A palm-sized white ceramic cup with two fine blue lines encircling its rim depicts colorful chickens tending their chicks and proud roosters amidst groups of rocks and flowers. At first glance, the cup appears to be a run-of-the-mill item that someone who liked chickens might pick up at a charity thrift shop and place in their kitchen window. But this is the renowned “chicken cup,” the most extraordinary type of early Ming multicolor porcelain in existence, which for centuries has been coveted by emperors, literati collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese art. It bears an imperial seal in a cobalt blue underglaze on its bottom indicating it was created during the reign of Ming Emperor Chenghua. Of course, it’s impossible to put a price on the priceless, but the 500 year-old Meiyantang Chenghua chicken cup, very similar, sold at auction in 2014 for $36.3 million. For the untrained eye, such are the surprises that await in the 150 objects on display at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in their summer show, Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum (June 17-Sept 18). Those more grounded in Chinese art will revel in the nuances of the crème de le crème of Chinese Imperial art selected by Jay Xu (AAM director) and Li He (AAM associate curator), co-curators of this show.
Considered the world’s top collection of Chinese art, the National Palace Museum was founded in 1965 and contains hundreds of thousands of the Imperial family’s extensive collections of artworks, artifacts and palatial treasures. In order to protect them from the ravages of war, these treasures were relocated to Taiwan from the National Palace Museum, in the Forbidden City, Beijing, in 1947 and from other hiding places in China at other dates. The collection rarely travels outside Asia and roughly 100 of the paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades, bronzes and textiles have never before been seen in the United States. The other 50 were shown at the Metropolitan Museum in the spring of 1996 when Jay Xu was a young curator there.
The exhibit spans 800 years of Chinese history, covering Han Chinese, Mongol and Manchu periods from the early 12th century Song dynasty though the Yuan, Ming and early 20th century Qing dynasties. The structure is chronological, following the reigns of nine monarchs, eight male and one female, each of whom heavily influenced the artworks of their respective eras. The team at the Asian, in close collaboration with Taipei, has done a wonderful job presenting the many aesthetic currents that ran through Chinese imperial art as Chinese emperors expressed their personal tastes and embraced various foreign innovations and influences. Wall placards provide rich context and full Chinese translations, while the audio-guide and catalog provide even more information.
“This is not a typical blockbuster art show in its scale,” says Dr. Richard Vinograd, Christensen Professor in Asian Art, Stanford, “but it’s very rich in terms of objects and art forms that are included over a very broad span of time. The value of these objects can be distinguished between their pure artistic value and connoisseurs’ or collectors’ values, which are attached to Imperial patronage, transmission, and technical innovations embodied in the works.” Indeed, some of these artworks are like people you meet who, initially, may not seem very interesting but once you get to know them, become thoroughly engrossing.
Emperors’ Treasures opens with an exploration of Emperor Huizong (r.1101-1125 AD), who sought escape from the affairs of state through the arts and letters. His connoisseurship had a formidable impact on the study of antiquities in China and he collected over 6,000 paintings, thousands of antiquities and bronzes, many of which were lost when the Jin army, which he was once in alliance with, invaded in 1127. A brilliant and dedicated calligrapher, Huizong invented the “Slender Gold” style of calligraphy, unlike anything that preceded it, which had such unique energetic brushstrokes that they are often described as the legs of dancing cranes. Huizong was enamored by anthropomorphic rocks and stocked his imperial garden with them, giving them names which were engraved on them. A Daoist poem he composed, which is in the show, praises the form of a particularly unique rock. Equally fascinating is Huizong’s back story: he sired over 65 children.
The well-known but quiet Southern Song dynasty painting “Walking on a Path in Spring,” illustrates important unresolved issues that apply to many paintings of the Song period and beyond. This ink drawing on silk is by Ma Yuan, one of the more famous court-affiliated artists of the fourth Southern Song dynasty emperor, Ningzong (r. 1195-1224). It depicts someone strolling and twisting his beard, his view extending into a misty void. A smaller figure (lower left) seems to be following him and carrying something. A bird sits on a branch and another is in flight, directing the viewer’s eye to the imperial couplet in the upper right, for which there are a variety of translations.
