So many works, so few column inches… Here is one of many pieces I couldn’t squeeze into my review of the Asian Export Art Gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum (which you can read in the WSJ or in my archive). The museum simply labels it, “Basket, 1800-15.”
What is it, you ask? Why, it’s a riff on the Indian tiffin carrier. Elaborate ivory versions of these tiered lunch boxes became a thing for a while in China, treasured as somewhat exotic, luxurious items intended to be admired and never actually used as the objects they emulate. Take a look at the one pictured below, which is featured in an article about Ming- and Qing-dynasty luxury wares. Would you ladle shredded duck or sesame chicken into this gem?
This one is at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, and some suggest it might have been used as a jewelry box. Its form is cylindrical like traditional tiffin carriers, while the Peabody Essex one is fancifully egg-shaped.
But it’s the differences between the scenes that decorate their surfaces that prove most revealing. The ones on the National Palace Museum piece (see detail below) are nods to Chinese painting — craggy rocks, lone fisherman, wild and mythical beasts… And there is a harmony between the carved figures in relief and the textured background, much the way an embroidered design grows out of the fabric on which it is sewn. (click here for more close-up views).
In the scenes depicted on the Peabody Essex piece below, on the other hand, figures and motifs crowd the space, popping against the background in starker, deeper relief. If the others are embroideries, these are thick appliqués.
detail from the Peabody Essex Museum’s basket
The subjects and styles are also different. Here, the depictions cater to foreigners’ notions of Asians — a servant fanning his master, men coming to venerate an elder, another man with a tethered shaggy horse, the detail of its stirrup prominently displayed. The vegetation recalls garden plants and the floral decoration along the top is distinctly European. No question that this was made for foreigners, whether expatriates looking to take back a souvenir of China or people abroad enchanted by all things Asian. The two works do have one thing in common, however: They embody the same impulse to impress, tantalize and open wallets with shows of skill and creativity.