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Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in Renaissance England. (Reviews).

Peter Erickson and Clark Hulse, eds., Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in Renaissance England.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, viii + 133 illus. + 406 pp. $62.50 (cl), $27.50 (pbk). ISBN: 0-8122-3559-2 (cl), ISBN: 0-8122-1734-9 (pbk).

Unlike the festschrift, which in the present publishing market is nearly dead, the edited volume of essays addressing a single topic continues to prove itself a durable genre. In large part this resilience comes from its adaptability to emerging areas of inquiry and scholars with converging interests. The present collection is a case in point. The editors have enlisted an impressive set of contributors, from distinguished seniors to precocious younger scholars; nearly all of the essays are substantial; a good deal of learning and intelligence is evident; and, although less than claimed, there is a fair amount of thematic continuity.

The editors maintain that W. J. T. Mitchell's definition of "visual culture" needs to be "extended and reversed: if visual culture is the study of the social construction of visual experience, then equally it is the study of the visual construction of social experience" (1). Their introduction begins with an incisive review of the scholarship through which the field of visual culture has developed before asserting the contributions of their volume. One might demur from the facile assumption that "As a field descriptor, 'early modern' replaces the progressive implications of 'Renaissance'" (8). What could be more simply progressive than the sequence of early modern-modern-post modern? Also, the skepticism -- voiced by Martin Jay, Mitchell, and Barbara Stafford -- about the applicability of discourse from literary and cultural studies to visual arts is dismissed rather quickly.

The ten essays themselves contextualize such diverse visual objects as ceremonial arches, human figures on maps, and the representation of women in relation to textiles. Given the editors' insistence on the need to examine "subcanonical materials," crafts and utilitarian arts (2, 11), a surprising amount of attention is devoted to canonical art and artists -- Holbein, Hilliard, Oliver, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, even Raphael. A number of essays are linked by a concern with gender, sexuality, race, empire, and colonialism. There is a heartening amount of agreement among the contributors that these terms are relative, not fixed, and need to be understood historically.

Space limits preclude discussing every essay, but a few deserve particular mention. Kim F. Hall presents a thoughtful meditation on "the Presence of Black Women," beginning with Danese Cattaneo's sculpture, Black Venus, and concluding with Durer's drawing, Katherina. Ernest B. Gilman, who gets the prize for best title ("Madagascar on My Mind"), examines Van Dyck's "Madgascar:" Portrait of the Earl of Arundel, exfoliating "the discourse of colonialism, as it interweaves such diverse strands as heraldry, antiquities, classical scholarship, and painting itself' to argue that it is "both subtler and more diverse" than a narrow political or economic analysis might suggest (310). Clark Hulse's own contribution, "Reading Painting: Holbein, Cromwell, Wyatt," is a model essay. It opens by tackling the large question of how one "reads" a portrait and proceeds to a test case, offering a subtle analysis of Holbein's portrait of Thomas Cromwell via his relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt. The essay is theoretically sophis ticated, but the writing is lucid, not jargon-laden, and takes no more space than it needs. One could wish the editors had held all contributors to this standard.

In short, the obvious work that has gone into this book pays off; the essays are thoughtful, well-researched, current in their interests, and there is something to be learned from each of them. In one respect, however, the editors have miscalculated. They present the volume as "a provocation" both to "English Renaissance art history" and "Renaissance art history generally" (11). By "provocation" they mean a challenge to broaden subject matter, methodologies, and geographical range. But, since the authors here consist of nine literature professors and a single art historian (Karen C. C. Dalton on the "Drake Jewel"), I suspect that any art historian who picks up the book will be provoked in another sense - to annoyance at the apparent condescension. A dialogue would have been a better tactic. Finally, it is a pity that Penn made the book such a drab visual object; a considerable number of the photographs are too muddy to confirm their descriptions.
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Author:Waddington, Raymond B.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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