All posts in “SAM’s Collection”

The Park In Balance: Siting the Olympic Sculpture Park Collection

Walking through the nature and art of the Olympic Sculpture Park, from the low-lying valley around Richard Serra’s Wake to the span of open water that fills the sightlines of Jaume Plensa’s Echo, one experiences an impeccable balance of nature and whimsy. “I think the way all of the art in the park works together, in combination with the way everything is spaciously placed, is what makes the Olympic Sculpture Park truly unique. You have breathtaking views, while the art can really stand on its own and be appreciated,” said Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

But, the process of achieving this effect was far from simple. SAM’s former Director of Exhibit Design, Michael McCafferty, led the process of arranging the park’s permanent sculptures within Weiss/Manfredi’s architectural design while collaborating with artists, curators, museum staff, and other partners. McCafferty approached the placement of the art as if he were working with a “very complex gallery”—a larger, outdoor version of the exhibit spaces he designed at SAM’s downtown location and the Asian Art Museum. He worked with a to-scale model of the Park that included the varied topography of its landscape, as well as miniature, hand-painted versions of most of the 21 works that were on view when the Park opened.

McCafferty began by placing the largest pieces that would be on view, such as The Eagle by Alexander Calder, the Sculpture Park’s founding gift from trustees Jon and Mary Shirley, as well as Stinger by Tony Smith and Typewriter Eraser, Scale X by Cales Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen. “I would take the various models of the sculptures and move them around and around, considering the best viewing angles for someone who will walk all the way around the piece while they’re in the park and also for someone driving along Elliott Avenue,” McCafferty said. The medium and smaller sized works were then sited, through a design that balanced their weights and masses with the larger sculptures and the landscape, in a spirit he likened to a Japanese garden.

Over the past ten years, the park has grown and changed. The Aspen trees around Stinger stretch taller, the grass beneath The Eagle has thickened and new sculptures have entered the collection. One of the most recent is Jaume Plensa’s Echo, a large-scale piece depicting a tranquil visage that was donated by trustee Barney Ebsworth in 2013. Maintaining the approach established during the Park’s initial design, Echo’s placement, looking out onto the Puget Sound, was made by considering the pedestrians and cyclists who pass beneath it, as well as those who approach it from the water. The location of Echo also thrilled the artist, as Ebsworth described: “Jaume Plensa said how wonderful the placement overlooking the Olympic Mountains is because the sculpture’s subject is from Greek mythology. It’s perfect because Echo looks out towards Mount Olympus.” This siting of Echo between nature and art, between open space and calculated design, between land and sea—embodies the ethos that makes the Olympic Sculpture Park a uniquely Seattle place to experience art.

This post is the second in our series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.

—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

 Photos: Paul Macapia

Expansive Terratopia: Chinese Landscape in Poetry

The Way dissolves into rivers
The Way coagulates into mountains.

–Sun Ch’o, Fourth Century [1]

Shan Shui, or river and mountains, is a Chinese term for landscape.[2] During the Six Dynasties (220 AD–589 AD) Shan Shui became a popular style of landscape painting as well as referring to a specific form of landscape poetry. In Terratopia: The Chinese Landscape in Painting and Film at the Asian Art Museum you will see examples of Shan Shui painting as the exhibition displays centuries of works to examine the role of landscape as an enduring subject of artistic, philosophical, and environmental reflection from the 3rd to the 21st century. In the paintings of the exhibition, you’ll notice calligraphy on pieces such as Wangchuan Villa (17th Century). The inscription refers to a series of Shan Shui poems by Wang Wei whose country retreat at Wang River is depicted in the painting. Wang’s couplets, focused on the natural landscape of his retreat, are collected, with the poems of fellow poet Pei Di, as the Wheel River Sequence. A sample of these poems, meant to convey imagery and tranquility are below.

Deer Park

No one seen. In empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, no more.

Entering these deep woods, late sun-
light ablaze on green moss, rising.

Magnolia Park

Autumn mountains gathering last light,
one bird follows another in flight away.

Shifting kingfisher-greens flash radiant
scatters. Evening mists: nowhere they are.

Vagary Lake

Flute-song carries beyond furthest shores.
In dusk light, I bid you a sage’s farewell.

