Critical Images. the Canonization of Don Quixote through Illustrated Editions of the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

This study is of particular interest to iconographers and readers of early illustrated editions of Don Quixote, and perhaps of greater interest to all who deal in textual criticism of Cervantes' work. It advocates a rarely heard but convincing argument: that graphic representation of the novel is frequently subtle and penetrating, to the point that it can be held on equal footing with critical textual representations. Rachel Schmidt demonstrates, also, that the tendencies to idealize, sentimentalize, or romanticize the novel were existent, particularly in graphic forms, well before the work of the German Romantics. Rather than paraphrase I quote the following remarks from her Preface to show the development of her thesis:

"The richly detailed and pointedly satiric tapestry of sixteenth-century Spain...does not serve as the backdrop for modern adaptations, but rather is replaced by a nostalgically bucolic countryside or an empty horizon. This idealized setting stages the romancing of Don Quixote... In short, Don Quixote's mad vision, the result of too much ingenuous consumption of chivalric romances, overshadows Cervantes' satiric puncturing of the genre. Don Quixote, the parody of a romance genre, becomes a romance in the modern popular imagination.

"The second setting for the modern Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is the broad sky and empty horizon of Picasso's painting. Against an empty landscape the pair stand out as abstractions desperately seeking significance... These readings of the text as a philosophical or theoretical work are, obviously, far subtler and more compelling than the romancing of Don Quixote. ... The dialog that enlivens the novel's play is reduced to dialectic. Yet this general approach...appeared in the eighteenth century and was in fact responsible for the canonization of the novel... The erudite, elevating interpretations of the neoclassical critics, expressed both in visual images and text, informed the de luxe critical editions of the eighteenth century that graced bookshelves of the cultured thinking man. The German Romantics, who furthered these readings into the dialectics mentioned above, only took a further step of assimilating satire to speculative thought.

"Significantly for this study, both the sentimental and the satirical interpretations of Don Quixote shaped the graphic and literary components of these...editions and, therefore, were integrally involved in the canonization of the novel. By closely analising both components of these books, this study proposes, first, to revise the history of the reception of Cervantes' work, which until now has been focused on the German Romantic as a major turning point. When one studies these editions as a whole, considering that both visual images and critical writings represent interpretations of the text, the coexistence, conflict, and development of these readings in the eighteenth century comes to light...

"Secondly, this study highlights the productive independence of the illustration from the literary text as an interpretation that can even recast the narrative content into different generic forms. The iconography used by the artist becomes, most graphically, a rewriting through imagery of the text. The aesthetic, social, and even political interests that gave form to these rewritings, whether visual or literary, emerge from a consideration of the different interpretations juxtaposed in the eighteenth century editions when they are viewed in the light of the editorial conflicts and historical contexts giving rise to the book's production."

"For me," Schmidt adds at the end of her statement, "the deluxe editions, albeit the expensive mark of education and class, did at times serve as a public forum for the disinterested, spirited consideration of ideas and perspectives."

In Chapter 1, "Book Illustration as Critical Interpretation of the Text," Schmidt discusses "Printing and Authority," "Prints as Reproductions and Representations," "Illustrations and Iconography: Reading and Writing Visual Images," "Traditions and Iconography," "Canonization of Don Quixote in the Eighteenth Century," "Canonization of Don Quixote within the Deluxe Editions," and "Traditions of Reading and Illustrating Don Quixote. …