An exhibition of Chinese ceramic at the Met calls traditional categories of export and non-export into question.
In the 3rd century B.C., around the time the fires began to burn at the great Chinese porcelain kiln complex at Jingdezhen, logician Gongsun Long created his infamously brain-twisting linguistic puzzle, “A white horse is not a horse.” At first glance the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Global by Design: Chinese Ceramics from the R. Albuquerque Collection” (through August 7), might leave visitors—especially Western visitors with ideas about Chinese porcelain formed by 19th-century exports—with questions akin to those the “white horse dialogue” poses concerning the nature of the Chinese porcelain objects aimed at European tastes and sensibilities and how to understand them. The exhibition, like much of Chinese philosophical thought, however, proves simply that seeing without presuppositions can open doors to complex and subtle intricacies and hopefully lead to a more complete understanding of the world, the things in it, and how they connect.
Connection is a major theme of “Global by Design” and resonates on multiple levels throughout the exhibition—culturally, historically, aesthetically, and personally. The personal aspect of the show stems from a collaboration between two curators, Jeff Munger of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Denise Patry Leidy, Brooke Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art. Munger and Leidy have been discussing the idea for the current exhibition since their “days as baby curators at the MFA Boston,” says Leidy. She jokes, “We’re still fighting some of the same fights, we’re having some of the same discussions.”
The next personal connection came in the form of Brazilian collector Dr. R. Albuquerque, whose collection of stunning Chinese ceramics, acquired largely in Europe provided the perfect representative nexus where Munger and Leidy’s respective expertise and passions meet. Albuquerque put it together with his own personal, cultural, and historical hopes for connection in mind as a Brazilian in a former Portuguese colony. “I was actually contacted by the Brazilian owner of this collection and invited to go down and see it,” says Leidy. “When I saw it I realized, this is of great interest to Jeff’s department, as well. So then he and I went to Brazil together and studied it together and started thinking about what we could do that would allow us to tell a story we were each fascinated with in a slightly different way.”
The collection, which is being shown publicly for the first time, provides visitors with a view of 60 rare Chinese ceramics of unparalleled quality and highly unusual character, offering a valuable snapshot of cultural and commercial exchange frozen in time. These porcelain treasures are quite literally the point of exchange, both as artifacts of global trade and as fine and complex works of cultural-aesthetic fusion captured in delicate and beautiful “white gold.” The ceramics, with their give and take (and sometimes head-on collision) of Chinese, European, and Islamic sensibilities and traditions, begin to rewrite the history of global trade, illuminating a level of sophistication not commonly associated with the cultural and economic exchange of the 17th century. “It does make us rethink the whole issue of global trade,” remarks Munger. “You realize how advanced and sophisticated it was centuries ago and that there’s sort of nothing new under the sun. They were remarkably adventurous and commercially driven and savvy.”
In Chinese porcelain Europe found a strange and beautiful emblem of the “Age of Exploration” along with a major technological advancement. True porcelain dates back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), and eventually found its way into the hands and imaginations of Europeans. Before the introduction of porcelain, European dining ware was something much more crude, and the introduction of porcelain presented an attractive and hygienic alternative. Beyond its practical and commercial desirability, however, porcelain seemed to cast a spell over European explorers and merchants, and the Chinese welcomed and exploited the material’s mesmeric hold on foreigners and in some instances tailored objects to foreign tastes. This is what one finds captured in some of the most fascinating objects in “Global By Design.” Munger says, “These are actually incredible. They’re not distinctly European, they’re not distinctly Chinese, but they’re something entirely original and something other. Something shared.”
To today’s viewer the cross-global connections represented in a piece such as an early Qianlong-period tureen (circa 1740) with cover and stand can be truly mind-bending. The rococo shape of the tureen, inspired by a Meissen porcelain model, is clearly European, as are the faces and reserves that decorate the object. The Chinese elements are impossible to ignore, though, from dragon-like scaled feet to pink lotuses, an umbrella-like lid, and a small pagoda detail. Both cultures struggle for the aesthetic and formal upper hand in the delicate material and reach, at the very least, a unique compromise. Each time the visitor turns their attention to the tureen its character shifts from European to Chinese, and back again. In the most exhilarating moments, however, both cultures speak at once in a language both old and new, one of ancient ingenuity and global exploration, and visitors are left to decide whether they are hearing a European tongue with a Chinese accent or vice versa.
The Qing-dynasty figure of a European woman (circa 1735–45) depicting a German Jewish woman in a bonnet and ruffled collar (garments connected with Jewish anti-sumptuary laws), is European in subject but Chinese in material and execution. At the time paintings of foreigners were popular in China, and the figure seems to be an embodiment of this curiosity about other cultures, people, and places. The figure represents cross-cultural psychology and wonder made manifest, and for Western viewers the experience of seeing themselves (or maybe one of their ancestors) re-represented to themselves could be a strange but enlightening one.
The quality and rarity of the pieces on display are remarkable beyond simply anthropological and discursive concerns. The large Kangxi-period five-piece garniture (circa 1700) at the center of the installation is one of only two known existing sets, the other in the Zwinger Museum in Dresden. Impressive in its size and decoration, the scene represented in varying shades of blue underglaze is, according to the show’s catalogue, “typically Chinese” with its “drooping young willow branches” and appears to be based on the “Ten Views of West Lake” theme, whose popularity with Chinese artists dates back to the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). The detail and effortless flow of the magnificent pieces that comprise the garniture are a testament to a wholly Chinese art, and it’s easy to see how such stunning objects could lodge themselves in the minds of foreign travelers and spark a hunger for similar objects adorned with European images and words.
The exhibition itself establishes the final, contemporary connection, that of American audiences with such rare and important pieces. The passport of the objects on display has been stamped in many ports and traces a history of global trade and cultural exchange that echoes the connections found within the objects themselves. What better place to end such a long and storied trip than New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art? When asked how he feels about his collection being shown at the Met, Dr. Albuquerque laughs, smiles, and provides one last tribute to the power of gesture across language and culture, saying in Portuguese that is clear to anyone open to understanding, “Well, The Metropolitan is the Metropolitan.”
By Chris Shields