Across this lake, in the turn of a head,
mountain greens furl into white clouds.[3]

Perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of writing that begins to unfold a long history of the role of poetry in Chinese landscape painting is written on The Orchid Pavilion Gathering created in 1732 by Chen Fu based on the original work of Wang Xizhi (303-361), the whereabouts of which has been unknown since the Tang Dynasty. This calligraphy is the Lanting Xu (Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion), written as a preface to a collection of poems generated during the famed Orchid Pavilion Gathering of literati. Read the Lanting Xu to begin your own journey into the poetry associated with the works of art you can see at Asian Art Museum before Terratopia closes.

“First Inscription: In the ninth year of the Eternal Harmony era in the beginning of the last month of spring when the calendar was in kuei-ch’ou [353], we met at the Orchid Pavilion in Shan-yin, Kuei-chi to celebrate the Bathing Festival. All the worthy men assembled; the young and the senior gathered together. Here were lofty mountains and towering hills, thick groves and tall bamboo. And, there was a clear, rapid stream reflecting everything around that had been diverted to play the game of floating wine-cups along a winding course. We sat down in order of precedence. Though we had none of the magnificent sounds of strings and flutes, a cup of wine and then a poem was enough to stir our innermost feelings. This was a day when the sky was bright and the air was pure. A gentle breeze warmed us. Upwards we gazed to contemplate the immensity of the universe; downwards we peered to scrutinize the abundance of living things. In this way, we let our eyes roam and our emotions become aroused so that we enjoy to the fullest these sights and sounds. This was happiness, indeed! Men associate with each other but for the brief span of their lives. Some are content to control their innermost feelings as they converse inside a room. Some are prompted to give rein to their ambitions and lead wild, unfettered lives. There is all the difference between controlled and abandoned natures, just as the quiescent and the frenzied are unalike. Yet, both take pleasure from whatever they encounter, possessing it but for a while. Happy and content, they remain unaware that old age is fast approaching. And, when they tire of something, they let their feelings change along with events as they experience a deep melancholy. What they had taken pleasure in has now passed away in an instant, so how could their hearts not give rise to longing? Furthermore, a long or short life depends on the transformation of all things: everything must come to an end. An ancient said, “Life and death are the greatest of matters, indeed!” Isn’t this reason enough to be sad? Whenever I read of the causes of melancholy felt by men of the past, it is like joining together two halves of a tally. I always feel sad when I read them, yet I cannot quite understand why. But I know that it is meaningless to say life and death are the same; and to equate the longevity of P’eng-tsu with that of Shang-tzu is simply wrong. Future readers will look back upon today just as we look back at the past. How sad it all is! Therefore, I have recorded my contemporaries and transcribed what they have written. Over distant generations and changing events, what gives rise to melancholy will be the same. Future readers will also feel moved by these writings.”

This is your final weekend to see the historical paintings and the contemporary film work of Yang Fudong in Terratopia before it closes on Sunday, February 26. As it says in the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion, “. . . life depends on the transformation of all things: everything must come to an end.”

If all this poetry has you yearning for more landscapes, come to Seattle Art Museum to see Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, on view through May 23. And keep in mind, the Asian Art Museum is temporarily closing for renovation beginning Monday but installations featuring SAM’s Asian art collection will continue to be on view at the Seattle Art Museum for all to take retreat within.

–Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Copywriter & Content Strategist

Images: Wangchuan Villa, 17th century, Wang Wei, Chinese, ink and color on silk, 36 ft x 11 13/16 in., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 47.142, photo: Mark Woods. The Orchid Pavilion Gathering (detail), 1732, color added 1739, Chen Fu, Chinese, active 1730s, ink and color on paper, 13 1/4 X 25 7/8 In., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.138, photo: Elizabeth Mann.
[1] “Yu T’ien-t’ai-shan fu” (Fu-poem of My Wanderings on Mount T’ien-t’ai), Wen-hsü an, 2 vols. (Shanghai), Chapter XI, pp 223–227
[2] Frodsham, J.D. “Landscape Poetry in China and Europe.” Comparative Literature 19, no. 3 (Summer, 1967): pp. 193-215 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1770207
[3] Wang Wei, The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, trans. David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 2006.

Object of the Week: Amulet with mummified monkey

Each of us carries with us a lens, or lenses, through which we view the world, and that lens colors and shapes our perception of, and response to, all the sights, sounds, and smells we encounter. It’s no different when we’re viewing art. Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions. Art historians produce scholarship that discusses a certain object, maker, or concept—but the questions they ask in the process reveal as much about the perspective of the scholar as they do about the object or artist under discussion. Likewise, it’s fascinating to tour through the galleries and eavesdrop on the unfiltered musings of museumgoers to the variety of art we have on display at SAM. Those comments say something about the art and the speaker.

