The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time
The European Vision of America
The European Vision of America 1976
To see ourselves’ as others see us can be a disconcerting experience, but at the age of two hundred it should be possible to absorb the shock. If the Bicentennial celebrations were to include nothing else than the remarkable exhibition of “The European Vision of America,” which opened on December 7 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, they would still have amply justified themselves. The exhibition is a triumph for the organizers, the Cleveland Museum of Art, with the collaboration of the National Gallery of Art and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris; and it is a triumph, too, for the guest curator, Mr. Hugh Honour, whose patient researches brought the exhibition into being, and whose elegant disquisitions on its contents and its theme will confer upon it life after death.
Mr. Honour not only scoured Europe and America for suitable exhibits. He also prepared the highly informative and comprehensively illustrated exhibition catalogue—itself an important documentary record—and has produced, in The New Golden Land, a general study of the theme which stands quite independent of the exhibition but adds immeasurably to its appreciation.
It is entirely appropriate that an art historian known especially for his work on chinoiserie should have turned to such a topic, for américainerie is no more American than chinoiserie is Chinese. The New Golden Land is essentially a study in misconceptions. It is a historical account of the visual, and to a lesser extent of the literary, image of America from the fifteenth century to the twentieth, not as America was, but as it was thought to be. At times there are moments when the image comes close to reality, or at least to aspects of it. David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, with its empty blue sky, its empty chair, and its no longer empty blue pool, tells us something at least about modern California which we know is not entirely unrelated to the truth. But if we turn back four centuries to Jan Mostaert’s West Indian Scene, resplendent at the exhibition even behind its Plexiglas, the artist’s hold on the American reality appears tenuous in the extreme.
What relation has this idyllic pastoral landscape, with its placidly browsing sheep and cows, to the harsh tableland of central Mexico, or even—where it is sometimes located—to southwestern Arizona? And what have these running naked figures, with the gestures and proportions of Mantegna nudes from the antique, to do with Indians? As the first known European painting of the New World, Mostaert’s sets a standard of misrepresentation which would seem difficult to equal, were it not that a substantial proportion of the more than three hundred exhibits that follow bear witness to the contrary.
Anyone who tours the opening rooms of the exhibition might well be forgiven for thinking that the standard sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European image of America is a severed leg. Time and again it appears, whether hanging from the branches of an Indian hut in …