The Naval Gaze: (Sub)tropical Fantasies and Imperial Pacific Landscapes | KCET
The Naval Gaze: (Sub)tropical Fantasies and Imperial Pacific Landscapes
This image essay is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project conceived by artist Hillary Mushkin. As part of Incendiary Traces, a series of "draw-ins" will take place in Southern California in the coming months. They will be followed here on Artbound, along with related posts on historical and contemporary topics like this one.
In the lead-up to an Incendiary Traces draw-in focused on San Clemente Island, I have been thinking a lot about historical precedents of drawing San Clemente Island, and by extension, Pacific islands in general. Who drew these islands in the past, under what circumstances, and in what forms? I am surely not the first person to gaze at the Pacific islands and wonder what loveliness must inhabit these islands, close to the California coast, but totally inaccessible except by boat, a few days of sailing and/or a few hundred dollars of boat fuel. And where did the popular idea come from that islands like these might be lovely? My search for precedents of gazing at these islands from afar and drawing them on site (in the European tradition) lead me to European and American imperial and military imagery. Some of the earliest European representations of the Southern California coast and Pacific islands are from imperial Spanish and British expeditions, as well as U.S. Naval activity. My purpose here is to look at the legacy of this landscape tradition and how it may affect our understanding of our Southern California coast and islands.
1. Spanish Maps:
2. British Imperial landscapes of the Pacific:
The first naturalistic representations of the Pacific created by artists actually aboard ships were made on British Captain James Cook's expeditions from 1768 to 1780. In his book Imperial Landscapes: Britain's Global Visual Culture, 1745-1820, John E. Crowley notes that William Hodges was the first professional landscape artist in the Pacific. He quotes a letter from the Admirality directing Hodges to "make drawings and Paintings of such places in the Countries you may touch at in the course of the said voyage as may be proper to give a more perfect idea thereof than can be formed from written descriptions only." Crowley explains that the timely and wide publication of these landscapes popularized these British views of the Pacific as the premier European perspective and enfolded these areas into the British empire culturally, if not by military conquest. (To maintain diplomatic relations with the Spanish and French, Cook was specifically instructed not to intervene militarily and to conduct himself only as an observer/visitor.) Earlier Spanish views of the Pacific like Vizcaino's were only published after Cook's expeditions began to have this effect. The fact that the British landscapes were firsthand visual accounts reinforced their authority. Though Cook's expeditions were in the Polynesian islands, not the California coast, the Anglo views of the Pacific may have laid a foundation for the Southern California fantasy we know today.
It is interesting to note the palm tree figures in this imperial imagery, which appears to be an origin of the Anglo ideal of the palm dotted island paradise. As well, the palm tree was used by early Anglo Southern California boosters to fashion the region as an idyllic paradise. (See Janet Owen Driggs essay for example. Though Owen Driggs refers to the subtropical environment, and Cook explored tropical regions, the Anglo ideal of the palm tree dotted landscape overflowing with bountiful uncultivated fruits, basically free and easy food, was widely publicized in Captain Cook's accounts. He wrote in some detail about his gustatory explorations while on his Pacific expeditions, including detailing the bounty of fruits in the region.)
3. U.S. American:
So who did make it to Southern California to draw its coastline in this naturalistic tradition? Examples of this tradition of visually documenting the first-hand experience of the Pacific landscape, employed so skillfully by the British, are found again later during the US-Mexican war. A U.S. naval officer aboard the USS Dale created somewhat simplistic, naturalistic landscapes and coastal profiles to document and depict the battle activities from the perspective of the ship. These images are some of the only ones I found from the pre-photographic era which use the naturalistic landscape gaze similar to the style of British exploration of a century early and contemporary to this American Naval artist. However, the images were not published until almost 100 years later, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt obtained them for his private collection. They were published in 1939 by Grabhorn Press, a publishing house in San Francisco.
The examples cited above demonstrate a variety of ways in which the Pacific landscape was recorded and engaged from an imperial, naval perspective. First hand, naturalistic views played an instrumental role in establishing British imperial power in the Pacific during the 18th Century. Though the British were not the first to explore the area, political decisions to keep accounts of their findings and explorations secret eventually handicapped other countries with claims to the land. First hand naturalistic accounts in the form of drawings, paintings and engravings provided a lens through which to understand unfamiliar places. These images were used to consider commercial and military interests, make decisions, and craft strategies and policies. For the larger public, they connected people to distant lands which seemed remote, yet played fundamental roles in shaping the material cultures and political conditions they lived in. It is this tradition of visual documentation as an instrument of power that Incendiary Traces recalls and considers through the draw-in events. In two weeks, we will report here on the recent draw-in focused on San Clemente Island Naval Weapons Testing Range. Stay tuned for a contemporary view of that island from the waters around it as we painted and drew on a sport fishing boat, while sport fishermen told us about co-existing with the U.S. Navy.