Introduction: The Culture of Albums in the Long 18th Century

Nebahat Avcıoğlu

“In the middle of the eighteenth century,” writes art historian Donald Preziosi, “an argument began to be made that sensory knowledge had a perfection of its own, which in its way was analogous to that of logic or ‘reason’.”[1] This volume contends that albums and album-making played an important role in this aesthetic turn of the eighteenth century’s epistemological drive (e.g. from connoisseurship to art history to the socio-political significance of images) and of the ensuing culture of commercialization of art.[2] If Rousseau’s Herbier and Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, following Bacon’s Novum Organum, firmly established the role of systematic compilations as instruments and methods for constructing knowledge about the world, they also intimately linked the visual to the rational. With their selected specimens of natural objects organized around both the logic of sequencing and an empirical display of visual and material data, they closely recalled albums that had been emerging since the early seventeenth century as a social and cultural praxis. Yet, albums were also shaped by wider discourses in the long eighteenth century which saw a huge growth in trade and imperialism, diplomacy and self-fashioning as well as the global circulation of people and ideas. Serial collecting, classifying, rationalizing and curating became a way of experiencing and making sense of the rapidly changing world and helped form individual and collective identities.

A useful cue for understanding the impact of this aesthetic turn, reminding us of the concrete linkage between material things and ideologies, might well be Edward Said’s insistence on the fundamental importance of this period in the rise of Eurocentric biases and nineteenth-century Orientalism:

The absolute demarcation between East and West, which Balfour and Cromer accept with such complacency, had been years, even centuries, in the making. There were of course inummerable voyages of discovery, there were contacts through trade and war. But more than this, since the middle of the eighteenth century there had been two principal elements in the relation between East and West. One was a growing systematic knowledge in Europe about the Orient, knowledge reinforced by the colonial encounter as well as by the widespread interest in the alien and unusual, exploited by the developing sciences of ethnology, comparative anatomy, philology and history; furthermore to this systematic knowledge was added a sizable body of literature produced by novelists, translators, and gifted travellers.[3]

The eighteenth-century proliferation of volumes with images of Eastern rulers, artefacts, costumes and customs clearly suggest that Preziosi’s “sensory knowledge” involved more than just visual curiosity. They smacked of a growing European penchant for “systematic knowledge” about the Other. Such compilations derived their authority or legitimacy from their format, resembling encyclopedic collections that transposed the issue of truth upon not the image but images. Indeed, albums invoke relationships, compositions and collectivity. Albums’ formal aspects challenge the sufficiency of a single image—in an album images beget images, often with surrogates, anachronisms and pseudomorphosis performing a sense of coherence—and establish a constant recursion between the image and the artifact.

Although this issue of Journal18 focuses on the eighteenth century, the pinnacle of album-making, the origins of this practice go back to the fourteenth century. Albums come in many genres and shapes, encompassing repositories, vignettes, friendship memoirs, commonplace books, surveys, carnets de voyage, scrap books, genealogies, catalogues, musings, costume books and so on. Yet an argument could be made that certain conventions apply to all genres. A rough and ready definition may be that an album is “a book according to its form, but picture gallery, even a museum, in function.”[4] Even though they have the physical structure of a book and the appearance of a narrative they also represent the sheer gathering and display of data, a rhetorical organization of iconic discourses and a virtual unfolding of a larger idea having a specific program. They may contain the corpus of a single artist, a portrait series, or a proto-ethnographic study. They may be organized around a collection of autographs, a travel itinerary or the hierarchical distribution of a society, but often the unexpected mixture of media and topics form their repertoire, and seriality remains constitutional.

The contributors to this issue explore many qualities and characteristics that define albums through a sampling of diverse productions between the years 1650 and 1850. The aim is to illustrate the rich and varied cultures of album-making from both local and cross-cultural perspectives, as well as within elite and popular spheres globally. What the essays convey is that materiality is indispensable to albums. They show that making, handling and transforming things require physical procedures. While handicrafts, collage, and paper-cuttings have traditionally been associated with women, many albums also evince male interest in such tactile practices, as the authors discuss. The material analysis of specific albums reveal a range of working methods with different goals: practical (preservation), aesthetic (connoisseurship), or curatorial (thematic). What frames the materiality of albums is also the material components that inhabit their pages. The essays reveal how displayed things and images themselves acted upon the viewer/maker/owner to contribute to the constant re-fabrication undergone by albums as they were being consumed/used. The temporality of such practices also speaks to the moment of the album’s handling in which an active agency is presumed. Albums in a way prolong or disseminate authorial agency and, one might even argue, contest the idea of anonymity to which they are often associated. Even though many works survive without a title or the name of the “author,” such absence re-enforces an implicit authorship (in the same way that one does not “name” the collecting processes that make up a museum). This is not to say that albums are the work of a single hand. As discussed by the authors, as living objects, albums transcend their originary state and possessors/makers. Thanks to their malleability—their contents sometimes being aggregated or excised, a condition necessary to realize a desired collection—they are often reconfigured or rethought into new volumes.

