PRINT January 1992


AS YOU ENTER the first gallery of “Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration,” your Acoustiguide—J. Carter Brown himself, the director of the National Gallery—leads you to a cabinet of late-medieval treasures: an ostrich egg, brought to Europe from North Africa in classical antiquity, and turned into a gold jug sometime in the 14th century; a rock-crystal elephant, carved in India in the 15th century, caparisoned with gold and enamel mounts somewhere in Europe during the 16th century, and made up as a salt cellar. In these exotic transformations, wide geographical distances conjure cunningly with historical circumstance. The creation of a global culture circa 1492, as it emerges in the “sciences” of mapping and measurement and in the fantasy of cultural expansion, is a major narrative of this exhibit.

Immediately after these gilded Oriental treasures, your Acoustiguide draws you to the dark testimony of Hieronymus Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony, 1500–1505. Bosch’s “absurdist” images play out the drama of evil, which they set in a theater of the dream symbol. In testing the limits of the sensus communis and of its pictorial conventions, they explore the problematic projection of the “human” as it struggles, at the very threshold of early modernity, to become the representative figure in the arts. This is the other central focus of the show.

“Circa 1492” is an exhibit with a double vision: the eye expanding to hold the world in one space; the eye averted, awry, attenuated, trying to see the uniqueness of each specific cultural tradition and production. The show is crafted from a creative tension deep within the early modern moment. On the one hand, art is Map, striving to calculate the world picture on one continuous surface in two dimensions. On the other, Man conjures restlessly to break up that surface, to deepen it with dark dimensions, to personify it with perspective. The exhibition’s unique message in “this year of Discovery-Pride,” as Daniel J. Boorstin writes in the catalogue’s framing essay, “is to become aware of the limits of the kinds of fulfillment that dominate our consciousness in an age of science.”

The Culture of Discovery, an invisible community forged in the spirit of quest, focused on . . . an earth to be mastered and mapped. . . . But the Culture of Creation was a host of countless independents. Their only limits were their inherited styles and materials. . . . Their heterogenous and chaotic worlds, instead of nourishing our pride in a generalized mankind, inspire our awe in the infinite capacities of atomic individuals. . . . We must be struck by the diffuseness and the disconnectedness of man’s efforts in different places. . . . In the Culture of Creation there is no correct or incorrect, and in the long run no progress. Works of art reveal no linear direction but experiments radiating in all directions. While the post-Columbian maps of the world make their predecessors obsolete, works of art are always additive.1

This dynamic of Discovery and Creation certainly goes a way toward questioning the idea of progress as a universal ethic of cultural development. There is an attempt here to revise the linear perspective upon which the West makes its claims to cultural supremacy, claims that it roots in a narrative which establishes Renaissance perspective as the natural one for the arts. The structuring principle of “Circa 1492,” as curator Jay A. Levenson informs us, is the “horizontal survey.” Yet the show aims at a unified effect: from the effort “to present each civilization on its own terms, not as it might have appeared to visiting Europeans of the period,” a marvelous parallelism is to emerge.2

This is certainly controversial. Is it possible to “present each civilization on its own terms” once the avowed purpose is to produce a global show of marvelous parallels? This parallelism itself, as an exhibition strategy, must be a critical interpretation of the skeined, cross-cultural history of the infiltration and conquest that followed from exploration, and that interpretation must come from somewhere. Yet for Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, the terms of the exhibit are a “conceptual hodgepodge,” particularly in the later Asian and American sections, where “whether Western formalism is the most revealing way to examine non-Western cultures is one more question that ‘Circa 1492’ leaves open.”3 He is right to point out that the appraisal of non-Western cultures is largely technical and esthetic, but why does a more pliant and useful critical or curatorial response to cultural difference fail to develop?

The answer lies in the parallelism that “Circa 1492” promotes both as a cultural paradigm and, more significantly, as a form of spectatorship. Despite the show’s three sections (“Europe and the Mediterranean World,” “Toward Cathay,” and “The Americas”), which attempt to provide local cultural contexts, the terms of the show are substantially set toward the end of the first part, in the subsection on the Renaissance titled “The Mean and Measure of All Things.” In Europe, this is the moment of the emergence of the human figure as the “universal” measure of culture; it is the moment of perspective; of the birth of the “artist”; of Leonardo and Dürer; above all, for this exhibit, it is the moment that brings forth the show’s most celebrated icon, Leonardo’s Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, ca. 1490, his picture of Cecilia Gallerani, an accomplished and adventurous Milanese.