“The most interesting question is: what is the relationship between the poem and the painting and which came first?,” says Richard Vinograd. Even for the painter Ma Yuan, whose work is well known, very little is known about his life or about the status of court-affiliated artists during this period, explains Vinograd. “We do know that Ma Yuan had a big impact with his own work and was part of a multi-generational family of artists that were active in the Song Dynasty. Their stylistic mode was important for centuries thereafter as a model for later artists to refer to or imitate.” Vinograd will speak about the exhibit at the Asian Art Museum on Saturday, August 25, and will further explore the relationship between painting and calligraphy appearing in early paintings.
Emperors’ Treasures gives ample evidence of the great diversity of Chinese culture, highlighting non-Chinese rulers who were exceptional leaders and introduced new practices. The Mongol, Kublai Khan, grandson of Gengis Khan, become China’s first non-Chinese emperor in the late 13th century and founded the Yuan dynasty. The history is fascinating: the Mongols came in from the northwestern steppes around 1237 and finally overtook China in 1276, toppling the Song dynasty in the South. They also invaded what was then Iran, so the world’s two oldest cultures were under one rule. This expansion and unification of China led to a massive influx of artisans and craftsmen from all over the vast Mongol empire and great cross-pollination which had reverberations even in Italian art of the fourteenth century. Unlike other emperors in the exhibit who created art, Kublai expressed his taste through administrative acts that supported the arts. His unsigned bust portrait, likely produced by a court painter, is executed in the style of most all Imperial portraits: it depicts a flat two-dimensional, forward facing, remote leader. In plain Mongol dress and headdress, with a hairstyle of three braided loops hanging from behind the ear, Kublai is presented unambiguously as the emperor of China but as something foreign at the same time.
Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) porcelain reflected the craze for fine cobalt blue pigment which came from Iran and was used prevalently in Islamic art. Another quite ordinary looking treasure, important not for its style but for its exquisite deep blue color, this rare wine cup and saucer set came from the porcelain center in Jingdezhen. There, artisans mastered the use of cobalt for monochrome glaze and underglaze decoration and developed a new decorative element which involved applying gold over the vivid blue. Originally, the cup and saucer were decorated with gold motifs which have long since fallen away. Residue reveals that plum branches surrounded the exterior of the cup; these were a symbol of faith and self-esteem and were an important motif in Yuan art.
The use of cobalt would reach new heights during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as would the fineness of porcelain explaining the enduring craze for Ming. Innovation in clay recipes allowed for vessels to become thinner and thus lighter. New body and glaze recipes produced a purer, more translucent white and a glossier finish which were even softer to the touch. The variation of shapes expanded too and Islamic influences crept into bottles, flasks, jugs, candleholders and boxes. Aside from the palm-sized chicken cup, several exquisite examples are in the exhibit, including a very large celestial globe vase with an imposing three-clawed, heavily-scaled flying dragon encircling the vase’s body. The vase’s neck and background are of delightful array of lotus flowers and leaves.
The richest art collection in Chinese history
Of the nine Imperial rulers covered in the exhibition, a stand-out is the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong (r.1736-1795), a contemporary of George Washington. He reined for 60 years and together with his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, and his father, Emperor Yongzheng, created the last and most prosperous of Chinese feudal dynasties. Even though Emperor Qianlong was thoroughly versed in Chinese and composed some 40,000 poems and enjoyed calligraphy, he was not Chinese but was a Manchu, like his father and grandfather. All were masters at deploying culture through patronage but Qianlong became the greatest art collector in Chinese history, amassing a collection of art and jewels that had been acquired by China’s leaders since the first century BC. There is no agreement by scholars about the exact size of his collection but the catalog (p.16) gives one estimate of 490,000 by Tsai Mei-Fen, the chief curator of the Object Division of the National Palace Museum.
“If you look over the broad span of this exhibit,” says Richard Vinograd, “the later examples of porcelains or objects from the 18th century Qing dynasty are often tour de force examples of structure or interesting enamel decoration. Their innovative shapes begin to reference other kinds of objects and are quite interesting historically.”
During Qianlong’s reign, revolving vases appear to have been introduced under the supervision of Tang Ying, the gifted director of the imperial factory. The yellow reticulated vase with revolving core and eight-trigram design in Emperors’ Treasures is one of the most complicated pieces of porcelain produced in Jingdezhen, a feat of artisanship and technical virtuosity. Each component was fired individually to create an inner vase of exquisite design which rotates when the neck of the exterior vase is turned.
