Prosperity Comes in Many Forms
19 October 2019 ~ the Wall Street Journal
The focus of a small exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, on view through Jan. 5, 2020, is a roughly 4-foot-tall painting of a haloed woman dripping with jewels. Red and green gems dangle from her headdress and hang from tassels as she stands on a giant lotus, afloat in space, unseen winds gently ruffling her silks. Cloud motifs adorn her skirt, whose hem curls and rolls like waves. Her right hand extends, open-palmed, as though she had just released a gift; her left holds aloft a round stone topped by a bright red flame, the hallmark of a wish-fulfilling jewel.
The iconography is clear: She is Kichijoten, Japanese Buddhists’ conception of Lakshmi, a popular Hindu goddess whose annual five-day festival of Diwali kicks off October 25. (read full review)
Global Trade Made Gorgeous
14 October 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
In 1799, the founders of the East India Marine Society in Salem, Mass., enjoined its members—all sea captains and merchants—to add “curiosities” to their cargoes for display at the Society. Since then, that cabinet of curiosities has evolved into the Peabody Essex Museum. As the cargoes themselves became the focus of scholarship and interest, its collection of works made in Asia for foreign buyers has grown to about 28,000 objects. Now, the museum’s newly opened 40,000-square-foot expansion features a reimagined installation of the Asian Export Art Gallery that touches on truths at once particular and universal, inspiring and sobering.
Almost all of the more than 200 works on display date between the late 1500s and the mid-1800s. That is when the exchange of goods and ideas became truly global, with all manner of ships plying routes connecting East and South Asia, the Americas, Africa, Europe and, after the 1770s, Australia.
Virtually every piece has a story, whether the lacquer sewing table decorated with Chinese motifs and depictions of the Portuguese settlement in Macao; the South Asian Christ-child figure carved in rock crystal, its posture erect and serious as a Hindu or Buddhist deity; or the wallpaper James Drummond commissioned around 1800 so that, once home in Scotland, he could relive the 15 years spent in China. Not for him idealized gardens or generic scenes—designs some believe foreigners invented and, when they proved popular, Chinese imitated. As this re-creation of his salon attests, Drummond wanted to reimmerse himself in the daily bustle of the foreigners’ compound in Guangzhou (also referred to as Canton).
For some works, like a soaring 12-paneled screen with scenes of silk production, Asian artists used traditional techniques to create luxurious souvenirs for expatriates to send home. In others, they adopted Western techniques like oil painting or emulated European designs. Don’t miss the chair made around 1770 in Visakhapatnam, on the Bay of Bengal in India. Its design instantly brings to mind the work of Thomas Chippendale. But the intersecting lines of the back splat are intertwining snakes. Indian mythical animals perch on the top rail. And the surface isn’t wood, but ivory veneer with profuse decorations that, far from blending, pop, black on white.
We also see long-distance collaborations: Chintz painted or resist-dyed in India, then cut and sewn into children’s clothing in the Netherlands; swaths of leather that Dutch artists gilded and painted for wall coverings and which Japanese craftsmen mixed and matched into an eye-catching nobleman’s coat; a ceramic basin Mexican potters made in the early 1700s, inspired by Chinese blue-and-white porcelains. Not to mention the downright bizarre concoction French artists created around 1740: A delicately painted Japanese pot perched above a Chinese porcelain stag, the two joined by gilded ormolu and studded with colorful French porcelain flowers. By challenging us to fill in the blank “Made in ____?,” the label uses it to make a point about globalization.
Karina Corrigan, the museum’s curator of Asian export art, also highlights other dynamics behind this explosion of creativity. At one of the entrances, we’re greeted by a 40-inch blue-and-white porcelain vase, one of 151 porcelains “Augustus the Strong,” Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (1670–1733), traded for an entire regiment. This was after, as a video recounts, he had imprisoned a young alchemist who, tasked with turning base metals into gold, discovered the recipe for white, translucent porcelain, which had eluded Europeans for centuries. It was 1709, and Augustus immediately established a factory in Meissen, then set about amassing a collection of nearly 30,000 Asian porcelains.
For their part, European and Asian traders offer an early model of networking, exchanging gifts, letters and portraits. The last of these include a life-size figure of Calcutta (now Kolkata) merchant Raj Kissen Mitter, clad in the kind of fine muslin he sold, and the portrait of Houqua II, head of the Co-hong, a 13-member group of merchants who oversaw China’s foreign commerce. The position was highly lucrative, and the wealthy Houqua II shows off his status by adopting the refined dress of scholar-officials.
