Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 5, 2009
Michael Gaudio Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 232 pp.; 79 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (9780816648474)

Engraving has long been part and parcel of the European enterprise of ethnographic knowledge. Indeed, the discovery of the Americas occurred within decades of the development of copper-plate engraving. By the late sixteenth-century, engraving was one of several technologies that Europeans saw as distinguishing themselves from New World “savages,” precisely because these technologies enabled Europeans to acquire a grasp on the world that Native peoples seemingly could not achieve. In turn, these technologies, especially those associated with exploration, fostered the creation of new forms of knowledge, most notably accounts of the lives and customs of Native North Americans, a discipline now known as ethnography.

For the early modern ethnographic enterprise, engravings played a particularly important role by visualizing the differences between the New World and the Old World. Among the best known early images of Native North Americans are those created by the printmaker and publisher Theodore de Bry, whose engravings of coastal Algonquin peoples, based on original watercolors by John White, were published in Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia in 1590 (the first in de Bry’s multi-volume America series). To date, much of the scholarship on de Bry’s prints has rightly analyzed their imagery and iconography in light of the ideological frameworks of exploration and colonialism that existed beyond each image’s frame; that is, these scholars have looked through the images to determine meaning from the outside. In Engraving the Savage, Michael Gaudio offers a provocative and sophisticated reading of these prints by looking at them, by attending closely to them as objects that, within their very materiality, record the artistic and intellectual processes involved in their own making. In so doing, Gaudio reveals the complex, unresolved, and at time contradictory processes of visualizing an ethnography of the New World.

While de Bry’s prints were intended to establish a civil/savage binary, Gaudio argues that in their materiality they complicated, disturbed, and even collapsed the distance between the two. By analyzing the prints as objects, Gaudio attends to what he calls the “remainders of the workshop” manifest in and on the prints. These “remainders” include traces of workshop practices, such as plate impressions imprinted on the page by the intaglio process and patterns of crosshatching carved by the printmaker’s burin to indicate mass and volume. Examining these physical aspects of the print, Gaudio teases out their implications as de Bry and his contemporaries sought to create ethnographic knowledge within a fiercely anti-Catholic and pre-Enlightenment artistic, cultural, and intellectual milieu, in which procedures for establishing and visualizing ethnographic knowledge were not yet secure. Examined from this perspective, de Bry’s prints do unexpectedly reveal a strikingly close proximity between savagery and civilization.

Gaudio’s analysis is informed by the work of French theorist Michel de Certeau. Although the latter was greatly interested in the impact of the New World on the Old, something Gaudio has taken to heart, what remains particularly pertinent to the methodology of Engraving the Savage is de Certeau’s interest in the rules and codes that frame the writing of historical texts. To determine the conventions at work in a given text, de Certeau argued that scholars should not only read an author’s words to understand their ideas but should also look at the text itself. Examined in its physical form, a text’s materiality would reveal the circumstances and conditions of its own production. For de Certeau, the materiality of a text will betray its own history and creation, even as it may elsewhere seek to obscure or deny those truths. In Engraving the Savage, Gaudio deploys a similar approach, arguing that de Bry’s prints both acknowledge and at the same time deny those conditions by which ethnographic knowledge was created. In other words, Gaudio argues that the materiality of de Bry’s prints bring civility and savagery into close proximity, even as their imagery sought to establish difference. Although critically sophisticated, theory itself remains subordinate to Gaudio’s compelling and insightful reading of the formal qualities of the prints themselves. Indeed, the book is exemplary of the way a theoretical framework can be employed to help organize, but not overdetermine, formal analysis.

