Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 4, 2017
Alessandra Russo The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500–1600 Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014. 368 pp.; 35 color ills.; 153 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780292754133)

Combining long-standing research interests in three distinct areas of sixteenth-century Mexican art—feather mosaics, geographic maps, and graffiti—Alessandra Russo’s latest major publication continues to exude the adventurous spirit of a personal scholarly quest in which she invites the reader to participate. Although exploring graffiti is an original undertaking, the first two topics have been treated in earlier books: one authored on maps, El realismo circular: Tierras, espacios y paisajes de la cartografía indígena novohispana, siglos XVI y XVII, Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2005) (click here for review) and another co-edited (with Gerhard Wolf and Diana Fane) on feather mosaics, Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400–1700 (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2015). In this integrated study, Russo extends and deepens her excursions into the creative and cultural dynamics of the art forms of early colonial New Spain and also advocates for what she sees as their necessary place in contemporaneous Renaissance and early modern art history. The reader follows her from the Leiden University Library, where she experiences an initial serendipitous encounter with a devotional image of Jesus as Salvator Mundi, created by indigenous artists with a “palette” of brilliantly colored feathers, then to a Paris bookstore where another chance finding of a book titled Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, Barbara Cassin et al., eds., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) inspires her theoretical framework for dealing with her own untranslatable images at the core of the ongoing dynamics of artistic creation in post-conquest Mexico. Next, in the Mexican national archive she works her way through hundreds of local maps that served as indigenous pictorial petitions for land grants. Finally, she travels throughout various states of modern Mexico as she searches out the cryptic remains and meanings of graffiti scratched on the lower walls of sixteenth-century missionary conventos.

Mexican feather work, maps, and graffiti are disparate artistic fields, none of them regarded as part of mainstream Iberian, Renaissance, or early modern art; and some might even question the inclusion of graffiti. Russo, however, views them as paradigmatic images that allow her to carry out the ambitious aims of her project by devising a methodology adequate to study them in their colonial context, since these post-conquest images cannot just be slotted into existing European esthetic categories. They also enable her to construct a persuasive case for a revisionist view of the creation and circulation of newly produced colonial art in global Iberian and early modern worlds. As she explains, Mexican objects forwarded to Europe were eagerly viewed and collected, becoming valued inclusions in royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical collections. Their widespread distribution can be noted in the locations of the repositories that now house the feather works she illustrates, though this is less apparent with the understudied maps, and not at all in the case of the graffiti that remain in their obscure original locations.

From her double perspective of a mutual encounter, then, Russo pointedly asks: “What impact could the European artistic world have had on the Mesoamerican artistic world? But also, how did pre-Hispanic traditions, expertise, techniques—as well as the creation of post-conquest images—transform the course of Western art?” How, in short, did these images “burst the borders” between [Mexican] visual traditions and [European] “histories of art”? (2)

Russo’s is a singular quest, and she spends little time following in the paths of earlier scholars from various disciplines or localities. This includes some who have sought to construct a historical narrative of the voluminous arts that an expansive Iberian world produced for local and distant patrons or markets, and others who have examined them as instruments of conversion or attempted to sort out indigenous from Iberian aspects, among other approaches. As is evident in her copious and meticulously detailed notes and weighty bibliography, Russo controls critical facets of the complex local and global lives of these images and objects, demonstrated by her prodigious grasp of the relevant scholarship in multiple languages, disciplines, and eras. Equally impressive is her extensive firsthand knowledge of the scattered surviving artworks and documentation. She grapples with identifying the concepts and language that can adequately reflect the tangled genealogies and transformations of the various arts created in the colonial Americas. For this reason, she rejects the term “syncretic,” along with others deemed unable to cope with the complexities of the dynamic historical, social, or artistic situations in which the images were engendered, produced, viewed, and transformed.

Russo’s innovative approach is first presented to the reader in the title and subtitle of her book. The concept of an untranslatable image does not signify that something cannot be translated from one language, culture, or world to the other. Rather, her view stresses the creative dynamics and ongoing image-making process rather than the endpoint of a “visual translation.” The subtitle too is meaningfully worded as “A Mestizo [“mixed”] History of the Arts” and not “A History of Mestizo Arts.” She explains this choice as a preference for putting the accent on “the new type of history—and of art history” that the arts of New Spain, and presumably others produced in similar colonial situations, challenge us to recognize and write (34).

