“Savouring America” shows the New World through European eyes

28-08-2009

Those who have never been to America get their image of the continent from TV, movies, books and other media. It seems that this much has not changed since the New World was discovered and the first news from the continent reached Europe. The National Gallery in Prague has launched an exhibition called “Amerika k sežrání”, or “Savouring America” which presents the New World through 16th to 19th century European prints.

It’s hard to imagine that America was once not a part of the known world. The discovery of the continent by Europeans had a tremendous impact on the European society of the time. Europeans were eager to learn the details of the mysterious land across the ocean, and the accounts provided by conquerors, travellers and missionaries were a very popular – and, indeed, the only – source of information about the New World. Eva Bendová is the curator of the National Gallery’s new Savouring America exhibit.

“The leitmotiv of the exhibition is the transformation of America from the early motifs of a wild and sensual, but at the same time pure, land to later depictions of America. These already show America as a wealthy but subjugated continent. You can see this in this particular print in which America is represented by a half-naked woman with a bonnet riding a wild animal. She is crying and her bow and arrows are broken which symbolizes the conquered America.”

“The bulk of the exhibit features Dutch prints which illustrated some of the most significant works pertaining to America at that time, such as “Grand Voyages”, which was an editorial series by Theodor de Bry published in nine volumes between 1580 and 1602. This became a very popular work about what America looked like.”

The name of the exhibition refers to cannibalism which appears in many of the earliest images. Ms Bendová says that while Catholic authors saw the discovery as an opportunity to spread the Gospel among the native peoples, Protestants saw indigenous Americans as “noble savages”.

“The whole exhibition about America and its image in prints from the 16th to 19th century is based on the fact that in many of these prints, especially the early ones, cannibalism features as one of the symbols of the New World. Early 16th century Protestant illustrations, which were based on Columbus’ dairies and the letters of Amerigo Vespuci, side with the native peoples and present America as a pure land disturbed by the conquerors and colonizers.”

The exhibition Savouring America runs at the Schwarzenberg Palace at Prague Castle until October 26. For more details, visit www.ngprague.cz.

28-08-2009