Friday, November 22, 2013

Gender, Skin, and Power

Jean Struys's sensational accounts of travels in the East established many of the western European myths about Persia. He took stories he heard on his travels and retold them as unquestioned truths to an audience eager for exotic tales of the East.

One story he recounted was of a woman captured and forced into a Persian harem. She tried to escape, was captured, then flayed alive as punishment. Her husband displayed her skin as a warning to his other wives, or so the story went. It is a horrific tale of misogyny that was illustrated in many editions of Struys's Voyages. The image here, from the French language edition Les Voyages de Jean Struys (Amsterdam: Ches la Veuve de Jacob van Meurs, 1681), shows both the flaying and the display of the skin. It depicts a scene of cruelty and torture that is made even more disturbing by the way it exploits the positioning of the woman to become almost pornographic.

Compare it to another scene of flaying in Juan de Valverde's Anatomia (Roma: A. Salamanea et A. Lafrerj, 1560). Here it is a man whose skin has been stripped off his body. But rather than being a victim, he is portrayed as a heroic figure displaying his exposed musculature to the world as an example of the wonder of the human form. Moreover, he is given agency: it is his hand that holds the flaying knife. The contrast couldn't be more stark.

To see the Struys, ask for Rare G460.S934 1681. The Valverde is Rare QM21.V35.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sophisticated Traveler

There are seemingly few things more incongruous than the work of illustrator Edward Gorey and a magazine called the Sophisticated Traveler, filled with advertisements of escapism for the elite upper class of the 1980's. So, imagine my surprise upon finding just that in Rauner Special Collections.

"Being Brave Abroad" and "Back Home" by Edward Gorey feature four captioned cartoons each. The pictures show snapshot moments of white elites navigating the world around them. In "Being Brave Abroad," under the caption, "Ordering the spécialité de maison without even asking what it is," one image shows a man and woman in a sea-side restaurant being served a plate of black sludge with red tentacles creeping out of it. Gorey's mockery becomes evident when one notices the small shelf of human skulls behind the couple. The joke takes on two forms: one that a member of the upper class would laud themselves for simply trying something new without asking what it is; and the other, that maybe this couple should have asked, in case the skulls are a product of the dish.

Flipping through the pages of the magazine can give a taste of the very world that Gorey pushed against in these illustrations. The advertisements feature smiling, predominately white couples boasting about their escape to the "exotic" places pictured. One of my favorites ads declares "How to feel on top of the world while travelling around it," and offers the simple solution of Black and Decker's travel hairdryer set. I had no idea it was that easy!

Time gives us a lens to see the absurdity and deeply problematic delusion of the upper class "living the fine life," and Gorey's illustrations provide that same lens. The ability to compare Gorey's perspective positioned within the pages of the magazine, and ours, outside of the magazine and the time that bore it, can allow us to better understand how we can push against the pictures of perfection in our own magazines. Or, simply enjoy wondering what the editors were thinking in including cartoons that mock their own magazine.

To become a Sophisticated Traveler yourself--or to enjoy mocking one--ask for Illus G675bei and Illus G675bac.

Posted for Lucy Morris '14