One object that’s commented on less frequently than I’d wish is this diminutive wood Amulet with mummified monkey—a piece that acts, for me, as an ever-present reminder of Dr. Fuller and his collecting principles, so neatly reflected in this ancient, tiny figurative sculpture. Dr. Fuller, who held a Ph.D. in geology and maintained scholarly pursuits in that field throughout his tenure leading SAM (1933–1973), collected many small, old, and odd things. Disinterested in value, he instead sought out rarity. His guiding question was: Does it have a unique character—an “essential factor”? That question drove him to acquire items like this mystifying Amulet, about which little was known when Dr. Fuller purchased it from J. Khawam & Cie, Cairo, for $240 in 1955.

It had few facts to recommend it, but it was a curious piece that provoked questions for Dr. Fuller and would do the same for others. Shortly after acquiring the Amulet, Dr. Fuller received this letter from William K. Simpson, a research associate at the American Research Center in Cairo:

Simpson’s desire to research and publish the Amulet with mummified monkey encouraged Dr. Fuller to seek out expert opinions from fields that were tangentially related to the piece, aiming to solve some of the quandaries it presented. Outside experts brought to the Amulet their own questions. Professor Bror L. Grondal of the College of Forestry at the University of Washington examined the piece in 1956 to determine what kind of wood composes it:

Meanwhile, Robert T. Hatt, a mammalogist at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, had been researching ancient and contemporary animals of the Near East. In his letter of June 25, 1956, Hatt shared with Dr. Fuller his thoughts and questions regarding what species of monkey (or ape) might be represented in the Amulet:

Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions—but to make our contribution, we have to actually ask them. Your curiosity could spark mine or someone else’s, and whether or not we ever arrived at fixed answers, the summation of our questions reveals infinitely more than one viewpoint ever could.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Amulet with mummified monkey, ca. 2920-2649 B.C., Egyptian, Early Dynastic period, wood, 3 3/16 x 11/16 x 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.136, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Standing figure (Nkondi)

SAM’s Congolese Standing figure (Nkondi) meets and enraptures visitors in our African art galleries. Beads, feathers, and knots of string secured to the wooden figure with countless iron nails lend him a startling and uncomfortable presence. Why has he been on the receiving end of this aggressive, symbolic gesture of driving nails?

Across the country, in exhibitions at great museums like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, San Francisco’s de Young Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Nkondi has confronted viewers with his own appearance—and with wrong assumptions about his purpose.

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

Not only has he been exhibited extensively, the Nkondi has an interesting provenance. He was collected by Merton Simpson (1928-2013), one of the most significant dealers of African and tribal art in the second half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Simpson first opened his gallery—Merton D. Simpson Gallery—in the early 1950s in order to support what he considered his primary work: painting. An artist for life, Simpson served in the Air Force and was asked to paint General Dwight D. Eisenhower, which he did, earning $100 for his effort. Simpson became part of the New York Abstract Expressionist school, crossing paths with artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, who would critique Simpson’s paintings in the frame shop where Simpson worked. Later he joined the politically focused Spiral Group of artists, which also counted Romare Bearden among its members.1

No slight to Simpson’s visual art, his accomplishments as a dealer of traditional African art surpassed what he did in painting. When Simpson passed away in 2013, a New York Times obituary reflected on his incomparable taste and expertise, his success and renown as an art dealer, and the significance of his doing so as an African American. Heinrich C. Schweizer, then head of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s, remarks that “Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s Simpson became the most important dealer in the US in this field . . . Worldwide, you could say he was one of the two or three leading dealers, and certainly a powerhouse in the US, and this was especially remarkable for an African-American, who began doing this in the time of segregation.” The same article quotes an equally admiring Lowery Stokes Sims, the highly respected retired Curator Emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design: “When I worked at the Met I would go to the gallery and see some of the most incredible African art I’d ever seen in my life. It was really showstopping. And occasionally he’d show his own work . . . For an African-American who came up in the art world in the 1970s, he was truly one of those unsung pioneers, crucial in establishing our place in the art world.”2

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

SAM’s Nkondi was purchased from Simpson in 1968 by another exceptional collector of African art, Katherine White, whose transformational 1981 gift—of which the Nkondi was part—forms the core of the museum’s African collection.

