Thursday, August 10, 2017
The overall attitude of the adventurers in Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure — Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert’s “deliberately eclectic” collection of excerpts from the journals of travelers both famous and little known — might be best summed up by contemporary botanist Wade Davis: “I learned that if you place yourself in the way of opportunities, in situations where there is no choice but to go forward, no option but success, you create a momentum thatwould have seemed beyond reach only months before. You hurl yourself into the abyss only to discover that it’s a feather bed.” While not every explorer in the book can lay claim to the title of “artist,” most of those included are fairly accomplished, and the visual impression made by Explorers’ Sketchbooks is at least as striking as the prose, mostly written by Lewis-Jones and Herbert, which accompanies the full-color illustrations. The book is arranged alphabetically, “to offer a serendipitous and sometimes surprising juxtaposition of explorers, ranging widely over time and space,” and this approach generally works well. It’s intriguing to find Mt. Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary preceded by Kon-Tiki voyager Thor Heyerdahl, and 18th-century Dutch polymath Jan Brandes following contemporary mountaineer Chris Bonington.
Of course, there’s more than a whiff of colonial exploitation wafting through these carefully curated pages. After all, the “discovery” in the book’s subtitle is from the perspective of the mostly white male adventurers, not the people being discovered, who obviously lived in complex and long-established cultures. Drawings by scientists of fish, flowers, and butterflies do seem less exploitative than the sketches of befuddled-looking “natives” in loincloths, but even the lovely paintings of tamarins and birds of paradise by Sydney Parkinson, for instance, assume the explorer’s right to go wherever he pleases, taking whatever he needs along the way.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a fascinating book with gorgeous images. Among the highlights are Maria Sibylla Merian’s painting of a caiman entwined by a coral snake, Titian Ramsay Peale’s sketches of bats and insects, and Hector Horeau’s watercolors of Egypt. And it’s difficult not to feel the call to adventure expressed by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton: “The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”
Still, the book’s most important lesson may be an unintended one: We must resist exoticizing what is new and strange to us if we are to see other cultures, and ourselves, as they, and we, really are.