaciousness, and spatial discursiveness” are key features of the iconography of “exotic geography” and, Schmidt confirms, of the decorative arts themselves (249).

Disappointingly, this chapter shares ahistorical tendencies with the images so attentively described. For example, Schmidt enlists the Flemish painter Jan van Kessel as a proponent of the sort of “exotic geography” that issued from Dutch ateliers (whereas in other chapters centers of production in the southern and northern Netherlands are rigorously distinguished). Focusing on the Continents series painted by van Kessel in Antwerp in the late 1660s, Schmidt calls attention to representational strategies of borrowing, adopting, and blending sources and declares that these paintings tend “to muddle matters by mixing and matching the regions of the world—especially the exotic world” (272). What Schmidt refers to as “a loose conception of geographic place, a blithe sense of regional disorder, and a design plan of obvious incongruity” (274)—porcelain dishes on the floor beside the personification of Africa; Japanese armor and an African bird in the vicinity of America—might just as well reflect actual practices of collecting or trade or diplomacy. Japanese suits of armor were presented to numerous European rulers and displayed in collections, while porcelain also frequently circulated as a diplomatic gift—and was collected in East Africa. As Nadia Baadj, for example, has demonstrated, there are numerous ways in which van Kessel’s pictures’ organization and contents resonate with early modern collections known as Wunderkammern (Nadia Baadj, Jan van Kessel I [1626–79]: Crafting a Natural History of Art in Early Modern Antwerp, Turnhout: Brepols, 2016). Reference to collecting and collectors would only have strengthened Schmidt’s argument about the positive valuation of muddling, mixing, and matching exotic elements, and helped to tether the rhetoric of “exotic geography” to historical phenomena and agents.

Throughout this erudite study, these agents remain largely backstage. Where this enables Schmidt to explicate the contents of the riveting works of “exotic geography,” this is a plus: readers are spared an excess of biographical data. But it also means that agency is often murky. Who is making this new world? And who precisely consumed the products of Dutch ateliers? Ultimately, Schmidt’s account of the stay-at-home European collector of “exotic geography” makes him out to be somewhat shallow and passive, keen on voyeuristic access to violence displaced from his own domain, and compelled by “imperfect chaos” and “the promiscuous assemblage” of exotica. The works, in their turn, were “agreeable” and “delightful” and “interesting without being interested” (81). In the epilogue, Schmidt briefly discusses the rebuttal of this form of geography by a subsequent mode that developed in the middle of the eighteenth century, and states that in a dialectic manner “the two forms of geography and their respective visions of the world could, in a critical sense, coexist and even sustain one another” (333). “Exotic geography” was certainly an appealing rhetorical strategy in the early modern era, but did it amount to a worldview?

Claudia Swan
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Northwestern University