Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 7, 2020
Liza Oliver Art, Trade, and Imperialism in Early Modern French India Visual and Material Culture, 1300–1700. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. 260 pp.; 89 color ills. Cloth €99.00 (9789463728515)

Much of the history of Europe and South Asia’s mutual entanglement in the modern era has been written around the rise and fall of the British Raj, which dominated most of the Indian subcontinent for two centuries. In recent years, however, scholars have paid increasing attention to interactions between South Asia and the rest of Europe, on the one hand, and on the other, to the need to understand such interactions in terms of global networks of economic and cultural circulation, including Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The history of relations between France and the Indian subcontinent has been fruitful in this regard, with studies by Kate Marsh, Jyoti Mohan, and Faith Beasley calling attention to the importance of these relations not only for politics and trade but also for visual culture.

Liza Oliver’s Art, Trade, and Imperialism in Early Modern French India is an invaluable contribution to this literature. Oliver explores the production, circulation, consumption, and imitation of South Asian commodities by French agents in the subcontinent, metropolitan France, and elsewhere. She tracks how hybrid styles were produced through “layers of aesthetic interchange” while also attending to the uneven power relations through which exchange occurred (31). In doing so, she develops methodological insights for future research.

Oliver demonstrates that the objects produced through “Franco-Indic aesthetic entanglements” reveal complex patterns of economic, political, and cultural interaction that can only be understood in a global context (31). She shows that these objects were understood by contemporaries in no less complex and variable ways that depended upon—but also reimagined or obscured—the global networks by which they had been produced and traded. If particular commodities were understood as signifying globality or hybridity, Oliver argues, this was not a natural and inevitable process through which the conditions of their production became visible. Rather, she insists, it was because certain modalities of interpretation, certain cultural logics of seeing, made it possible to understand these objects in such terms.

The analytical framework of Orientalism—in which European actors are imagined to have conceived Asia and the Islamic world through stereotyping discourses that stressed their absolute difference from a supposedly coherent West—is here of little use, Oliver finds. What we need instead is an attentiveness to the ways that the “visual manifestations of how these distinct worlds [of South Asia and Europe] became intertwined and transformed one another” both stage and conceal the intertwinings and transformations by which they came to be (86).

Oliver’s first chapter explores the economic networks and aesthetic negotiations that caused the cotton cloth woven and usually dyed on the southeastern coast of the subcontinent to become an important commodity and cultural signifier in eighteenth-century France. Her research contributes to one of the most important strands of the contemporary historiography of globalization, adding an art historical dimension to a scholarly literature that has given the aesthetic and hermeneutic dimensions of material culture relatively short shrift.

For much of the early modern era, textiles from South Asia were the quintessential global commodity, as historians like Giorgio Riello have shown. Consumed in massive quantities across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, South Asian textiles were essential elements of the circuits of commerce. They were also key factors in the emergence of industrialization in Europe, as British and French manufacturers struggled to mechanize their textile production in order to compete with South Asian wares. While the circulation and impact of South Asian textiles, considered as economic inputs, reveal the extent and power of global trading networks, Oliver forcefully demonstrates that they must also be understood as part of a complex of negotiations that made them meaningful aesthetic objects across a variety of sites.

This chapter offers many provocative juxtapositions of objects rarely considered in conversation with each other to generate an understanding of the apparent paradox that while the manufacture and design of South Asian textiles as commodities was thoroughly global, their reception was always local and contingent. To investigate the meanings of one particularly desirable form of cloth—muslin finely woven from cotton—Oliver brilliantly pairs Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s famous 1783 portrait of Marie-Antoinette in a chemise with a contemporaneous painting of a West Indian cloth market. The figures shown in the two paintings—the French queen and the women buying and selling cloth—both wear plain, airy cotton dresses made of the South Asian fabric. But while French observers saw Marie-Antoinette’s portrait as a fashion statement appealing to values of bucolic simplicity in an idealized countryside (a statement that, for the queen’s critics, scandalously violated royal propriety), the market women wearing the same cloth communicate their identities in the African diaspora.

