Global Trade Made Gorgeous

Charger with symbol of Order of St. Augustine (1590-1620) Photo: Peabody Essex Museum

Salem, Mass.

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.

Asian Export Art Gallery

Peabody Essex Museum
Through Jan. 1, 2022

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.

Jacket (18th century) Photo: Peabody Essex Museum

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.

Porcelain potpourri by French, Chinese and Japanese artists (c. 1740) Photo: Peabody Essex Museum

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.

Lam Qua’s ‘Portrait of Wu Bingjian (Houqua II)’ (1835) Photo: Peabody Essex Museum

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.

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