Interestingly, Quianlong’s seals and poetry appear on a number of objects from different eras in the exhibition. A short poem dated fall 1776 and his Imperial seals “be virtuous” and “eloquent and fluid” are carved on the base of a deep blue Song dynasty ceramic pillow, called a “ruyi,” (wish-granting wand) referencing its graceful mushroom-shape and the magical powers of mushrooms. There’s no easy re-write when it comes to composing on a ceramic pillow but Qianlong made an error that has become permanent─he misidentified the pillow as coming from the Ru kiln and it did not, proving that he was misinformed. He also carved an eight-line poem on the base of a particularly gorgeous celadon glazed ru-ware vase from the Northern Song dynasty praising its “fresh blue” glaze, its tiny “nail like” spur marks, its “radiating fragrance even with no flowers present,” and its ceremonial function of the Hall of Ancestral Worship. One of his beloved personal objects, a stacking, multi-storied red-lacquered box of treasures, with special compartments for 44 of his prized objects, is a design feat. It is small enough to be carried and yet contains an ingenious series of compartments and drawers, nineteen of which housed special pieces of jade dating from ancient times as well as a compartment for its own small catalogue recording the contents and their location within.
After closing in San Francisco, the exhibition will travel to Houston Fine Arts Museum, with a slightly different set of treasures.
Richard Vinograd lecture, August 27, 10:30 – noon: “Emperors as Patrons, Participants, and Producers of Paintings” Richard Vinograd, Christensen Fund Professor of Asian Art, Dept. of Art and Art History, Stanford University and an advisor to the AAM’s Society for Asian Art will explore Emperor’s Treasures by examining the relationship between painting and calligraphy in early paintings, examining ways that painting can be said to have poetic qualities or to be illustrating poetry, an unresolved issue which has led scholars to propose many answers. Through case studies of several of the rulers and works represented in the exhibition, he will explore the sponsorship, design and fashioning of paintings from the 11th through 18th centuries. Dr. Vinograd completed his dissertation at U.C. Berkeley in 1979 on the Yuan dynasty artist Wang Meng (1308-85) whose scroll “Thatched House on the East Mountain” (1343), is part of the exhibition. He spent two years in Taipei (1972-74) studying Chinese and combing the archives of the National Palace Museum. $20 general public; $15 Society members (after Museum admission). Register online here to be guaranteed a place, or pay when you arrive.
Exhibition catalogue: A 272 page catalog, edited by Jay Hu and He Li accompanies the exhibition. Each of the essays by leading scholars in Chinese art and history stands on its own. Extensive object descriptions by AAM associate curator He Li constitute an easily understood and enjoyable journey into Chinese dynastic and visual culture.
Details: Emperors Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Tapei closes September 18, 2016. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: General admission $20 weekday, $25weekend; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekday, $20 weekend; 12 & under are free. 1st Sundays are free thanks to Target. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
CAAMFest—Asian American film, food, music and comradery kicks off Thursday, March 12, and runs for 11 days in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland
The Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMfest turns 33 this year and continues its morph from a pure film festival into a series of festive happenings that fuse cutting edge independent film with music and food—all with an Asian American twist. CAAMFest takes place over the next 11 days in venues all around the Bay Area including the Asian Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California, which add their enticing exhibits to the mix. Formerly the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), CAAMFest 2015 offers more than 100 movies and videos focused on the discovery of new talents, voices and visions. It’s by far the largest festival of Asian American movies in North America. Under the leadership of Masashi Niwano, now in his fifth year as festival & exhibitions director, the event has become one of the country’s major platforms for conveying the richness and diversity of the Asian American multicultural experience. ARThound loves this festival because it’s so excellently curated, delivering rich and unusual stories from around the globe that stay with you for years.
This year, you’ll see Asian American broadly defined too. Iranian director Rakshan Banietemad’s new film, Tales, which picked up the award for Best Screenplay at Venice, caught the CAAMFest programmers’ eyes, not just because it’s a great film but because the director, working under dior conditions in Iran, creatively stitched together a series of shorts, stories from her previous films, to create a full length film. In so doing, she managed to navigate the bureaucracy of the Iranian cultural ministry which requires a license for a feature but not for shorts. Bravo! There are also stories involving the Asian diaspora. Juan Martín Hsu’s La Salada is set in Argentina’s bustling discount market, La Salada, just outside of Buenos Aires, and involves an ensemble cast of Korean, Taiwanese, and Bolivian immigrants whose experiences all converge at the market. It’s thus no surprise that “travel” is this year’s theme. Opportunities for armchair travel abound and over 200 guests will be flying in CAAMFest.
