The study of the Mediterranean has, by necessity, long been interdisciplinary, connecting a variety of academic approaches and artistic media, much like the sea itself is thought to bridge Occident with Orient and Europe with Africa. But the Mediterranean is, in fact, a relatively recent invention. French historian Fernand Braudel was ostensibly the first to unite these disparate cultures, histories and geographies into a singular cultural imaginary called the Mediterranean through his epic work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the age of Phillip II, in the mid-twentieth century. He showed the Mediterrranean to be a locus of cultural production; a space uniquely constructed by its historical role as a stage for cultural encounters.
Etymologically, space is built into the word "Mediterranean." It stems from the Latin mediteraneum, meaning inland, or remote from the sea, which comes from a conjunction of medius + terra. The former is translated as 'in the middle' or 'in the midst,' and the latter as land, ground, soil, or earth. Hence another name for the Mediterranean is the middle sea. What is more, time is also built into the Mediterranean. Looking closely at medius, we find that it also refers to 'occupying the middle of (a period of time).' At its root, the Mediterranean oscillates between land and water, as well as space and time.
The exhibition, Mediterranea: American Art from the Graham D. Williford Collection at the University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art captures this vacillation on canvas, connecting landscapes with seascapes, as well as the spaces and times of this middle sea to reveal a specifically American view of the Mediterranean that circulated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For many of these painters, Italy lay at the heart of this sea, and it was the country's topography of ruins that inspired some of the collection's most notable paintings.
Tellingly, these artists chose to represent the remains of Italy's distant past instead of the ruins born of the country's struggle to become a nation-state, then contemporaneous to many of these artist's sojourns. For instance, George Barse's Aurelian's Wall (1879; cat. 4), while admittedly more interested in aesthetics than history, focuses on the Roman wall as an ancient, eroded object rather than something wrecked in combat by modern artillery as it was during the 1870s. Perhaps the ever-shifting relations of time and space that constitute the Mediterranean proved the optic through which American artists of this era could imagine a coherent, but unreconstructed, re-presentation of history. By enveloping themselves in the distant pasts on display in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, for a moment these artists experienced a brief reprieve from the traumas of the contemporary histories, in both Risorgimental Italy and the postbellum United States. In this way, Frank Duveneck's pleasant etching of Venice's Riva degli Schiavoni (1880; cat. 19), best translated as "Embankment of Slaves," disavows that site's history as the center of the Renaissance slave trade, and also transitively denies the grim legacy of slaver in his own country.
An excerpt from the Mediterranea exhibition catalog.
Written by Stephanie Malia Hom.
View a preview of this exhibition catalog below.