by Daniela Bleichmar. Yale University Press, October 2017. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9780300224023 (h/c), $50.00.
Reviewed May 2018
Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin accompanied the exhibition of the same name, which was organized and mounted by the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens as part of The Getty’s vast Pacific Standard Time project, September 16, 2017 – January 8, 2018. The deliciously illustrated volume explores the images created by indigenous peoples of, and explorers, visitors, and “naturalists” to, the area of the world that we now call Latin America. The visual record of the period described within the title, nearly 370 years, contains some of the most surprising, and often little-known, images in the history of art.
Author Daniela Bleichmar, an art historian, is well established in the field, particularly in the scholarship of the visual culture and natural sciences of the Spanish Americas. She has written and published extensively since receiving her PhD from Princeton in 2005 and is the author of Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions in Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (University of Chicago Press, 2012), among other titles.
The illustrations of the current volume are many, more than 150, with additional details, well chosen and of very high quality. The credit lines for each figure are complete and will be appreciated by future scholars. These illustrate a text that is engaging and easy to read. In all, the book is very well designed and manages to approach “coffee table” status, while remaining easy to handle.
There are extensive endnotes, which are well supported by a substantial bibliography in two parts, primary and secondary resources. The usefulness of the catalog is further assured by the inclusion of an index.
Bleichmar’s lucid, scholarly text, coupled with the numerous illustrations (many of seldom-seen objects), does solidly place this publication in an academic realm. At the same time, it would be appropriate for readers who are seeking an introduction to the history or natural environment of Latin America. It is a visually stimulating production and could easily illuminate a discussion of the history of Latin American art after European contact.
As an acquisition tool, Visual Voyages would be very useful as its bibliographies provide reference to original and collateral works that are essential to any collection relating to the arts of Latin America. If used in tandem with Andrea Wulf’s superlative 2015 work The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Alfred A. Knopf), an acquisitions librarian could build a collection that might begin to correct the stunning lack of understanding in the Americas of the contributions to science and art made, and inspired by, the labors of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland. Both of whom are referred to extensively in the book in hand.