A Curious Affair

Yesterday was the Asian Art Museum and a survey of the special exhibit on artistic relations between East and West being shown in the Osher Gallery until September Third. Before we looked at the special exhibition, we wandered around the galleries, because this was the first time I’d seen the Asian in its new setting. (And before you get on my case for calling it “the Asian,” that’s what the museum calls itself, so there.) The new building is very interesting, and showcases the collections much better than the old one did. It also has an awesome floor. The floor plan is simple and very elemental–much like the art on display, and I imagine museum employees enjoy the more pleasant setting. My only major complaint about the building was that the air conditioning was set very low and as a result my ankle started to really bother me. But in general I give the Asian major props for the new home.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is one of the largest museums in the West devoted exclusively to Asian art, and it has a very diverse series of collections ranging from India to Japan. There are pieces which are thousands of years old, as well as contemporary art. It’s quite amazing to see the artistic and technical progression from, for example, 300AD to today. It’s also sort of embarassing, as a Westerner, to be reminded that the East had mastered many techniques in metal working and ceramics long before we’d even thought of them.

I really enjoyed the Japanese wing–the display on Japanese Buddhism was very interesting. The Buddha appears in many guises in Eastern traditions and they had a wide series of representations of him. They also had a small collection of samurai weapons on display which were quite lovely–I wish they had a wider display, tracing the history of Japanese arms through the centuries. As it was, it was amazing to look at thousand year old swords which still had wickedly sharp edges, with elegant and beautiful hilts. Japanese armour is also startlingly beautiful, because it had to be laquered to keep it from corrupting in the damp air and the armour we saw was deliciously ornamented and painted–that something so beautiful could also serve a functional purpose is a splendid thing.

The Asian also has a lovely display of krises, some of which had elaborately bejeweled and ornamented handles. I was curious about the wavy design of many of the Indonesian blades–I’m wondering about the rationale behind it. It certainly seems like it would be rather wicked to be stabbed with one. There’s one I certainly fancied, with a tara on the hilt. We also saw some elaborate dagger holders, one of which was formed in the shape of a massive demon.

We swept through China at a good clip and spent a brief time in Thailand–I can only take so much museum time at once before I become oversaturated. If I lived here, I’d buy a museum membership so I could wander at leisure whenever I pleased. It made me a little sad to see displays of artwork removed from temples in Thailand and Cambodia–I wonder about the circumstances whereby the Asian came by the works. Alas, most museum collections do consist of stolen works, and I know that repatriation of artwork is a growing issue. It seems a pity to not be able to see works of beautiful art from other places, but at the same time it seems like a great tragedy to have your cultural heritage removed to the West.

The Orientalism exhibition was…interesting. I’d love to meet the person who wrote the copy for the placards, because many of them displayed a level of sophisticated, dry wit that I envy with a passion. Many snarky comments crept their way in, that’s for sure. I wish I could get away with snark like that in a major public venue.

There was an amazing display of Eastern-inspired art produced by Westerners, some of which seemed amazingly racist to modern eyes–other pieces were quite lovely. I especially loved the Eastern inspired furniture, especially the pieces built by Chippendale. There were some amazingly beautifully crafted chairs which I rather wanted for my own purposes. Much of the furniture was actually built in the East for Westerners, and Western furniture became very trendy in the East as a result. Being a book nerd, I really loved the early edition of Chippendale’s furniture manual that was on display. I ogled it for quite awhile until I was reluctantly dragged away.

There were also some excellent paintings of an assortment of characters–you could see the infatuation with the mystique of the East bleeding through quite obviously in some cases. The museum did a great job of presenting the cultural collision between East and West, showing how we influenced each other artistically and what it’s like to see ourselves interpreted by a wildly different culture.

We also spent some time looking at the Yeh family collection, which is truly stunning. Examples of Chinese calligraphy stretching back for ages, on scrolls and fans, all privately held as I understand by the Yeh family. I greatly appreciate their willingness to share their cultural treasures with us–it was wonderful to see all the calligraphy work. I was particularly struck by a scroll commemorating a favourite concubine, at 17. There was a lovely painting of her reading, and a poem written to celebrate her birthday. A year later, she was dead, and the work was turned into a memorial scroll. Artists and scholars, the family has impeccable taste and it was a pleasure to view the collection.

I’d highly recommend visiting the museum, if you ever have a chance. A day wondering around thousands of years of priceless art is good for the soul.

[Asian Art Museum]