Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 18, 2017
Alessandra Russo, Gerhard Wolf, and Diana Fane, eds. Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400–1700 Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2016. 500 pp.; 350 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9783777420639)
Exhibition schedule: Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City, March 24–June 19, 2011

In their scholarly and visually magnificent book Images Take Flight: Feather Art In Mexico and Europe 1400–1700, the editors—Alessandra Russo, associate professor in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University; Gerhard Wolf, director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz–Max-Planck-Institute and honorary professor at the Humbodt-Universität zu Berlin; and Diana Fane, curator emerita at the Brooklyn Museum—have selected and carefully arranged thirty-three essays by different authors that reveal how feathers, birds, and images of flight became defining signifiers within art, thinking, and history during the geographical expansion of Europe into the Americas from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

Among the Prehispanic Mexica (commonly known as the Aztec), representations of feathers were ubiquitous in pictorial and sculptural art to indicate hybrid beings or conceptual ideas. The Mexica also had feather artists, known as amantecas in Nahuatl, who used actual feathers in complex visual compositions on shields, headdresses, or clothing. These Pre-Columbian feather mosaics, and ones the Mexica amantecas continued to make into the eighteenth century, were the catalyst for a changing view of feathers, flight, and representation, and they are the central, recurring focus of the entire book. At 500 pages with 350 color illustrations, Images Take Flight contains numerous full-page representations of feather mosaics that are of great use for study: details are vivid enough to reveal individual feathers within compositions as well as the unique haptic quality of the works so important to their effect and meaning. Also carefully chosen and meticulously reproduced are Pre-Columbian, European, and Viceregal images that constituted the visual context of the diverse and distinct artists and audiences discussed throughout the volume. This particular approach to representation within the book, where no image, whether it is a painting, sculpture, manuscript, drawing, or feather work is subordinate to another, creates a substantive and immersive visual experience that impacts the reading of each essay and the book as a whole.

This massive, comprehensive tome, with its breadth and depth, is the result of over fifteen years of work that formally began in 2001 when the editors received a Collaborative Research Grant from the Getty to study Mexica feather mosaics. This collaboration led to the 2004 symposium entitled Feather Creations: Materials, Production and Circulation hosted by the Institute for Fine Arts at New York University and the Hispanic Society of America. Seven years later, in 2011, they curated the exhibition El vuelo de las imágenes at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City and organized an international colloquium, Luces y sombras en las artes: La plumaria en dialog, at the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

From the outset, Russo, Wolf, and Fane intended to curate a major exhibition and edit a publication, which they accomplished on a grand scale with an extensive installation of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Mexica feather mosaics, the European feather works they inspired, and seventeenth-century ornithological drawings, paintings, sculpture, and textiles. They were able to secure loans for a large number of original feather mosaics from international collections for this important exhibition, a feat of enormous proportions given each nation’s idiosyncratic customs regulations regarding feathers of rare, endangered, or extinct species. To engage audiences in historical, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns, they organized the exhibition into five overlapping thematic categories entitled “Flight and Desire,” “Nature Between Art and Science,” “Itineraries and Offerings,” “The Feather in Place,” and “Shimmering to the Eye.” Although the publication Images Take Flight has the same chapter titles as the exhibition, their conception and completion represent two essentially different, parallel ways of thinking about and presenting this material. The exhibition focused on the experiential qualities of the feather mosaics themselves, while the text branches out from the image and idea of these feather mosaics into more open-ended questions about history, historiography, theory, and thought. The effect of the exhibition was centripetal, drawing attention to the feathered objects that astound and confound the imagination with their degree of detail and the impact of the shimmering active presence of the feathers themselves, while the text is conversely centrifugal, moving out laterally to where these works connected to or influenced artists, intellectuals, and ruling elites from the Americas to Eurasia and Africa.

The three introductory essays by the editors and the essays that follow establish the active salient meaning that feather representations had within Europe, the Americas, and via trade and expansion into Africa and Asia. As discussed in the first chapters of the book, in early modern European art there are several places where the representation of feathers occurs: for instance, they are there in the wings of Fra Angelicos’s angels or scattered over the surface of Pieter Bruegel’s Icarus. What these feathers mean—ontologically as objects of a natural species, or theologically as representations of transcendence—would fundamentally shift with the introduction of feather images from the Americas. The chapters on European and Mexica feather imagery illustrate the different ways that the concepts of birds, feathers, colors, and opticality are interwoven. In chapters on the transforming worlds of art, where European and Mexica artists become aware of and influence one another, the authors reveal a palpable intersubjectivity and shift of meanings on either side of the Atlantic. Each of the following essays is specific and complete within itself, while at the same time, taken together, they reveal how feathers, birds, and representations of flight were conspicuous, multivalent signifiers in the early modern Iberian world. The last chapter of the book, complied by Russo, is an invaluable annotated inventory of over 160 feather works made by the Mexica amentecas that are in private and public collections from the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

The editors’ decision to invite and compile a uniquely vast range of essays, tangentially related to one another, reveals their commitment to scholarship that combines and juxtaposes a variety of singular perspectives, case studies, and varying methodologies. From essay to essay the book reveals itself as an active montage of ideas meant to mirror and echo the dialogic nature of image making and interpretation in the historical context of the distinctly transcultural early modern world. Although a complete listing of the essays in the volume is far too extensive to relate here, some notable contributions include Leonardo López Luján’s “Under the Sign of the Sun: Eagle Feathers, Skin, and Insignia in the Mexica World,” Annette Hoffmann’s “Peacock Feathers and Falconry in the Books of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau,” Serge Gruzinski’s “Mexican Feathers for the Emperor of China: Towards a Global History of the Arts,” Michael Thimann’s “Image and Objective in Early Modern Ornithology,” Renée Riedler’s “Materials and Technique of the Feather Shield Preserved in Vienna,” and Diana Magaloni Kerpel’s “Real and Illusory Feathers: Pigments, Painting Techniques, and the Use of Color in Ancient Mesoamerica.” With a total of thirty-three different essays and perspectives from art historians, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, archeologists, conservators, and curators, the book addresses commerce, conquest, geographical expansion, warfare, massive disorientation, dominance, subordination, materiality, imagination, and radical shifts of consciousness as they are brought to bear on this single topic of the visualization of flight and the feathered wingedness of birds.

Overall, Images Take Flight is a profound, multifaceted examination of the making, circulation, and spectatorship of art in the first centuries of Spanish expansion into the Americas. The stunning strength of this publication is how, within the arc of the larger project, each essay reveals ways in which the representation of feathers and flight reflected fundamental and unique complexities of contact, conquest, colonialism, and a dialectally transformed Mexico and Europe. There is a unique, discernible ethos at work here that recognizes and presents the active mutual interplay of artists within a colonial-historical context too often presented as static or unilateral. Mexica artists and art, within the context of New Spain, initiated, intervened, and disrupted the world that burst in upon them. Their agency and presence is evidenced in the unpredictable and irreducible multimedia of art.

Anna Blume
Professor, Department of the History of Art, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York