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The Untranslatable Image. A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500-1600.


Moving beyond the dominant model of syncretism, this extensively illustrated volume proposes a completely different approach to the field known as Latin American “colonial art,” positioning it as a constitutive part of Renaissance and early modern art history.

Russo, Alessandra. The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500-1600. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014. Print.

From the first contacts between European conquerors and the peoples of the Americas, objects were exchanged and treasures pillaged, as if each side were seeking to appropriate tangible fragments of the “world” of the other. Soon, too, the collision between the arts of Renaissance Europe and pre-Hispanic America produced new objects and new images with the most diverse usages and forms. Scholars have used terms such as syncretism, fusion, juxtaposition, and hybridity in describing these new works of art, but none of them, asserts Alessandra Russo, adequately conveys the impact that the European artistic world had on the Mesoamerican artistic world, nor treats the ways in which pre-Hispanic traditions, expertise, and techniques—as well as the creation of post-Conquest images—transformed the course of Western art.

This innovative study focuses on three sets of paradigmatic images created in New Spain between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—feather mosaics, geographical maps, and graffiti—to propose that the singularity of these creations does not arise from a syncretic impulse, but rather from a complex process of “untranslatability.” Foregrounding the distances and differences between incomparable theories and practices of images, Russo demonstrates how the constant effort to understand, translate, adapt, decode, transform, actualize, and condense Mesoamerican and European aesthetics, traditions, knowledge, techniques, and concepts constituted an exceptional engine of unprecedented visual and verbal creativity in the early modern transatlantic world.

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“This study is an exciting and brilliant excursion into an interpretive territory that is easier to theorize in scholarly literature than to practice as a historical approach. . . . A particular coup is Russo’s definition of ‘untranslatable,’ not as a measure of cultural and linguistic isolation but as the result of a continual movement from one cultural register to another. From this basis, she proceeds through a sensitive and brilliant combination of sleuth-work and interpretive finesse to read the visual objects she studies in light of an exhaustive historical inquiry into their production and circulation. The result is a groundbreaking study that will mark the field of Latin American colonial studies for many years to come.”

Anna More, Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, UCLA; Professor of Hispanic Literature, University of Brasília; and author of Baroque Sovereignty: Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora and the Creole Archive of Colonial Mexico

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“This book, full of important discoveries and significant insights, is an important event. . . . It is astonishing to watch a scholar not merely discover and investigate hitherto understudied (and unstudied) materials, but then also construct language and concepts on the basis of the new materials, rather than simply assimilate them within the existing discourse. It is a heroic task. Anyone in the field of early modern art, not to mention people from diverse fields with an interest in ‘the intercultural,’ will be interested in this book.”

Alexander Nagel, Professor of the History of Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and author of The Controversy of Renaissance Art

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The book has been reviewed by Clara Bargellini for the Renaissance Quarterly (Spring 2015, Vol. 68, No 1), by Ananda Cohen Suarez for the Colonial Latin American Review (2015, 24:2), by Barbara Mundy for The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Latin American History (2016, 73:2); by Eloise Quiñones Keber for (2017).

Last Updated 4 years ago