In the eighteenth century, Oliver explains, fine white cotton cloth from South Asia was one of Europe’s major exports to West Africa and a key component of the slave trade. In its colonies in the Indian subcontinent, the French East India Company had special kinds of cloth specifically produced to meet the taste of African consumers. Slaves for plantations in the New World were purchased with this cloth. By the late 1700s, as free people of color descended from the African diaspora became an important part of the population of many areas of the Americas, they too purchased and wore South Asian textiles, particularly certain styles of cotton fabric.

The dresses of both Marie-Antoinette and the market women, therefore, were part of an expansive economic network in which South Asian commodities were produced for specific markets throughout the world. But in their local reception, the dresses were not understood as belonging together. Their meanings were site specific—but not necessarily provincial. If muslins could be seen in the French court as communicating simplicity and domesticity, obscuring their status as globally circulating commodities, they could be seen in the West Indies as signifying their wearer’s membership in a global diaspora of African people (a diaspora that was itself the result of a violent process of treating people as commodities).

Having argued that the reception of South Asian textiles in France reveals the existence of a variable and contingent matrix of ways of seeing these commodities, Oliver moves in chapter 2 from textiles to illustrated texts. She examines “eighteenth-century manuscripts of South Asian botany by French naturalists in India” who hired “textile painters to illustrate” their pages (33–34). Drawing on a rich source base, Oliver recovers the agency of these painters, showing how their “aesthetic choices” adapted available styles of artistic production to make local botanical knowledge comprehensible—and visible—to Europeans (34). They were intermediaries between different aesthetic and epistemic logics.

Historians of science such as Kapil Raj find that modern natural sciences, including botany, geology, and astronomy, have to be understood as having been “coproduced” by European and non-European actors in colonial situations, in which non-European forms of knowledge were not only ignored, rejected, or destroyed but also appropriated and transformed in encounters that ranged from violent and exploitative to creative and collaborative. Oliver demonstrates that the same can be said of the visual artifacts that accompanied these scientific endeavors. Indeed, given the importance of illustration to early modern botanical knowledge, the aesthetic and the scientific are no less entangled than the European and non-European.

In the second half of Art, Trade, and Imperialism, Oliver turns to a closer analysis of the interactions between visual cultures and colonial power relations in France’s most economically and politically important colony in South Asia, the port city of Pondicherry. Chapter 3 investigates the visual dimension of the self-fashioning of the principal South Asian collaborator with the colonial power structure during the mid-eighteenth century, Ananda Ranga Pillai. Ananda is a familiar figure to historians of the period both because of his key political role and because of his long and invaluable diary, from which Oliver draws new insights. Her main contributions here, however, are her rich and layered interpretations of Ananda’s portrait, painted by an anonymous artist, which Oliver argues played on diverse aesthetic registers to communicate to South Asian and European audiences. Her analysis of Ananda’s house, which likewise plays with local and French architectural styles, is less capacious and might have benefited from dialogue with Kévin Le Doudic’s study of the material culture of interior design in colonial Pondicherry.

Chapter 4 builds on Danna Agmon’s work on the history of Catholic missions in French colonial South Asia to turn to a darker side of the interactions between different aesthetic regimes. Hindu temples in Pondicherry were repeatedly attacked, and occasionally destroyed, in acts that Oliver insists must be understood as “iconoclasm” and thus as part of French reactions to and interpretations of the visual dimensions of local religious cultures (186). While the confrontation of different styles and ways of seeing could enable the production of hybrid commodities, such as textiles, or the generation and translation of scientific knowledge, it could also provide colonial agents with the opportunity to reinforce their power by enacting violence on symbols of South Asian identities.

Although Oliver’s conclusion, which appeals rather vaguely to the paradoxes of economic and political liberalism (a theme otherwise not central to the monograph), does not do justice to the book’s wide-ranging research, stimulating interpretations, and methodological contributions, Art, Trade, and Imperialism is a significant addition to the study of the relationship between global commerce and visual cultures in the eighteenth century and beyond.

Blake Smith
Collegiate Assistant Professor, University of Chicago