All of the essays in this issue explore broadly how the album as a manufactured object becomes a window onto the private and social worlds of artists as well as the politics of elusive collectors or makers. Albums embrace fluidity in agency, and exist in between strict categorical distinctions between practices and traditions. In this way they provide a dynamic way of approaching cultures in ever-ongoing encounters between public and private, past and present, local and global, art and commerce. Albums allow us to think of the links between the medium (e.g., as gifts, or as luxury commodities) and power relations. As the authors show, albums attracted particular attention during important shifts in political and social mobility amongst urban elites and the bourgeoisie over the course of the eighteenth century. For example, in India and the Ottoman empire we learn that the art market did not operate independently from the court and vice versa, partly because the appreciation of muraqqas (albums) as precious artifacts depended on a pre-existing value put on courtly compilations and partly because of the increasing global trade in single-page paintings and manuscripts.

The Mughal court, which produced the finest examples of muraqqas in the seventeenth century, remained the yardstick against which Deccani and Avadhi rulers projected their legitimacy by acquiring and commissioning some of those albums and reworking them. In Istanbul urban collectors benefited from the diffusion of palace art and encouraged artistic freedom at the same time. In both cases, we find unremitting complicity between foreign and local intermediaries in dismantling existing volumes and mounting new ones. Going further, artists actively facilitated familiarity by incorporating Western conventions into their designs for the European collector. It is therefore not surprising that the interest in the ancient art of China peaked precisely when the discussion of antiquity was at its height in Europe. The study of albums thus allows us to take local sensibilites into account while also exploring their relevance to global political, cultural, and economic contexts.

The historical circulation of art has produced a dynamic culture of exchange but its commodification has also been detrimental to the study of albums, many of which have been maliciously taken apart and scattered. Consequently, the authors in this issue devote even more attention to the reconstitution of specific oeuvres to identify their precise number of folios, their ordering systems and the temporal specificities of their production. The problem is exasperated by the fact that albums are deeply hybrid practices, made of (and often within) material as well as cross-cultural exchanges, collaborations, reappropriations and displacements. Beyond a certain point, even the most careful and discriminating study remains conjectural.

Another difficulty with the study of albums is that they are rarely approached as a medium in their own right. In a way, the resemblance between albums and books is responsible for this neglect as many authors point out. But even in the domain of bibliophilia they barely get a mention. In fact, it may not be so insignificant that two of the essays deal with the albums housed in the collection of Parisian bibliophile cum orientalist Alexandre-Auguste Lesouëf (1829-1906). The hybrid status of albums are hardly ever contested in the library holdings of major institutions; they are often mutely classified as “books” rather than as artefacts/objects of multiple owners/makers and provenances. In effect, an Ottoman album bound in European leather is not very different from an Iznik jug set in English metal, or a panel of Japanese lacquer used in French-manufactured furniture. However, since the albums are kept in libraries or archives rather more often than displayed in museums their contrived nature becomes uneasy to process by the classifying machinery of a national collection, which also reveals the repressed rationalization intrinsic to any institutional discourse. This is because the epistemological reflex (or ideological thrust at times) of the authentication process still comes from textual evidence, and often librarians resort to visual analysis only when textual information is lacking. Therefore a big portion of the problem in treating albums revolves not only around defining their nature but also around this procedure. As the authors ultimately argue, only by becoming more attentive to the materiality, seriality, hybridity, portability and ideology of albums can we appreciate the full scope of sensory knowledge.

Nebahat Avcıoğlu is Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at Hunter College and affiliated faculty at the Graduate Center, CUNY

[1] Donald Preziosi, “Aesthetics,” in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2009), 55.

[2] Although an exhaustive list of scholarship on albums is beyond the scope of this short introduction, recent approaches include: Anthony Griffiths, The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking, 1550–1820 (London: The British Museum Press, 2016), which explores the use of albums as storage and as the final stage in the completion of a print collection; Kristel Smentek, Mariette and the Science of the Connoisseur in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014), which draws our attention to the pivotal role of albums in attributing works of art in the eighteenth century; David J. Roxburgh, ed., An Album of Artists’ Drawings from Qajar Iran, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2017), in which Roxburgh discusses albums as “revealing a system of art making” that gives an organizational framework for artists and a sense of artistic coherence to a visual culture rarely captured in other media; and Tara Zanardi and Lynda Klich, eds., Visual Typologies from the Early Modern to the Contemporary: Local Contexts and Global Practices (New York: Routledge, 2019), which explores costume albums as “pictorial cartography of types.”

[3] Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Perceptions of the East [1978] (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 39-40.

[4] Ebba Koch, “The Mughal Emperor as Solomon, Majnun, and Orpheus, or the Album as a Think Tank for Allegory,” Muqarnas 27 (2010), 277-311.

Cite this as: Nebahat Avcıoğlu, “Introduction: The Culture of Albums in the Long 18th Century,” Journal18, Issue 6 Albums (Fall 2018), DOI: 10.30610/6.2018.1

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