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Representations of the Exotic
Infelicities: Representations of the Exotic. By PETER MASON. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 . Pp. xiii + 255 . $39 .95 (cloth).
Peter Mason's Infelicities: Representations of the Exotic surveys a variety of European visual representations of the Americas from 1500 to 1920 . This eight chapter study examines the idea of the exotic as it has been defined, interpreted, and employed by predominantly aristocratic European artists and collectors. It reviews an eclectic array of Spanish, French, Dutch, and to a lesser degree, British, individuals whose representations of Amerindians provide ample insight into the historical development of the exotic genre in the Americas. Mason reviews the aesthetic and ethnographic influences of contributions by Jan Mostaert, Eckhout Zacharias Wagener, and André Thevet, to name a few.
Mason treats the exotic as an imaginary construct "produced by a process of decontextualization" (p. 3 ). He asserts that an object is rendered exotic when it is "taken from a setting elsewhere" and then "transferred to a different setting, or recontextualized . . . to assume new meanings in a new context" (p. 3 ). Applying this working definition of the exotic, Mason raises two general questions which he addresses through case-by-case critiques of paintings, portraits, Renaissance collections, and frontispieces. He explores not only the degree to which exotic objects represent their original contexts, but also the extent to which these objects represent their new surroundings. Although responses to these questions will vary, Mason asserts that such representations can be labeled infelicitous because they do not appropriately correspond to their new contexts. The "exotic is never at home," he says, because "subject as it is to an ongoing process of decontextualization and recontextualization, the form of the account given will also be marked by displacement" (p. 5 ). According to Mason, this explains why exotic representations of the Americas were concerned more with geographical remoteness than with geographical specificity. For example, [End Page 221] Amerindian items, such as feathered skirts, were featured not only in exotic imagery of the Americas, but also in European images of distant lands in Asia and Africa.
As this book does not adhere to a strict chronology, chapters guide readers from one subject to another. The first two chapters explain Mason's definition of the exotic genre, what he describes as an amalgam of "the historical remoteness of the Greeks and Romans with the geographic remoteness of the Americans and other exotic peoples" (p. 40 ). He shows in these early chapters how this genre formed through the incorporation of sixteenth-century tropes of the New World and historical references to Greek antiquity. Chapters 3 , 4 , and 5 illustrate his application of the genre of the exotic with an examination of portraits of Amerindians, natural historical illustrations, and paintings of landscapes. In these chapters, Mason shows that the emergence of European representations of the Americas encouraged aristocratic Europeans to collect, present, and display curiosities in Wunderkammerns, or private cabinet collections. These mid-sixteenth-century collections of exotic artifacts became symbols of status for elite Europeans, signifying their curiosity for so-called Amerindian savagery and natural history.
Mason concludes in the final three chapters that the collection of artifacts and the representation of images continued well into the twentieth century when increasing numbers of Europeans, now largely non-aristocratic, began to develop an interest in exotic representations of the Americas. He shows, for instance, that by the eighteenth century museums and academic institutions competed with elite individual collectors in the classification and preservation of Amerindian rarities and curiosities in the name of science and knowledge. Dramatic displays of and performances by Amerindians likewise demonstrated popular and elite European desires to witness and understand Amerindian societies. The invention of the camera, as well as the popularization of primitive art in the early twentieth century, also contributed to new mediums of categorizing and visualizing exotic representations.
In Mason's review of European descriptions of the Americas, he believes that they should be read for their multiple meanings and shifting contexts. Appreciating the...