We arrive in her presence after encountering maps and astrolabes, trophies of Portuguese and Spanish discovery, Islamic treasures, anatomical and architectural drawings, and that arresting queen mother’s head from Benin, which exhibits a formal quality “without any uncertainty, to whose perfection any indication of humanity has yielded.”4 With Cecilia Gallerani it is different: it is precisely her uncertainty, her enigmatic look away from the frame, that conveys “il concetto dell’anima (the intentions of the subject’s mind).”5 Cecilia’s subtle glance away establishes or is emblematic of a whole tradition of looking at art and culture. And it is, ironically, through her distracted gaze that the spectator of “Circa 1492” is first inscribed and then held to the ideology and iconography of “humanness” that lies behind the attempt to present cultural difference in marvelous parallels.

For Cecilia’s distraction displays that very quality of creative “heterogeneity” that Boorstin recommends as the unique vision of “Circa 1492.” It is a concept of heterogeneity precisely restricted to the “atomic individual”—the authentic artist and the unique artwork. This is a concept that cannot be generalized into forms of cultural difference generated in and through the interaction and articulation of cultural systems. At the individual level, heterogeneity can only be expressive of preexisting “differences.” But a theory of cultural difference must be able to explain those transformations in esthetic value and cultural practice that are produced through histories and broader patterns of cultural conflict, appropriation, and resistance to domination. The predominant perspective of “Circa 1492” is to allow cultural heterogeneity at the individual level so long as the homogeneity of the (Western) notion of the human is left relatively uncomplicated within a universal esthetic realm. The parallel begins to look distinctly circular.

Let us imagine that as Cecilia looks away, her distracted gaze falls upon Dürer’s portraits of a black man, from ca. 1505–6, and of the enslaved woman Katherina, from 1521, to be found a few feet from the Leonardo. Suddenly I am caught between the master and the enslaved. The Acoustiguide tells me of Dürer’s interest in the diversity of nature—“in exotica imported from around the world.” Then I turn to the portraits, trying to decipher the “intentions of the subject’s mind”: the black man dressed in what looks like a Venetian cape, the black woman who has had her hair “confined within a European headdress.” In its spirit of parallelism, the catalogue suggests that Dürer goes beyond artistic and cultural stereotypes and shows himself “sensitive to the personality as well as the exotic potential of his sitter.”6 Can the two be compatible when exoticism erases rather than enhances personality? Since that is the case, can these portraits of Dürer’s be more than naturalist studies? Can the “mean and measure of all things” frame this radical heterogeneity of the human condition when the catalogue entry states that circa 1492 there were between 140,000 and 170,000 African slaves in Europe?

Where Cecilia’s gaze and Katherina’s downcast look cross, there is no parallelism, no equidistance. We are at the critical point of contesting histories and incommensurable subjects of humanity. Histories of the master come to be reinscribed in terms of, or in contention with, the enslaved or the colonized. Circa 1992, this will be the spectatorial position of the non-Europeans or half-Europeans, the African-Americans, the Chicanas and Chicanos, the Asian-Americans, the Latin Americans—to name only some of the hyphenated and hybridized peoples among other visiting Americans and Europeans—who now may visit the National Gallery, and who are now a significant part of the “national” scene. These are, after all, the very peoples whose histories were most graphically and tragically made and unmade in the wake of the Age of Exploration, circa 1492. It is clearly in their direction that the organizers aim their laudable attempt to staunch the “nationalist” sentiment of “Discovery-Pride” and to complicate the Eurocentric celebration of Columbus. But the show is complicated by another kind of historical parallelism that is somewhat less marvelous, and much more melancholic.

Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors, 1533, depicts the Nuremberg globe of ca. 1526, which records the route of Magellan’s voyage around the world, completed just a few years earlier. Amidst the display of the vanitas of Discovery—fur robes, scrolls, vainglory—there is that strange anamorphic disk in the foreground of the frame, which when viewed from an oblique angle reveals a skull. This skull is not simply the natural echo of death amidst the vanity of human wishes. Historically, it is the emblem of the death, disease, and destruction that constituted the “desire” for the globe in the 15th and 16th centuries. “The union of peoples, therefore, meant a union of germs, as death danced its macabre dance around the globe,” John Elliot writes in his brilliant catalogue essay, “but death came in many forms, and not least by war. . . . It was to the sound of gunfire that European merchants fanned out across the world.”7 Where does this history feature in Boorstin’s dialectic of Discovery and Creativity? Or does it demand an angle of vision—a mode of address, a formation of spectatorship—that is at odds with the curatorial spirit of marvelous parallelism?

