Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe

Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe (New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2021), 252 PP.

Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe is a broad survey of images, created mainly in Britain, showing maps, people, landscapes, and cartoons of Eastern Europe. The author presents a long-durée analysis that extends from the Renaissance to present times and goes through diverse mediums of representation that have rarely been analyzed together: maps, engravings, photographs, cartoons, and book covers. Murawska-Muthesius makes a convincing statement for the significance of visual culture and specifically for the power of images not only to represent, but also to actively create mental maps, power relations, hierarchies, and ideas.

Central to the book are the long-studied relations between Eastern Europe and the Western world. The author positions her work among other studies that, in the vein of Edward Said’s Orientalism, have exposed the Western image of Eastern Europe as a construct serving to enforce power relations and boundaries between the “civilized” world and its Eastern other.Probably the best-known are Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994); Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Murawska-Muthesius is careful to mention the “binary of purity versus contamination or the Self versus Other” that underpins most of these depictions (p. 2); yet at the same time, she makes it clear that her book does not simply aim to add contemporary image studies (Bildwissenschaft). It is, rather, an exercise in iconological analysis, a statement for the power and autonomy of images that leads to “the realization of the sheer centrality of the map and the body as the major sites of the production of knowledge about Eastern Europe, past and present.” (p. 199)

Most of the images discussed in the book are the product of subjective judgement and gross generalization that betray at once ignorance and the conflation of the differences between the “civilized” Western world and Eastern Europe. A foretaste of what is to come is presented on page one, where we are introduced to a fictional Eastern European country named Slaka, created by the English author Malcolm Bradbury as part of two of his novels, Rates of Exchange (1983) and Why Come to Slaka? (1986). Slaka and its people are defined by a very unsettled history, constantly changing borders, as well as fighting, invasions, and a rugged, inaccessible geography. Likely as a contrast to the allegedly British cultural purity, “its culture is a melting pot, its language a pot-pourri, its people a salad.”Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Rob Sitch, Molvania: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry (Richmond: Hardie Grant Books, 2013).

Each chapter analyses a specific type of image (maps, ethnic characters, cartoons and book covers) in its chronological development up to present times. The author does not provide a rigorous explanation as to how the specific images were selected. The implicit assumption is that when dealing with such a vast body of material—images of Eastern Europe from the 16th century onwards—one can only analyze a small, arbitrary number of them. However, there is a clear bias towards images produced in Britain, and the book would surely have benefited from an explanation of this choice, and why alternatives were omitted. We might think, in particular, that Western countries that are geographically closer to Eastern Europe and have engaged more closely with Eastern European nations—such as France, Germany, Austria or Italy—could have contributed a wealth of material as well.

Eastern Europe as a geographical region is notoriously hard to pin down, and the book does not strictly define the region’s confines. Rather, Murawska-Muthesius is guided by her sources and the way they show the idiosyncratic regions of Sarmatia, Turkey in Europe, Slavic Europe, the Eastern Hapsburg Empire, the Balkans, and the Eastern Bloc. Representations of Russia are absent from the book altogether, and the same applies for the Greek lands (included only in the chapter about maps), and there are again no explanations for these omissions except for the possible assumption that these two cases cannot easily be placed in the same framework of stereotypes as the rest of the region.

Murawska-Muthesius’s analysis begins, in Chapter 2, “Mapping Eastern Europe,” with a survey of maps produced in Central and Western Europe that include or focus on Eastern Europe. It extends from the Renaissance, passing through the Enlightenment, the 19th century, and finally the 20th century, to which most space is given. The author notes remarkable details even on maps that would otherwise look very banal to a common reader, and adroitly connects them to broader imaging issues, or to politics. A particularly strong point of this chapter is its survey of instances of maps where Eastern Europe was seen in a quasi-colonial or exotic way, as a land of rugged territories, of endless forests and “small nations,” and of other maps that subvert this image. For example, Sebastian Münster’s 1614 Allegorical map of Europe as Queenhas at its very core the regions of Bohemia, Ungaria, Polonia and Lithuania (p. 26); the 1842 map of the Slavic lands by the Slovakian-born Pawel Josef Šafarík was an apology to pan-Slavism (p. 33); and the early twentieth-century attitudes and maps of Harold Mackinder see Eastern Europe as the key region for the control of the whole continent (p. 42–43). Furthermore, readers can find out in this chapter about an impressive array of diverse and sometimes contradictory Western attitudes and emotions associated with Eastern Europe over the last seventy years: a sense of loss, emptiness, sorrow, fear of a Russian invasion, a welcoming attitude and, lastly, apprehension about the region’s integration in the European Union.

Chapter 3, “The Lure of Ethnic Dress. Eastern Europe in the Traveler’s Gaze,” moves the focus to illustrations in travelogues and magazines that showcase Eastern Europe. Murawska-Muthesius begins with engravings published in London in the seventeenth century, then moves to various mainly British travel accounts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and ends with an original discussion about 20th-century photographs published in the US magazine National Geographic and its British counterpart Geographical Magazine. This chapter discusses the development of several archetypical images of “Eastern Europeanness,” especially the “ethnic body,” a figure in traditional dress—usually a woman with a distaff or headscarf—which, as Murawska-Muthesius convincingly argues, even today constitutes a common cultural signifier for Eastern Europe.

