Among the different formulations of “landscape” investigated in the current exhibition at Site Santa Fe, SITElines 2014: Unsettled Landscapes, which closes this weekend, are archaeological and cultural landscapes. The Argentine artist Leandro Katz is one of several in the exhibition who use their practice to call attention to issues of cultural property, colonialism, and postcolonialism. Katz’s visual art and films explore topics in Latin American history, often approached from left-of-center political perspectives. His Catherwood Project (1985-1995, reopened in 2001) is a dialogue between the history of representations of the ancient Maya civilizations of Mexico and Central America and the sociocultural and economic forces that explain and underlie that history. According to the artist’s website (, the project, which currently entails more that 4,000 black-and-white and about 1,800 color photographs, explores the paradoxes that arise when images made by the early-19th-century British artist Frederick Catherwood are juxtaposed with contemporary views of the same ruined buildings. Many of the buildings Catherwood drew were in an advanced state of ruin, and in the intervening 16 decades, some have collapsed. Others have been stabilized and even rebuilt because they are key generators of revenue from contemporary tourism, especially in Mexico.

Katz’s Catherwood Project has often been exhibited over the past 30 years, and there is a large body of critical discourse on the photographs. But first, a few words on Katz’s technique. In an essay published in Two Projects/A Decade, the catalog for an exhibition held at New York’s Museo del Barrio in 1996, curator Julia P. Herzberg notes that the artist used five techniques to “enter into the vision of Catherwood by looking for his precise point of view.” For example, in Gate at Labná (1991), Katz photographed the ruins from the same vantage point as that used by Catherwood. He then placed his photograph next to a photograph of Catherwood’s version and rephotographed the images together. Another approach, as seen in Uxmal — Casa de las Palomas, entails photographing the ruins as before, but this time we see Katz’s hand in the frame, holding a copy of a printed version of Catherwood’s images of the same building. Katz’s third and fourth approaches entail making photographs of the same ruins Catherwood drew but not necessarily from the same points of view. Some of these images include tourists visiting the ruins, many of whom are seen taking their own photographs. Katz’s last series is a response to Catherwood’s rare night views of Maya ruins. In these images, he appears in the photographs, draped in a black cloth, as he lights the building using multiple flashes.

Although he died about 160 years ago, Catherwood (1799-1854) continues to influence the way we view the ancient Maya civilization. He trained at London’s Royal Academy of Art, and proved his mettle as an architectural draftsman in the late 1820s and early 1830s on the Egyptian expeditions led by the Scottish archaeologist and antiquarian Robert Hay. While in the region in 1833, he made the first modern survey of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the shrine holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The (unlikely, at least to me) story goes that Catherwood conducted a detailed architectural survey of the structure disguised as an Arab, since outsiders were not permitted to enter the shrine. After returning to London, Catherwood found employment in popular entertainment, at the panorama operated by Robert Burford in Leicester Square. Panoramas were one of the most popular forms of public entertainment in Europe and the U.S., from their invention in the 1790s until the late 19th century. They consisted of large-scale paintings, some up to 30 feet high and measuring 10,000 square feet, which were mounted inside rotundas. Viewers would enter panoramas through a tunnel and ascend to a belvedere, or viewing platform, where they could observe the painting — a kind of early-19th-century virtual-reality experience. The most popular subjects were foreign cities or famous battles, like Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Catherwood painted several panoramas for Burford, including views of the Temple of Karnak and the city of Thebes, of the ruins of Baalbec, and of the city of Jerusalem.

It was at Burford’s panorama in 1835 that Catherwood met the American traveler John Lloyd Stephens, who was passing through London en route to New York. Stephens was concluding a two-year sojourn in Egypt and the Middle East, as well as in the eastern Mediterranean, Poland, and Russia. Back in New York, Stephens wrote and published Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837) and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (1838). These works were well received, and the first was reviewed by none other than Edgar Allan Poe. The success of these works afforded Stephens the opportunity to consider further travelogues, and he turned his attention to Mexico and Central America, which were at the time poorly known to Anglophones. Prior to their independence from Spain in the early 1820s, foreigners (i.e., non-Spanish people, and especially Protestants) were forbidden from travel to the viceroyalties of Mexico, Peru, or anywhere in the Spanish crown’s Latin American colonies. So when Stephens departed New York in October 1839 for Central America on the first of two expeditions, he was almost guaranteed an audience for any account he might write of his travels. He was accompanied by Catherwood, who had relocated to New York three years earlier to open an architectural practice at 4 Wall St. The artist also built the first permanent panorama in New York, a specially constructed rotunda at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street. There he exhibited his own panoramas, as well as others purchased from Burford. Stephens and Catherwood spent several months in Mexico and Central America. Although it seems that everyone knew he would be gathering anecdotes and observations for a new book, U.S. President Martin Van Buren charged Stephens with making diplomatic overtures in Central America. The Federal Republic of Central America (1821-841), including what are now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, was engulfed in a fatal civil war in 1839, and Stephens never found a government with which to deal. 