Opening Night: The festival kicks off at the historic Castro Theatre on Thursday evening (March 12), with Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching (2015), his new feature film which garnered quite a buzz when it premiered at Sundance in January. A tribute to the 1980’s teen movies of John Hughes, but infused with a Korean sensibility and Lee’s own experiences, this dramedy is set in a state run summer camp in Korea that brings together Korean teens from all over the globe for the purpose of teaching them about their culture. Lee uses the teen’s stories, and their unexpected twists, to explore the Korean diaspora. Lee’s Planet B-Boy, about break-dancers in an international competition, won best documentary and the audience award at CAAMfest in 2008. Lee and several cast members will attend.
Opening Gala: After the screening, there’s an opening night gala at the Asian Art Museum, with a 1980’s dance party with cocktails and fine food amidst the Seduction exhibit of Edo-period Japan. The exhibition has over 60 works of art and features Japanese artist Hishikawa Moronobu’s (1618-1694) spectacular 58 foot long painted silk handscroll, A Visit to the Yoshiwara, which is shown completely unfurled for the first time. The masterpiece, on loan from the John C. Weber, depicts daily life in the entertainment district in the 17th century.
CAAMfest’s Centerpiece movie: Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw (2014) screens at Castro on Sunday, March 15th and represents the powerful storytelling and moments of palpable intimacy that CAAMFest is famous for. Kalki Koechlin plays Laila, a young woman from Delhi who is determined not to let her cerebral palsy interfere with her life —she writes lyrics for a rock band, flirts wildly with her classmates and dreams of going to New York to participate in NYU’s prestigious creative writing program to which she’s been admitted. Set in Delhi and New York, the film is a brave and glorious homage to that old adage—“follow your heart.”
Closing Night: The festival’s closes with Bruce Seidel’s Lucky Chow, a six-part PBS series which will be showcased over the course of two days—Saturday and Sunday, March 21 and 22—at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater. The series features Danielle Chang (LUCKYRICE culinary festival founder) as she travel across America, taking in the Asian food landscape. Accompanying the film will be an Asian-inspired curated menu from the New Parkway kitchen. Other food-related films are Grace Lee’s Off the Menu: Asian America and Edmond Wong’s Supper Club exploring Bay Area restaurants.
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge: Lest we not forget the tragic moments that also define cultures, CAAMfest is presenting a collection of powerful stories of survival and resiliency from Cambodia’s tragic Khmer Rouge period. As part of the Spotlight feature on acclaimed filmmaker Arthur Dong, his new documentary, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, chronicles the years encapsulating the Khmer Rouge’s tyranny through the eyes of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who escaped to America and recreated his experience in the film The Killing Fields, for which he won an Academy Award in 1984. Dong will be in conversation with film critic and author B. Ruby Rich on Friday, March 20 at New People Cinema.
Perfectly Peachy: The festival is also honoring the Masumoto Family, fourth generation peach California peach farmers, with a CAAMFeast Award and a special evening of storytelling at the OMCA (Oakland Museum of California) on Friday, March 20, where the CAAM-produced documentary, Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm, will have its world premiere. The entire family— Mas, Marcy, Nikiko and Korio Masumoto—will be in attendance. The Masumotos, who have an 80 acre farm south of Fresno, are famous for their highly-prized heirloom Sun Crest peaches and tenacious adherence to sustainable practices as well as their lyrical writing on farming and food. When was the last time you visited the Oakland Museum? CAAMFest provides a perfect opportunity to combine film with art. Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California (ends April 12) is an exciting collaboration between SFMOMA and OMCA that explores California artists, many of them Bay Area artists. Marion Gray: Within the Light (ends June 21) is a riveting exploration of San Francisco-based photographer Marion Gray’s work over the past 40 years documenting Bay Area artists and art happenings. Bees: Tiny Insects, Big Impact (ends September 20) will educate and entertain the entire family.
Music: In addition to the movies, Korean musicians have a strong presence at CAAMFest with performances from Awkwafina (Chinese Korean American rapper Nora Lum from Queens) and Suboi, the Vietnamese “Queen of Hip Hop” and a host of other party rockers who will keep things lively before and after the movies.
Stay tuned to ARThound for an interview with the Masumotos about all things peachy.
When/Where: CAAMfest 2015 runs March 12-22, 2014 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland and as well as select museums, bars and music halls.