Since the Nkondi has arrived at SAM, the museum has been telling his true story and deconstructing “fetish” myths about him. Congolese advisor Fu Kiau Bunseki has offered critical insights on the Nkondi’s role as a sign of authority, and as a hearer and keeper of agreements. Check out the SAM website for rich insights on the thoughtful symbolism that informs each element of this memorable figure.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections  Coordinator

Oral history interview with Merton D. Simpson, 1968 November, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Bruce Weber, “Merton D. Simpson, Painter, Collector and Dealer in African Art, Dies at 84,” New York Times, March 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/arts/design/merton-d-simpson-artist-and-gallery-owner-dies-at-84.html
Image: Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese, wood, iron, fiber, beads, string, glass, feathers, chalk, 31 11/16 x 13 3/8 x 8 11/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.836, Photos: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen)

In the 1960s Donald E. Gordon, a scholar of the German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was producing a new catalogue raisonné on the artist, with the help and cooperation of Roman Norbert Ketterer, a collector and dealer who also served as executor of the Kirchner Estate. Gordon was a professor of art history at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he served as chairman of the Department of Fine Arts. He had secured two Fulbright fellowships that took him to Germany for direct study of many Kirchner works, first at the University of Hamburg in the mid-1950s, and then at the University of Marburg in the mid-‘60s. By way of his study and connections Gordon familiarized himself with the entirety of Kirchner’s oeuvre. He successfully produced the catalogue raisonné, published by Harvard University Press in 1968, a herculean effort because of Kirchner’s productivity in painting and graphic arts. The same year marked the premiere of a retrospective exhibition on Kirchner that Gordon had organized, and for which he also authored the exhibition catalogue. The Seattle Art Museum Pavilion, this museum’s first space dedicated to the display of modern and contemporary art, was the first of three venues to host the Kirchner exhibition. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner debuted there on November 23.

Amid impressive amounts of researching and writing Gordon was wheeling and dealing, too. He came upon Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen) in the collection of Mrs. Maria Möller-Garny, the widow of Ferdinand Möller, a Nazi-era art dealer. Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen) had fallen under Hitler’s ridiculous category of “degenerate art,” prompting Nazi officials to remove the painting from the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. Because it was taken from a state-funded museum by the government in power, it was a legal seizure at the time. Tellingly, Möller, though in the business of dealing, recognized it as a fine example of Kirchner and kept the painting in his private collection until he died. In April of 1968, seven months before the doors opened on the Kirchner retrospective in Seattle, Gordon provided the connection between Frau Möller-Garny and SAM (for a small fee, of course). Gordon’s letter to Möller-Garny notifying her of the museum’s intention to buy, part of which we have reproduced here, is fun whether or not Sie lesen Deutsch.

Gordon's letter to Möller-Garny

The next week, Gordon wrote to Thomas Maytham, then Associate Director at SAM,

Both Mrs. Möller-Garny and I are pleased that you were able to secure the Seattle Art Museum’s decision so promptly, and hope that the sale may be consummated with similar dispatch. From my long knowledge of and admiration for this masterpiece, I am also personally happy at the prospect of its permanent entry into a major American museum collection.

The purchase was heralded in Seattle, timely because of the Kirchner retrospective in which it featured, and high-profile because of Kirchner’s importance in the history of Modern art. On November 17, 1968, Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Northwest Today featured a color reproduction on the front page—unfortunately adjacent to a rhetorical headline wondering about this city’s aesthetic potential.

November 17, 1968, Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Northwest Today with a color reproduction of Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen)

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Woman and Girl (Frau und Mädchen), ca. 1922-1923, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880-1938), oil on canvas, 66 1/8 x 46 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Richard E. Fuller, 68.120, Photo: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Book Cover

In artspeak, “hierarchy of medium” is a phrase we might throw around to describe the relative importance that painting and sculpture have been given in the museum space historically, as compared to any other form of art-making. At SAM, one aspect of Dr. Fuller’s legacy for which we can be grateful is his openness to collecting art in a range of forms. His interests were his own, but at least they were broad. Consider that between 1938 and 1949 Dr. Fuller purchased for the collection three exquisite book covers, Islamic and Persian, that he had sought out from three different dealers. That means before SAM could claim any of its best-known paintings—before the Cranach, Church, Pollock, Rothko, and a half-century before the iconic Bierstadt—three book covers graced the collection.