The circular glyph-like cover image (a stylized swirl of water [atl in Nahuatl]), a sectioned rectangular patch of earth or perhaps an altar set across it, and a vertical fire streak (tlachinolli or fire in Nahuatl) visually illustrates these critical concepts. Russo points out that this feather mosaic was long regarded as the central section of a pre-Hispanic shield. But as it turns out, the feather roundel was reclaimed from cloth extensions that manifested its function as a liturgical chalice cover and therefore removed. Then again, it is possible that the circular form may have originated as the central design of a pre-Hispanic shield, for in fact the glyph represents atl tlachinolli (water-fire), a Nahuatl visual and verbal metaphor for warfare. With its possible pre- and post-conquest temporalities, pre-Hispanic and European connections, and what might be interpreted as either indigenous military or Christian religious symbolism, this feathered image presents a host of possible iconographies, interpretations, and functionalities. To simplify the concept, its transformations and shifting contexts reveal it as an untranslatable image in a Mestizo history of the arts in New Spain.

Another pivotal image, the triptych, also propels Russo’s analytic trajectory, for it determines the organization of her chapters and structures the shape of her arguments throughout the book. Whereas a contemporaneous European format consisted of three related images, Russo’s construction features a mixed “corpus” of feathers, maps, and graffiti. Yet each panel of this seemingly artificial grouping responds in some way to the others, and all present problems that are not only unique but also interrelated. In the three chapters of the book’s three parts Russo proceeds to examine this trio of paradigmatic image components from varying perspectives.

Part 1, “A Triptych from New Spain,” introduces “Treasures” (feather work), “Figures” (maps), and “Malicias” (graffiti), and recounts how these types of native images captured the gaze of the first Europeans to see them. This took place as early as the arrival on Mexico’s eastern coast of the soon-to-be Spanish conquistadors led by Hernando Cortés. With his strategic mind-set, Cortés quickly recognized their utility and proceeded to make use of them for his own self-serving purposes. Inventories of the booty he amassed and sent to Europe, including silver and gold objects, along with dazzling feather mosaics called “treasures,” were destined for his sovereign Charles V as evidence of the material riches he had encountered, then later gifted to other secular and ecclesiastical dignitaries throughout Europe.

Part 2, “Images between Words,” analyzes the trio of image components in chapters now titled “Mosaics” (feather work), “Landscape” (maps), and “Scratching” (graffiti). One ingenious analysis results in what Russo identifies as the indigenous invention of landscape painting in New Spain. She describes the requirement of submitting claims for indigenous land grants in the form of pictorializations of the area being requested. From this practice, she attributes the creation of territorial maps (originally called “figures”) from the transformation of pre-Hispanic glyphic names of native communities and terrestrial details.

Part 3, “The Creation of Unexpected Languages,” ensues in chapters now called “Relics of Ixiptla” (feather mosaics), “Circular Realism” (maps), and “Figurative Condensation” (graffiti). One of Russo’s investigational coups focuses on her study of graffiti in the upper cloister of the Augustinian convento of San Nicolás de Tolentino in Actopan in the present-day state of Hidalgo. As a result of dogged documentary research, she is able to identify the author of a constellation of rough scratchings, aspects of his erratic life, and the probable reason for his presence in that part of the cloister. She further uncovers a connection between some figures and political personages and events at the highest levels of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The combining of multiple elements of scattered graffiti elements into a coherent whole expresses the quality that she calls a “figurative condensation,” which she also sees as a typical feature of mestizo images.

One of the pleasures of Russo’s interwoven narrative structure is that it allows the reader to share the experience of discoveries that punctuate each chapter and to savor the process of their unfolding. Learned, insightful, and challenging, The Untranslatable Image has much to offer not only to Latin American colonial studies but also to the fields of Iberian, Renaissance, and early modern art, culture, and history, as well as to those who are more broadly intrigued by untranslatable images and words, culture contact, and global encounters.

Eloise Quiñones Keber
Professor Emerita of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Latin American Art, Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York