Tickets: This popular festival sells outs, so advance ticket purchase is highly recommended for most films and events. Regular screenings are $14 with $1 to $2 discounts for students, seniors, disabled and current CAAM members. Special screenings, programs and social events are more. Festival 6-pack passes are also available for $75 (6 screenings for price of 5). All access passes are $450 for CAAM members and $500 for general. Click here for ticket purchases online. Tickets may also be purchased in person and various venue box offices open one hour before the first festival screening of the day. Rush Tickets: If a screening or event has sold all of its available tickets, there is still a chance to get in by waiting in the Rush line. The Rush line will form outside of the venue around 45 minutes before the screening is set to begin. Cash only and one rush ticket per person and there are no guarantees.
“Emerald Cities”at the Asian Art Museum– the dazzling Burmese and Siamese Treasures of Heiress and Philathropist Doris Duke find a new home
The Asian Art Musuem’s marvelous show “Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950,” is now in its final three weeks—it ends January 10, 2010– and if you haven’t seen it yet, it is well worth a special visit. The show includes a dazzling array of some 140 remarkable artworks—rare sculptures, illustrated manuscripts, ornately carved 19th century furniture, gilded offering vessels, silk costumes, shadow puppets, and the finest collection of 19th century Thai paintings outside of Asia—most of which were collected by the legendary heiress Doris Duke and acquired by the Asian Art Museum in 2002 in one lucky swoop. It has taken the museum five years and a whopping 6,000 hours in conservation and restoration efforts to ready these objects for display.
A billion dollar fortune built on tobacco and energy
The story behind the Doris Duke collection is as fascinating as the art itself and points to a bygone era— when outrageous industrial wealth enabled travel to exotic lands where artifacts could be had for a song. The story began in 1925, when 12 year old Doris Duke inherited an $80 million dollar estate (about $860 million in 2005 dollars) from her father James Buchanan Duke, the tobacco and hydropower magnate. Buchanan made the bulk of his great fortune by acquiring a license in 1885 to use the first automated cigarette making machine and by 1890, he supplied 40% of the American cigarette market (then known as pre-rolled tobacco). He consolidated control of his four major competitors under one corporate entity, the American Tobacco Company, and monopolized the American cigarette market. In the 1890’s, he made a separate fortune in hydropower by supplying electricity to more than 300 cotton mills and establishing a power grid to supply power to parts of North and South Carolina.
Doris Duke: the richest girl in the world
Upon his death in 1925, $40 million of his estate (over $430 million in 2005 dollars) went to The Duke Endowment, a permanent trust fund that endowed several universities including Trinity University (later renamed Duke University), and hospitals and churches in North Carolina. The remainder went to his only child, Doris, in the form of an immediate bequest of $80 million and lump sum payments totalling another $100 million dispersed on birthdays (over $1 billion in 2005 dollars). Doris literally became the richest girl in the world. She spent her early childhood at of Duke Farms , her father’s 2,700 estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey and her teen years in a Manhattan apartment. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, while she lacked for nothing in the material realm, her unparalleled wealth made her a constant target for self-serving individuals. At age 14, she took her mother, Nonoline Duke, to court and successfully blocked the sale of Duke Farms and became solely responsible for the stewardship of her vast fortune.
A Passion for Southeast Asian Art Emerges
As Doris Duke came of age she, she used her great wealth to pursue a variety of interests including extensive world travel that profoundly impacted the philanthropic interests she would later pursue, one of which was art. She spoke nine languages, worked in a canteen for soldiers in Egypt during WWII, and even did a stint as a foreign correspondent. She married twice and it was on her first honeymoon in 1930 with the dashing James H.R. Cromwell, son of Palm Beach doyenne Eva Stotesbury, that she embarked on a trip to India, Thailand, Indonesia and other Asian locales and started to amass a sizeable collection of important Islamic and Southeast Asian art. She collected her artworks before the UNESCO convention, so there were basically no restrictions on purchases of sacred or rare objects. Duke’s passion for Southeast Asian art was not widely publicized and that is probably because she was collecting in areas where there was little knowledge. While back in the States, she continued collecting through an agent she employed in Bangkok. According to Asian Art Museum curator Forrest McGill, the juicy details of her purchases remain a mystery. She tended to buy several objects at a time and the sales receipts that have been saved do not give a breakdown of any prices paid for individual items.