Book Cover

The future of printed books seems anything but clear. As a book lover, I mourn this a bit. Digital can’t do it all. I want the whole book experience: the artful cover, the heft of the thing in my hand, the texture of the paper, the reassurance of progress I feel as my bookmark inches from front cover to back cover, and of course the incomparable smell. How sweet to have an opportunity, in SAM’s ancient art galleries, to consider two exceptionally crafted Persian book covers from the Safavid period. Their artistry reminds us of what is possible in this form.

Dr. Fuller purchased the fine example highlighted here from Thomas B.W. Allen, a dealer based in Walla Walla who advertised “Fine Things from Far Places.” Dr. Fuller went to Allen on several occasions for exotic artworks, buying from him, among other things, a Persian Dervish’s begging bowl, a Luristani bronze, a portable Qur’an, Achaemenid seals, an Islamic brass ewer, and a Persian tinned-copper vessel. Allen also gifted SAM a Persian black vessel and a classical vase, reflecting that this gallery-museum relationship, like several others Dr. Fuller enjoyed, was a congenial partnership.

Book Cover

The makers of the Book cover achieved balance and symmetry on a small scale that required a masterful and delicate touch. The central panel features a garden motif that Persian artists applied to a range of decorative objects, including ceramics, metalwork, and carpets. Floral filigree winds across the central panel, inhumanly precise—the taunting of a confident artist. The gilding that appears across the cover gives the book a regal presence that would have conferred a real sense of importance to the contents of the book. A cover this intricate would have convinced me to read what was inside.

Had Dr. Fuller never purchased this book cover or many of the other delicate, unfamiliar things from “far places” you can see in our ancient galleries, they might not be here. With one set of eyes we might see them as mementos of his idiosyncratic collecting, but with another, they exemplify that art knows no cultural or formal boundaries.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Book cover, 16th-17th century, Persian, Safavid period (1501-1722), leather, gilding, 11 1/8 x 6 3/4 x 3/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 49.172, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week Landscape: Autumn

With the onset of fall, some lament the end of summer, but the vivid beauty of the season and the assuring rhythm of change just make me grateful to be alive in such a scenic place. I find it worth musing on: Tuning into the natural artistry of the moment makes it easier to lose those long, warm summer days.

But if you’re still in need of centering, we’re your blog!

Helping us to embrace the autumnal mood, this six-panel Japanese folding screen depicting Autumn poetically pictures a misty chill over the water and the hillsides. Exposed but stubborn trees dot the landscape with green. All across the screen figures enjoy the waning bounty of land and sea, busily preparing for the coming winter: fishing, traveling, gathering. The screen embodies a visual poem to fall.

Landscape: Autumn

To lead you further down the path to fall zen, here is an offering of seasonal poems from the master of the haiku, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694):

None is travelling
here along this way but I,
this autumn evening.

The first day of the year:
thoughts come—and there is loneliness;
the autumn dusk is here.

Autumn wind
through an open door—
a piercing cry.

On a withered branch
a crow has alighted:
nightfall in autumn.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Landscape: Autumn, 16th century (Muromachi period, 1333-1573), Attributed to Sesson Shukei (Japanese, 1504-1589), ink and color on paper, 66 15/16 x 138 3/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.127, Photos: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Guanyin

Have you ever purchased something at full price, feeling slightly guilty about it, only to find a sale item that suits you even better? Something similar happened to Dr. Fuller in the early 1930s, as he was seeking to expand his Chinese art collection in new directions.

[Fuller] acquired . . . a large Guanyin in pale glaze with ivory tone from Yamanaka in 1931 for $2,500. With a dated inscription of 1615, the Guanyin is among the few extant figures commissioned by patrons of the Kaiyuan Temple in Zhanzhou (in modern-day Fujian province). Seven months after that acquisition, Fuller encountered a whiter blanc de chine Guanyin of similar size. It was allegedly bought from Spain after the revolution and was priced at $900 by Roland Moore. Fuller bought it at once. The price gap between the two Guanyin probably bothered Fuller, especially because the latter work is whiter and hence more attractive, with a more elaborately carved base positioning the Guanyin on an auspicious beast emerging from or riding on water. Commenting on the Yamanaka Guanyin from Zhangzhou, Fuller noted that ‘years of incense smoke discolored its crackled glaze.’ He proposed exchanging the Guanyin for a Tianlongshan sculpture in 1934 . . . and Yamanaka graciously accepted. Luckily, the Guanyin remained in Seattle. Yamanaka resold the work to Fuller for $750. He made the right decision to keep the Yamanaka Guanyin because it matches the Moore Guanyin beautifully.1