Murawska-Muthesius complicates clichéd views of images of Eastern Europe. She argues that such images often reveal both the Western gaze and local self-fashioning at the same time, since they effectively communicate through “juxtaposition, avoidance, reduction, and repetition.” (p. 63) She demonstrates that folk images in particular could function as picturesque depictions designed for tourists (the case of William Herny Bartlett’s “The Kazan Pass”), as well as being used by the states in the region as a way to construct their national identity in the form of a “meta-narrative of modernity.” (p. 90) However, such images often hide more of Eastern Europe than they reveal. Even if they served nation-building processes, they still often obscured Eastern Europe’s modern and progressive development, showcasing only a small part even of its (folk) culture, not to mention the utter invisibility of its many ethnic minorities. Murawska-Muthesius successfully details how Eastern European authors writing in Geographical Magazine would actually depict the developments in their respective countries, their ports, national parks, modern architecture, and urbanism. However, these never made it on the magazine’s cover, and they didn’t dispel existing clichés surrounding Eastern Europe. Therefore, the images of ethnic bodies in the Western world were in essence a way to maintain a certain exoticizing image of the region and to render invisible most of the very realities of Eastern Europe that they claimed to depict.

Chapter 4, for the most part, presents an analysis of cartoons published by the British magazine Punch. It is interesting to observe how Eastern Europe is here again subjected to a gendered image, however now it no longer appears as a seductive, exotic peasant woman ready to be discovered and/or conquered, but rather as a group of naughty boys and troublemakers who need to be disciplined. This image is directly connected to 20th-century political turbulences in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as well as to the World Wars. However, the idea of East European countries as a bunch of naughty troublemakers actually persisted into the 1990s, and unfortunately can be found today, even after East European states’ accession to the EU and Brexit. (p. 168) Conversely, in the subsection “Eastern Europe Strikes Back: Imagining the ‘Imperialist Warmonger’” Murawska-Muthesius analyses cartoons produced not in the West but in communist Europe itself, representing Western leaders or countries in the shape of frightening and cruel war mongers. Also presented here is a flourishing and lively East European culture that produces political satire, caricatures, and cartoons.

Chapter 5 considers book covers (dust jackets) of academic books focused on Eastern Europe that were produced by British or US publishers after 1990. One might expect to find less stereotypical or gendered representations in academic books, and more “politically correct” images. And indeed, the main themes of the books selected by the author portray the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, especially marching crowds and toppled statues; but there are also socialist cityscapes, informal photos from communist publications, and Eastern European artworks. In this context, Murawska-Muthesius also analyses the cover of her own book, a staged photograph by the London-based artists Katarzyna Perlak showing two girls in folk dresses, but with their faces covered by balaclavas, in the manner of the Pussy Riot group. The photograph is meant to be a critical commentary against traditional East European values and norms, and an attempt to queer heteronormativity, gender, and national symbolism. It is also a refreshing alternative to the multitude of stereotypical representations of Eastern Europe discussed in the book.

Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe is the result of Murawska-Muthesius’s meticulous two-decades of research. It is also, according to the author’s testimony, a reflection of her own professional and life journey, that of an art historian and curator trained in Poland who moved to the UK in the 1990s to pursue an academic career. Therefore, one could explain the obvious British-centrism of her book as a reflection of the interest this scholar-émigré has in understanding how her home country is perceived by her new home country.

The book is situated at the crossroads of several disciplines in the rapidly changing field of visual studies, and thus can open up exciting new avenues for research. For example, one could imagine a complementary analysis of alternative images by Eastern Europeans presenting themselves through albums, travelers, international exhibitions, or through publications that survey their national heritage. While many locals have internalized the exoticizing Western perspective of their home countries and the region as a whole, others have created unique and alternative images, promoting innovative ideas about East European modernity. A future book could also be written about images of the West produced in Eastern Europe, complementing the representation of Western and Central Europe in travelogues and literature.See Wendy Bracewell and Alex Drace-Francis, Under Eastern Eyes: A Comparative Introduction to East European Travel Writing on Europe(Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008); Wendy Bracewell and Alex Drace-Francis, Balkan Departures: Travel Writing from Southeastern Europe (Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books, 2009). This perspective, from the East, could contribute to changing the ambiguous, reluctant, and outright negative perceptions of the region. Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe will, no doubt, be useful to anyone interested in visual material reflecting the views and perceptions of Eastern Europe produced in Britain and the Western world. Murawska-Muthesius does justice to her sources not only by providing factual information about the way in which images transport and promote stereotypes, but also by encouraging the production of possible narratives of resistance.






Cosmin Minea
Cosmin Minea is a Swiss Postdoctoral Excellence Scholar at ETH Zürich, Chair of the History and Theory of Architecture Prof. Dr. Maarten Delbeke. He was formerly a Postdoctoral Fellow at New Europe College, Bucharest and holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, awarded in 2020. He has studied writings about architecture and politics of heritage in late nineteenth-century Romania and is currently working on placing these processes into a broader Eastern European perspective. His latest publication is "Roma Musicians, Folk Art and Traditional Food from Romania at the Paris World Fairs of 1889 and 1900" in Joep Leerssen and Eric Storm (eds.), World Fairs and the Global Moulding of National Identities (Leiden: Brill, 2021), pp. 144-169. He also has a forthcoming edited volume, Shona Kallestrup, Magdalena Kunińska, Cosmin Minea, Mihnea Mihail, Anna Adashinskaya (eds.), Periodization in the Art Historiographies of Central and Eastern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2022).