Instead he and Catherwood traveled around the region, exploring ancient Maya ruins, including Copán in Honduras and Quiriguá in Guatemala and Palenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum in Mexico. Everywhere they traveled, Catherwood made drawings of the towns, villages, natural features, and ruined Maya cities, with special attention to the last. He often used a camera lucida to record the complex decoration of Maya sculptures and architecture. A camera lucida is an optical device that uses a mirror or prism to project a scene before it onto the artist’s drafting table. The device cannot make an unskilled artist into an expert renderer of architectural detail, and most students of Catherwood agree that he was a master draftsman apart from whatever use he made of the camera lucida. Stephens and Catherwood returned to New York with a rich trove of material, which they immediately began preparing for publication. They also planned a second expedition — to focus on the Maya ruins of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. This time they carried with them a daguerreotype outfit. Although the daguerreotype process of making early photographs was only announced in Paris at the end of summer 1839, the technique quickly crossed the Atlantic. Stephens and Catherwood were not even the first to make daguerreotype photographs of the Maya ruins. They were preceded by a few months by the Austrian Baron Emanuel von Friedrichsthal, most of whose images have been lost. The Stephens and Catherwood expeditions resulted in the illustrated travel accounts Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). Selling at $5 for each set, the books quickly went through dozens of editions. While Stephens wrote intelligently and entertainingly, the enduring fame of the volumes owes more to Catherwood’s illustrations, 68 in the 1841 volumes and 124 in the 1843 set. Catherwood also produced a deluxe portfolio of his images of Maya ruins, published in New York and London in May 1844. His Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan presented 25 images of Maya ruins and sculptures, reproduced from Catherwood’s original drawings and daguerreotypes by Britain’s best lithographers. Only 300 sets were produced, including 250 with sepia-toned images and 50 with hand-colored lithographs. Needless to say, complete sets of Catherwood’s views are valuable today, ranging from $55,000 to $67,000 on None of the daguerreotypes made by Stephens and Catherwood have been identified, and just a handful of his original drawings and watercolors of Maya ruins survive. This is owing to a devastating fire that reduced Catherwood’s New York panorama to ashes on July 31, 1842. Ultimately, we know his illustrations of ancient Maya art and architecture from their published versions, rather than from original renderings.

It has often been said, by Leandro Katz and many others, that Catherwood’s images of ancient Maya art and architecture were much more accurate than those made by almost every other artist of the era. The worst offender in this regard was Count Jean-Frédéric de Waldeck (circa 1766-1875), who saw elephants in the art of the Maya city of Palenque and who drew the site’s rulers as if they were Oriental potentates, complete with Phyrgian caps. Waldeck believed that there had been contact between the Old and New Worlds in ancient times, and that Egyptian and Near Eastern people, customs, and even animals (the elephants) could be observed in Maya art. Although a careful study of Waldeck’s preliminary drawings reveals no such distortions, by the time they were engraved, his Maya looked Turkish or perhaps Persian. While Catherwood’s illustrations evince no such pictorial biases, his mode of presenting Maya art and architecture rests squarely in the tradition of late-18th-century and early-19th-century Romanticism. His Broken Idol at Copán, from the 1844 portfolio, shows Stela C from Copán, Honduras, shattered by the hand of time. But it also shows a lightning bolt and a startled deer, both details that cannot be recorded by the long exposures of the daguerreotype process. Instead, these and other characteristics of Catherwood’s pictures recall images of ancient Egyptian sculpture and architecture, for example those made by Agostino Aglio for Giovanni Belzoni’s Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia (1821) or by David Roberts for his Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia (1849).

One of the issues that separate Katz’s project from Catherwood’s relates to the matter of mechanical reproduction. Both Katz and Catherwood used their era’s technology to capture images of the ancient Maya ruins. But whereas Katz’s photographs are handmade and unique objects, the corpus of Catherwood images that Katz mines are not, and are instead adaptations of the English artist’s work. As noted above, relatively few original Catherwoods survive, and Katz’s Catherwood Project proceeds from the wood engravings and lithographs published beginning in the early 1840s. Katz does not comment on this apples-and-oranges issue, but it seems essential to a project that sets out to open a dialogue across time. In other words, the comparisons work only if you accept that what is being compared is the subject matter of the images, the Castillo at Chichén Itzá, for example, and not their mediums. Katz has commented that his project addresses issues of colonialism, as they affected the history of representation of Maya antiquity. I think he intends to draw our attention to the fact that both Stephens and Catherwood were foreigners, and that their words and images can be interpreted as acts of cultural appropriation. R. Tripp Evans has explored this theme in his book Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915 (University of Texas Press, 2004). While he and Catherwood were visiting the ruins of Copán, Honduras, Stephens actually bought the ruins, or believed he did. The idea was to move the site’s many sculptures to New York, where they would be the centerpiece of a museum of American antiquity. Stephens’ project was perfectly aligned with the collecting practices of European institutions of his era, such as the British Museum or the Louvre. Of course, the difference is that the U.S. had no formal colonies in Latin America. But in a cultural extension of the Monroe Doctrine, Stephens staked a claim to the cultural patrimony of the entire Western Hemisphere.

In an article published in 1994 in Poliester, a short-lived Mexican arts magazine, critic Cuauhtémoc Medina argues that Katz’s Catherwood Project deals with the connections among ruins, photography, and death. Contemplating ruins of any kind can lead us to thoughts about our own brief existence. Katz’s Tulum, Descending God (1985), shows a diminutive structure at the ruins of the same name. But, unlike Catherwood’s images of Maya ruins, which are peopled only by his workmen or by a few natives, Katz’s photo is filled with tourists, many of whom are taking their own photographs. Medina notes that photography and modern tourism share a history. Stendhal published his Memories of a Tourist in 1838, just a year before the invention of photography. Some people now travel only to take photographs. Katz’s Catherwood Project explores issues of time, duration, and series. He is in dialogue with Catherwood, as well as with the history of representations of Maya antiquity, a project that at times calls to mind a house of mirrors, both reflecting and refracting its subject. ◀

SITElines 2014: Unsettled Landscapes” at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta, 505-989-1199) runs through Sunday, Jan. 11. Entrance is by museum admission (no charge on Fridays).