Holbein’s anamorphic skull—the painting is not included in “Circa 1492”—emerges as the emblem of the death and alienation at the very heart of Discovery Pride. It is not simply another historical theme or perspective that could be placed beside Boorstin’s dialectic, within the same “horizontal” survey. For the skull emerges only when the viewer declines from the horizontal plane of The Ambassadors and moves sideways, in a position no longer centered in the gaze of the picture. From this point of displacement, the skull turns uncannily into a cadaverous orb, contesting the authority and the iconography of that other glorious globe, the Nuremberg map above it. Of course, as Jacques Lacan points out, the viewer’s eye is another sphere caught in this crossfire.8 It is not that the viewer, seeing from the same space, has absorbed a different aspect of the work. The space of spectatorship itself has become transformative and contradictory. The work of art is caught in double historical frames with contending focal points. As the oblique angle of the skull displaces the right-angled view and horizontal axis of Holbein’s central image of the Nuremberg globe, the culture of Discovery becomes a palimpsest of the colonial destruction of cultures.

This is not an academic art-historical issue. Circa 1992, the international or global art-show has become the prodigious exhibitionary mode of Western “national” museums. Exhibiting art from the colonized or postcolonial world, displaying the work of the marginalized or the minority, disinterring forgotten, forlorn “pasts”—such curatorial projects end up supporting the centrality of the Western museum. Parallelism suggests that there is an equidistant moment between cultures, and where better to stage it—who could better afford to stage it?—than the great metropolitan centers of the West. The promise of coevality with regard to space and presentation may well be kept; the choice of works of art from “other” cultures may well be catholic and noncanonical. All this may make “global” art more readily available to the embrace of multicultural esthetics or a meticulous archival study. But the angle of visibility within the museum will not change. What was once exotic or archaic, tribal or folkloristic, inspired by strange gods, is now given a secular national present, and an international future. Sites of cultural difference too easily become part of the post-Modern West’s thirst for its own ethnicity; for citation and simulacral echoes from Elsewhere.

The global perspective in 1492 as in 1992 is the purview of power. The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or the dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers. The parallelism of the modern museum, in its internationalist mode, turns on an esthetic axis of “equal distance/equal difference,” but the history of culture has been neither so equitable nor so ecumenical. The postcolonial perspective suggests rather that in the presentation of cultures, Western and non-Western, we adopt the perspective of the “parallax” (a word that enters the language circa 1594): “The apparent displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object caused by actual change or difference of position of the point of observation.”9 As the globe revolves, its other side uncannily discloses a skull.

As we enter the final phase of the exhibition, “The Americas,” the tragic history of globality circa 1492 becomes more apparent and the need for the parallax more pertinent. The great remains of the Inca or Aztec world are the debris of the Culture of Discovery. Their presence in the museum should reflect the devastation that has turned them from being signs in a powerful cultural system to becoming the symbols of a destroyed culture. There is no simple parallelism or equidistance between different historical pasts. A distinction must be maintained—in the very conventions of presentation—between works of art whose pasts have known the colonial violence of destruction and domination, and works that have evolved into an antiquity of a more continuous, consensual kind, moving from courts to collectors, from mansions to museums. Without making such a distinction we can only be connoisseurs of the survival of Art, at the cost of becoming conspirators in the death of History.

Homi K. Bhabha is Humanities Council Senior Fellow and visiting professor in the Department of English of Princeton University, 1991–92. His collection of essays The Location of Culture will be published in 1992 by Routledge.


1. Daniel J. Boorstin, “The Realms of Pride and Awe,” in Jay A. Levenson, ed., Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991 , p. 17.
2. Levenson, “Circa 1492: History and Art,” in Circa 1492, p. 19.
3. Michael Kimmelman, “Circa 1492: An Enormous, Magnificent Muddle,” The New York Times, 20 October 1991, p. II:37.
4. Ezio Bassani, “Queen Mother Head,” Circa 1492, p. 178.
5. Martin Kemp, “Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani),” Circa 1492, p. 272.
6. Jean Michael Massing, “Portrait of a Black Man” and “Portrait of Katherina,” Circa 1492, pp. 288–89.
7. John H. Elliot, “A World United,” Circa 1492, p. 648.
8. See Jacques Lacan, “Anamorphosis,” The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981, pp. 79–91.
9. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, s. v. “parallax.”

“Circa 1492: An in the Age of Exploration” remains at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., until January 12.