The best decision, as we all know, is to walk away with both! Not only do the two Guanyin complement each other in form, as former SAM Chinese art curator Josh Yiu notes, but the message carried by the Guanyin bodhisattva is one that resonates deeply today, and Dr. Fuller’s choice to buy back his original porcelain Guanyin doubly enhances its life-giving presence at SAM. Known as Lord of Mercy, Guanyin represents boundless love and compassion. In the Mahayana doctrine, extending love to all people figures as an important step on the path to enlightenment.

Guanyin

The second, whiter Guanyin purchased by Dr. Fuller will graciously greet you on your next visit to the Chinese art galleries at the Asian Art Museum.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 56-63.
Image: Guanyin (detail), 17th18th century, Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Dehua ware: porcelain, 33 1/2 x 9 x 9 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.38, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Guanyin, 1615, Chinese, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Dehua ware: porcelain, 34 x 10 x 9 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.39, Photos: Natali Wiseman. Guanyin (detail).

 

 

Object of the Week: Tapestry of America

The tapestries of the continents that feature in Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World at the Asian Art Museum are simply stunning art objects, almost too much to see, each offering a near-constant barrage of decorative detail that takes time and energy to decipher. Happily, their aesthetic abundance encourages return visits. As particularly exaggerated allegorical portrayals, the tapestries provoke more thoughts about the values of the culture that produced them than the actual life of 17th-century inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and America. Or maybe we think Native women did lounge about, attended by tobacco-smoking cherubs, petting alligators?

Tapestry of America (detail)

As an American citizen, I find the Tapestry of America especially interesting to consider. On a staff tour of Mood Indigo, SAM curator Pam McClusky pointed out one detail that has echoed in my brain since, prodding me to think on it whenever I see the tapestry. Near the feet of the enthroned lady of America stand three stacks of gold coins, with a small pile next to them. The coins are ignored by the figures and occupy an unimportant place in the composition; they are as easily overlooked by the viewer as by America and her active attendants. With this detail, the makers of the tapestry commented on the value of money in cultures other than their own. America, we see, is laughably uninterested in gold and riches.

Tapestry of America (detail)

It’s clear that cultural tensions are surfacing here, but what exactly are they, and where do they originate? University of Washington professor of history Benjamin Schmidt helps us to identify what’s happening in the tapestry in his 2015 book Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World.

Writing on the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe, Schmidt points to maps and other material objects that reflect consistent opinions on what was European, what was not, and how the European related to things non-European. Of course, implicit in those ideas was an assumption that Europeans did it better. Take, for instance, commodities. Schmidt writes that “Europeans, even as they dearly coveted them, believed only they understood an object’s ‘true’ material value, while non-European peoples, notwithstanding their casual regard of them, failed to grasp the worth of those very goods they so richly possessed.”1 The maddening judgment present in the picture visualizes Schmidt’s thesis perfectly: Gold coins would sit at the feet of the Natives; they just didn’t understand true value.

Tapestry of America (detail)

A related point revealed in the tapestry is the Europeans’ readiness to take. Schmidt explains how, in their portrayals of exotic lands, early modern Europe developed a habit of thinking about the broader world as a consumable commodity, theirs for the taking.2 This “exotic” other world was essentially “agreeable” and ripe for plundering. So, even as the makers of the tapestry ridicule its subject for valuing anything above gold, we also see Europe’s greedy desire for tobacco reflected in the smoking cherub. Tobacco, like everything else, could probably be taken, because it probably wasn’t valued rightly.

Profound cultural differences and centuries of difficult history have made the Tapestry of America a charged work, one that is rewarding to engage.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Benjamin Schmidt, Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015; 256-257
2 Schmidt, Inventing Exoticism, 228.
Images: Installation view of Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World at Asian Art Museum, © Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Natali Wiseman. Tapestry of America (detail), late 17th c., Jacob van der Borcht (Flemish) and Jan Cobus (Flemish), wool, 156 x 144 1/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Hearst Foundation, Inc., 62.1991, Photos: Natali Wiseman.