Before being distributed, Doris Duke’s collection of Southeast Asian art included more than 400 museum-quality objects and 1,800 other items most of which had been in storage at Duke Farms. Her intention was to create a Southeast Asian cultural theme park in Honolulu. She even bought some very beautiful farm buildings in Southeast Asia, had them dismantled, and was going to send those to Honolulu, where they would be situated amongst gardens. She couldn’t find the land she wanted in Hawaii and so she sent everything to her New Jersey estate instead and planned to design a Southeast Asian museum and gardens there. All those buildings sat dismantled in the enormous indoor tennis court for years, awaiting plans that did not materialize. Some of the buildings and artifacts were given to a Tampa garden and were going to be erected there.
Doris Duke died in 1993, at 80, of a stroke. While living, she had proven to be a substanial and often progressive philanthropist, giving over $500 million to organizations supporting the arts, the environment, medical research, child abuse prevention and historic preservation. In her final will, Duke left virtually all of her fortune (estimated to be in the billions) to charitable foundations, including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation which she endowed with financial assets totaling approximately $1.3 billion. She bequeathed her Irish-born butler Bernard Lafferty with $5 million and appointed him co-executor of her estate. A number of lawsuits were filed against the will. Her life was the focus of a 2007 HBO docu-drama “Bernard and Doris” starring Susan Sarandon as Duke and Raplh Fines as her butler Lafferty.
The Asian Art Museum entered the scene about 1998, when its then board chairman Johnson S. “Jack” Bogart was working with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York to see if they would fund a portion of the museum’s re-do. “Jack became aware that there was a collection that Doris Duke had put together and asked me about it,” said curator Forrest McGill, “In a classic bone-headed mistake I said ‘I never heard of it, so it must not be that important.’ Was I ever wrong. I will never make that mistake again.”
Bogart insisted that McGill have a look any way, so he visited Duke Farms, just outside of Princeton, New Jersey, and was astounded. “I walked into her coach barn, which was literally as big as a train station, and it was like going into an amazing vault of a museum with thousands of 18th and 19th century artworks–sculptures, furniture, paintings, vessels, manuscripts– and I just wasn’t prepared. She had some of the things more or less on display, but some of them were stored in an indoor tennis court and others were in a gigantic indoor shooting gallery inside her house. The Duke people were not aware of the rarity of this artwork. We started to make the case that the collection was much more important than they thought it was.”
A lucky coin toss
After years of negotiation, around 2002, the foundation decided to let The Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which has a very important Asian art collection, have first choice of the objects. “We agreed to work out the division of the artworks ourselves and to gave the Duke Foundation a reconciled list,” explained McGill. “We had a coin toss and we won and got first pick and we went back and forth down the list in that way. We ended up with 167 objects and they got 150 objects and the leftovers were distributed to about 20 other museums in Great Britain and the US.” (Duke Foundation gift to the Walters Art Museum , Duke Foundation gift to the Asian Art Museum)
McGill estimates that roughly 75 percent of the objects have some kind religious orientation, either direct or indirect. They would have been commissioned by wealthy and aristocratic families for use in their homes or palaces or to donate to the monasteries.
The objects were then in storage for several decades in the 1940’s and 50’s and early 60’s. “Everything was dirty and many pieces needed restoration,” said McGill. In several cases, materials that survived in the tropical climate Southeast Asia decayed in the new climate. “We spent the last five years and about 7,000 hours consolidating, stabilizing, preserving, and repairing the artworks,” said McGill. “Some of the fragile Thai paintings on fabric were beyond repair.”
The exhibition is divided geographically into three sections— Central Burma, followed by Eastern Burma and Northern Thailand which, despite different borders, have the Shan people in common and share many cultural similarities, and it ends with a large gallery devoted to Central Thailand. The exhibition title “Emerald Cities” does not refer to any actual emeralds on display but is meant to be poetic. The most important Buddha image in Bangkok is the Emerald Buddha and Bangkok’s formal name is “the City of the Emerald Buddha.” The three 19th century capitals of Burma, all have their formal names based on gems, though none are emerald.
The Burma segment opens with objects that had a religious use and continues with luxury goods. Several ornate offering vessels, offering containers and stands are on display. These were purchased by aristocratic families, often filled with food and given as donations to the temples at monasteries to make merit and maintain their high standing. These vessels are metal with ornate mirrored glass in-lay or glass reproductions of precious gems on the outside. They open in the middle and are lined with bamboo which is completely coated with lacquer. Not much is known about the glass on these objects or on any of the artworks in the collection, except that glass was highly desirable and was used even on royal objects, in lieu of real gems.