Significantly, the portrait was made in 1835, by which time British and Americans, with the help of local middlemen, were financing their Asian shopping sprees by smuggling massive amounts of opium into China. On the nearby wall, a botanical illustration of a poppy hangs beside reproductions of correspondence between Joseph Peabody Jr. , a Salem merchant, and Benjamin Shreve, a ship captain carrying Turkish opium to Canton with instructions from Peabody on what to buy with the proceeds. A five-minute video chronicles the human cost of such trades, then points to the devastation of our current opioid crisis. It doesn’t draw parallels with art patronage and Big Pharma, but raising the issue at the very center of the installation forces us to wrestle with it as we engage with yet more works of ingenuity, skill and beauty.
—Ms. Lawrence writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal.
Connecting Man to the Mythic
15 September 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
As we step into the softly lighted galleries that the Metropolitan Museum of Art reserves for its collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy, the drone of construction work in the European section fades. The quiet twilight suits the theme of “Another World Lies Beyond: Chinese Art and the Divine,” a show that demands and rewards attention. Through more than 140 works, we travel to and across the border between this earthly realm and that of supernatural beings as conjured by artists from the early sixth to the early 20th centuries.
Nowhere is that demarcation more explicit than in a magnificent 1629 painting presiding over the gallery devoted to the beloved bodhisattva Guanyin, the quintessential listener and comforter. One of the show’s few works not part of the permanent collection, this 7-foot-tall painting by Zhou Bangzhang shows the bodhisattva as a multiheaded, thousand-armed, thousand-eyed deity sitting on a giant lotus inside a luminous disc. Beneath him, rows and rows of court officials and monks cluster around their king, while above him sits the Buddha, surrounded by deities. Guanyin looks down, but two of his many arms rise toward the Buddha, holding the divine figure aloft. The bodhisattva of compassion thus bridges the earthly and heavenly realms. (read full review)
Understanding a Revered Art Form
25 July 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Scholars have long valued Korean ceramics. More recently, shows have highlighted distinctive Korean styles within a painting tradition imported from China. And now, in the U.S. city with the largest population of Koreans, “Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing” spotlights calligraphy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Anyone unsure why East Asians regard calligraphy as the highest art form might want to head straight to the gallery devoted to “Royal Calligraphy” and look at pages from a sketchbook of King Hyojong (who reigned from 1649 to 1659). Using Chinese characters and the occasional flower as his subjects, he experimented with scripts and styles, producing a remarkable range of energy, emotion and tone. In one column, characters stride, bold and dynamic. In another, they cascade like a wispy waterfall. In yet another, they fly off the page, as sprightly and exuberant as a Joan Miró drawing. (full review)
Astrolabe Tech Made… not so easy
May-June 2019 ~ AramcoWorld magazine
Let me start with a confession: I am no engineering whiz, but I like to know how things work. I studied religion, and I often write about art, which is how I became entranced by astrolabes. Their beauty is mesmerizing, but their efficacy as an instrument leaves me perplexed. Imagine a medieval lass trying to ferret out the secrets of a smartphone, or even a dumb phone. Well, that’s how I feel, and I don’t like it.
So I’ll set myself a task: I, a Brooklynite, am going to find my way around an unfamiliar city—Boston—using an astrolabe. To get started, I ask Sara Schechner about this. She is a historian of science with a special interest in the history of astronomy, and she curates the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University. “It can’t do that,” she says. “Astrolabes,” she explains to this liberal arts major, “aren’t navigation devices. They’re early computers.”…. read the whole article and watch the accompanying video (there’s no firewall!)
Where Sacred Meets Secular
1 May 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
By the time you leave “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art” at the Cleveland Museum of Art, you’ll have interacted with striking works—from depictions of exuberant festivities to evocative images of deities. You’ll know that many are on loan from Japan, including a number prized as Important Cultural Property, and that they are all tied in one way or another to the veneration of divine beings called kami. You may also remember that the works date from the 10th century until 1868, when the government declared Shinto the state religion. What you won’t be able to do is concisely define Japan’s age-old “way of the gods.” And that is good. (link to review)