Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 26, 2023
Anna Grasskamp Art and Ocean Objects of Early Modern Eurasia: Shells, Bodies, and Materiality Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2022. 220 pp.; 70 color ills.; 2 b/w ills. Cloth Euros109.00 (9789463721158)

With the rise of the early modern maritime trade, seashells became marine objects of curiosity and desire across regions. Conch and nautilus shells appeared in Dutch still life paintings among sumptuous exotic objects, were finely carved to become ornamental drinking cups in southern China, and entered European cabinets of curiosity as specimens, curios, and mounted pieces of art. How can we comprehend the multivalent thingness of shells as they straddle and cross the boundaries of nature and culture, material objects and visual representations, Europe and China, land and sea? What are their values and significance in early modern Eurasian visual and material cultures?

In Art and Ocean Objects of Early Modern Eurasia: Shells, Bodies, and Materiality, Anna Grasskamp situates these questions in an interdisciplinary study of Eurasian seashells. Drawing on fields as diverse as art history, object studies, the history of science, and area studies to inform its robust methodology of material culture, the book brings much-needed nuance to the study of the transregional material culture of early modern Europe and China through the maritime world.

Comprising four chapters, the book can be divided into two parts. The first two chapters focus on shells as aesthetic and epistemic matter and the latter two concern the cultural and gendered meaning of shells. Building on her previous work, Grasskamp purposefully uses the term “EurAsian,” rather than Eurasian, to underline the bilateral flow of ideas and material between Europe and (East) Asia, as well as their comparable trajectories in the cultural imagination and appropriation of maritime objects during the early modern period. In this vein, the book is aligned with the growing scholarship on transnational maritime history. Although its focus is more on how the ocean, and its synecdochical shells, mediated the land rather than on the ocean itself, the book effectively shows that the chain of seas from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea were not empty spaces devoid of meaning but active producers of material, knowledge, and imagination. The ocean, therefore, was a multilayered connective space between Europe and Asia. Far more than being a shared pool of marine resources, it knitted scattered entrepots into a global web of trade, and challenged and complicated landed cultural sensitivities toward others in Europe and Asia. In the early modern period, as Grasskamp shows, shells from Asian seas became commodities of long-distance trade charged with curiosity, passion, and fear toward the foreign and unknowable.

Drawing on this new perspective on connected maritime history, the book distinguishes itself by paying almost equal attention to the visual and material cultures of early modern Europe and China, at times articulating their connectivity through objects such as nautilus cups carved in Guangzhou and mounted in Europe, while also comparing patterns of knowledge and gendered imagination generated by shells in the two regions. Although connection and comparison are well-established methods in transregional and global history, Grasskamp adds nuance and complexity to them by way of (transmedial) materiality. For example, in chapter 1, she shows how imported Asian shells were commonly associated with ceramics in both regions. During the Tang dynasty (618–907), nautilus cups were not only reproduced in clay, but the shell-like ceramic vessels were called “parrot cups.” The clay mimesis of shells thus reinterpreted and transformed their marine traits to be avian (27–28). In Europe, too, shells and ceramics were correlated in the term porcellane, which appeared as early as 1298 in Marco Polo’s account (26). The implicit link between exotic Asian shells and Chinese porcelain is further materialized in Miseroni’s shell cups made of lapis lazuli (31). Grasskamp convincingly shows that the cups were modeled after Chinese parrot cups, which themselves were made of or after nautilus shells. Throughout the book, she uses diverse and rich material sources to underline fluid identities of EurAsian shells simultaneously as natural objects, cultural artefacts, visual metaphors, and traveling commodities.

In a similar vein, chapter 2 illustrates how the two cultures appropriated and interpreted the generative properties of shell growth. The logarithmic construction of shells, it shows, influenced more than mathematical knowledge to draw a powerful analogy of mollusks as “architects” and “producers.” Seashells, in consequence, were frequently likened to the shells of land snails as well as to bird eggs. Although Foucault has described such analogies as the Renaissance episteme of similitude, Grasskamp shows that this perception of nature was not limited to early modern Europe. Chinese knowledge of seashells, too, emphasized shells’ anthropomorphic abilities or “creative forces.” In this view, gigantic mollusks were thought to be the architects of “terraces and towers” built on the imaginary islands on the ocean (83). Moreover, both cultures actively conjured up feminine characteristics of shells epitomized in their ability to engender pearls.

Chapter 3 develops this theme further to show how humans and shells became entangled into isomorphic entities—such as mermaids and dragon ladies—in early modern imaginations (and crafts) of others. Drawing on the Hellenic myths, Christian iconography, travelogues of marvels, and Buddhist and Daoist visual culture, Grasskamp shows how seashells were appropriated to bear allegorical meanings often associated with the foreign and unknown world. Of course, the unhuman in the form of grotesque is by no means an unfamiliar trait of medieval and early modern cultural imagination of other in Europe and China. As texts such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Classics of Mountains and Seas (Shan hai jing) demonstrate, in both societies, the world beyond the familiar was often characterized by monstrous and imaginary inhabitants who subverted moral order and embodied barbarism. Yet, Grasskamp recasts this old story in a new light by framing it as “the transformation of matter across space” rather than a projection of Euro- and Sinocentric images onto the distant (133). In other words, maritime objects acquired new meanings as they moved toward the land, toward human society, and toward the center of political power.

What was most salient about these exotic shells was their feminine nature. In this way, in both cultures, the qualities of the unknown and faraway translated to the dangerous and seductive power of mysterious female creatures such as mermaids and clam-monsters with women’s faces. Shells, if not envisioned as the immediate dwelling places of such creatures, were conflated with them in crafted objects and visual iconography. Indeed, the gendered attributes of shells penetrate the entire book and form the central theme of chapter 4. Through the analysis of objects, texts, and paintings, Grasskamp shows that the haptic and visual perception of shells imbued them with the attributes of women’s sexual organs in early modern Europe. In addition, their iridescent and translucent hues were often compared to the skins of (white) women’s bodies. Exotic seashells thus acquired erotic and sensual qualities, as well as related immoral and dangerous symbolic meanings in Renaissance and Dutch still life paintings. Although such a sensuous appreciation was absent in premodern Chinese accounts, Grasskamp argues that shells were considered equally feminine—or yin—in their wet, nightly, and pearl-generative characteristics. As such, the shell-woman became a symbol of the subversive power of the foreign as well as its attraction and peril in both European and Chinese visual culture.

Art and Ocean Objects of Early Modern Eurasia successfully portrays seashells as boundary-crossing objects that went far beyond (re)connecting Europe and China to challenge the entrenched binaries of inanimate things and living organisms, reality and fantasy, secular and religious worlds, and human and non-human entities. The liminal status of seashells on land is continuously reenforced and articulated throughout their travel across and presence in these multifarious domains. If the reader were to further push the framework of the book, she remains curious about the shell’s place—or, rather, origin—in the sea. Besides the factual curiosity about how and where clams and oysters were harvested and processed before they became commodities, perhaps an ecological dimension of shells would further highlight their cultural complexity and bring balance to their itineraries from the ocean to the land and their transformation from living mollusks to commodified objects. Finally, the author’s nuanced analysis of the gendered nature of shells could become even stronger if she brings shells’ consumers to the narrative. It seems that most of the shells appearing in early modern artifacts and paintings were intended for male consumption, collection, and patronage. Does this add another dimension to the gendered power dynamics in our reading of shells? In addition to its own fetish as commodity and as symbols of women’s sexuality, what other forms of fetishization and objectification can we perceive from the male gaze and touch on shells and shell representations in the early modern world?

Kyoungjin Bae
Department of History, Kenyon College