“You can imagine for a culture that did not have or know glass what a delight it must have been to see English chandeliers and other types of European luxury glassware,” explained McGill. “We don’t actually know where did the fragments they used came from. Some of it may have been European glass and some of it may have come from India. Eventually, because they liked glass so much and there was a heavy demand for it, the Burmese and the Thai brought in European advisors and set up glass manufacturing factories in Burma and Thailand.
The show presents many more questions. “We do not know the name of a single maker, a single workshop or artist, and not a single object has a date inscribed on it” explained McGill. Wall plaques are as descriptive as they can be but frequently give dates of creation ranging up to 125 years, not the level of precision most hope for. “Some of these objects were made the same way decade after decade after decade and it’s just impossible to date them more accurately,” said McGill.
A highlight of the Burmese section is “Scenes from the Burmese version of the epic of Rama,” a rare, sequined, nearly six-meter-long textile hanging that portrays the scenes of the legend of Rama. Although it’s purpose is unknown, it is possible that this narrative textile may have been a backdrop for puppet performances. The royal costumes depicted in this artwork are echoed throughout the exhibition, through actual costumes and those that appear in artworks and on puppets.
Those with an interest in furniture will be enthralled with a stunning Burmese couch, or day-bed, with ball and claw legs, made of ornately lacquered and gilded wood that has been inlaid with glass rods and mirrored glass and it has an emerald green velvet cushion. In old photographs, Burmese and Shan aristocrats sit, Buddha images recline and deceased monks are laid out. The Asian’s couch was missing its original cushion, so a new emerald green velvet one was made in 2008 inspired by a similar couch in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This lovely couch did not come directly from Burma to Doris Duke. Instead, she bought it from an interior designer who already had it in New York. This was discovered by accident when one of the Asian’s conservators was looking at an interior design magazine and saw a photograph of this very couch in the living room of a designer’s posh 5th Avenue apt in the 1930’s. “When we saw photograph and started comparing all the nicks and so forth, we determined that this was the very couch that we had obtained from Doris Duke,” said McGill. “We have been trying to track down the exact connection yet between the decorator and Doris Duke but haven’t yet succeeded.”
Northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma
The second segment of show features the religious art and luxury goods Northern Thailand and the Shan state, Burma. A large black and red wooden chest, gilded with lacquer would have been used in the temple for storing monk’s robes and manuscripts. This is a rare and important chest which was a likely donation to the temple. It is adorned on all sides with drawings telling stories and includes scenes of the Buddha enthroned, Phra Malai and Indra at the Chulamani Stupa, and guardians. Several examples of ceremonial standards are displayed next to the chest, illustrating actual objects that are depicted in the scenes on the chest so we can better imagine how these standards were put to use as royal regalia in official processions and ceremonies. The number of standards showed the rank of the royal family member.
The third segment emphasizes Central Thailand, particularly the royal capital of Bangkok, and accounts for more than two-third of the artworks in the exhibition. A rare late 18th century stucco image of Buddha is situated alongside numerous Buddha statues in the opening of this gallery. This stucco head is fascinating for what it represents–in an effort to make the Buddha images uniform and to consolidate his rule, the first monarch of the new kingdom of Siam essentially did a Buddha recall–in the 1790’s, Buddhas from all parts of Thailand were brought to Bangkok where they were covered with layers of stucco and gilded, so they were all the same. In the 1950’s, when this style had gone out of fashion, the stucco was removed and presumably discarded. This stucco image is only one of two that are known to have survived.
One of Doris Duke’s greatest accomplishments was that she collected Thai painting at a time when nobody else was interested. The Asian Art Museum now has more 19th century Thai paintings than have ever been seen in Thailand, or any place else. “These are rare, fragile and the finest to be had, ” explained McGill. “Some are on wood, but most are painted on cotton fabric and most survived only in very shaky condition.” Those painted on fabric have a very long vertical format because the imported Indian cloth they were painted on came in this length. When a donor gave their valuable cloth to a temple for being made into painting, the piece of fabric was kept intact and was painted over by the Thai artisans.