Engraving the Savage is organized thematically and chronologically. Individually, each chapter addresses a specific set of related issues as they are manifest in one or more print. But the argument also proceeds through time, traveling from the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. The first chapter addresses “scriptive techniques” original to Europe—writing and engraving—that brought knowledge in general, and ethnographic knowledge in particular, into existence in the Western world. Gaudio sees underlying references to these “scriptive techniques” in de Bry’s well-known engraving of a tattooed Algonquin chief. While the image ostensibly seeks to establish the Native American as a savage “other” to the civilized European, Gaudio interprets several aspects of the image as accomplishing the opposite. De Bry’s juxtaposition of Roman letters next to the (equally abstract) tattoos of the chief, his placement of the arrow tips on the chief’s skin, and the resemblance of those arrows to the quills used by Europeans to write, can be seen as insinuating historical parallels, not differences, between Natives and Europeans. According to Gaudio, these parallels betray the fact that ethnographic knowledge was generated more by “scriptive” technologies than by face-to-face encounters with the inhabitants of the New World.

Chapter 2 turns to the engraved lines that delineate the smoke in a scene of an Algonquin religious ceremony. Here, Gaudio takes a seemingly mundane and easily overlooked element of the image and uses it to again problematize the civil/savage binary. He does so by finding resemblances between the curving, spiraling lines of the smoke and similar forms found in other representations. In this way Gaudio is himself reusing a way of thinking familiar to de Bry and his contemporaries living in a pre-Enlightenment episteme. For them, smoke invoked primitivism associated with witchcraft, or the ether in which spirits may be found. Smoke also resembled the grotesques that covered the walls of Roman villas, designs that adorned the bodies of early Britons and Picts, and the billowy borders that framed the words and illustrations in early modern texts. In the context of de Bry’s image, the smoke ultimately disrupts its own illusionism and holds the European beholder in a primitivistic trance, thereby collapsing the supposed distance between the savage and the civilized.

The third chapter focuses on an image of Native American idolatry created by de Bry, later copied (and modified) in the eighteenth century, and the problems it posed for Protestant viewers. While the Reformation had banished images from worship practices in northern Europe, reformed Christians remained anxious about viewing images in any context. Of particular concern were three-dimensional images. As such, Protestants found intaglio prints potentially dangerous because of the relief-like nature of the final print. Gaudio argues that meticulous use of perspective coupled with a dematerialization of bodies by de Bry and his copyists resulted in images both empirically accurate and religiously safe. Thus, although de Bry’s idolatry image represents Native American religious practice, the image itself is structured by prevailing Protestant concerns about the perils of image viewing.

The fourth and final chapter examines engraved reproductions of John White’s original watercolors, published in the 1880s in Century Magazine. As was the case with de Bry’s prints, these engravings functioned to define civilization and savagery, except by this time the definition was made to fit the recently accepted framework of evolution. Executed in the most advanced reproductive technology of the day—wood engraving—these prints seemingly convey Euro-America’s advanced state, having progressed far beyond the earliest form of picture making, most notably pre-historic Native American pictographs. By examining the labor involved in producing these wood engravings, Gaudio reveals the instability of this evolutionary paradigm. For one, the art of the contemporary engraver was in fact closer to that of the earlier picture maker, as both scratched their lines on a hard surface. In addition, the art of the engraver, as a maker of multiples, did not possess the transcendent qualities attributed to artists of “original” works of art. More importantly, according to some critics, the recent proliferation of reproductive images threatened to return society to an earlier, more primitive state—when information was communicated primarily through pictures, not words. Thus, even as wood engraving sought to uphold an ethnography of variable evolution, it potentially undermined notions of Western progress.

In this brief analysis and summary of Engraving the Savage, I have hardly done justice to the complexity of Gaudio’s position that the materiality of de Bry’s prints was implicated in the “spin” of early modern ethnographic knowledge. Well-written, insightful, and provocative, this book should be read by those with a particular interest in representations of the New World and the field of visual culture. Those scholars attuned to methodological concerns will also find it thought provoking. Finally, the University of Minnesota Press is to be commended not only for publishing this important work, but for laying out a text in which nearly all the images fall on or next to the page where they are discussed and analyzed. Such careful attention to layout help make this already fascinating study even more of a pleasure to read.

Kevin R. Muller
independent scholar

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