Thai paintings are almost exclusively works intended to be conducive to contemplation whose themes were drawn from well-known religious writings. “The Buddha Overcomes the Demon Mara and his Forces, and the Earth Goddess Creates a Flood,” an early 19th century mural on panel, is probably the largest and most impressive Thai painting outside of Thailand (3.33 feet x 13.33 feet). While it has sustained damage and undergone minimally-invasive restoration, it depicts a spectacular cosmic struggle that is marvelously executed in a rare palette dominated by blue, bluish gray and brick tones. It depicts the central episode in Buddha’s life–he is in meditation and is challenged by a demon, Mara, whose forces come in from the right on elephants. Allegorically, this is Buddha battling his own negative impulses that he must overcome to achieve enlightenment. As he is attacked from the right side, he calls on the earth goddess in the middle to bear witness to his many lifetimes of spiritual preparation for Buddhahood. The earth goddess wrings out her wet hair and creates a flood that washes away the demons or the negative impulses in the young prince’s psyche. On the left side, the flood is visible and the demon is no longer attacking but now has his hands folded in reverence. He is thus transformed by his own intellectual and spiritual efforts from a young prince into a Buddha.
Along the gallery wall is a very rare group of 13 paintings that form a complete set for the recitation of the story of the Buddha’s previous immediate life before which he became a Buddha. The Story of Prince Vessantara is still recited annually in Thailand at a ceremony. Each family in the village sponsored the recitation of one of the 13 chapters by paying for the painting that went with each of the 13 chapters. Once a set of paintings was used in a recitation, it may have not been used again and generally there were no special provisions to preserve a full set. This set survived in fair condition but the inscriptions along the bottom edges have deteriorated and are only partially visible.
Some may find it surprising while Southeast Asia had plentiful and relatively inexpensive gold, the majority of these ceremonial treasures were not made of gold or even precious metals but were fabricated from smelted metal that was elaborately gilded, lacquered or inlaid in very sophisticated patterns with materials like mother of pearl or colored glass.
Only one of the objects exhibited is solid gold, a lovely small bowl (roughly 3 x 5 inches) adorned with three alternating motifs—garudas (a mythical eagles with human attributes), stylized foliage and a celestial being with the hand gesture of adoration. The bowl was presented as a wedding gift in 1921 from Rama VI to the daughter of Hamilton King, a US diplomat to Siam. Originally, it would have most likely been filled with religious objects or offerings. The gold’s unusual reddish hue, which the Siamese preferred, was analyzed by conservators at the Asian Art Museum and they could find no chemical explanation for it.
Most beguiling and graceful are two mythical 19th century carved wooden sculptures of bird-men of Siam. Once exquisitely detailed, only bits of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass in-lay remain. There is evidence that some damaged parts were carefully replaced. The lower part of the bodies are similar to a bird’s—the feet are elaborately carved– and the weight is shifted forward with wings and ornate tail that would enable them to fly between the heavenly and earthly realms. Their hands are pressed together in prayer and the torso and head are human. In Buddhist legend, these mythical creatures inhabit the Eden-like Himavanta Forest. Historically, such statues played an integral role in royal ceremonies such as coronations and some served as reliquaries. Starting from the reign of Rama V onwards (1868-1910), these statues were placed high up on posts and along the main boulevards of Bangkok. Presently, one has a prominent place on the main road from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The exhibition closes by showcasing three delightful and very well-preserved Thai shadow puppets made of reticulated and ornately painted cowhide. The shadow puppet theatre, “Nang Yai” in Thai, is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment still practiced all over Asia. These puppets were used to enact scenes from the epic of Rama, known in Thai as Rammakian. Opaque figures, normally made of stretched cowhide and rattan, are held against an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images and the performance is accompanied by a combination of songs and chants. The screen is lit from behind revealing not only the shadow of the puppet but also the shadow of performer behind it. Unlike Indonesian puppets which have moving parts, these Thai puppets are singular and rigid. On display is a single character roaming puppet of the monkey hero Hanuman and an action or fighting puppet which depicts two famous characters—Ravana and Hanuman–charging into battle on a mythical chariot.
While there are some very rare pieces in the collection, McGill is not concerned about any lawsuits to return artworks back to their countries of origin. “In the 1930’s and 40’s, it was an open market and virtually everything was for sale,” explained McGill. “Things are much different now. None of these works came from archaeological contexts—they were not in the ground. They are not fragments of buildings, they are separate portable objects. We’ve never had a claim and directors and curators from the museums in Cambodia and Thailand have been here multiple times and we have given them photos and documentation of everything we have in an effort to be open.”