I attended a fascinating symposium at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London yesterday organised as part of a project called Sinopticon, which is exploring the concept of chinoiserie in relation to contemporary art.
One of the issues that came up was about the point of view that chinoiserie represents. I have been grappling with this question in an earlier post.
Glenn Adamson, Deputy Head of Research at he V&A, posited that chinoiserie is neither a window on another world, nor a mirror showing us a view of ourselves, but is instead a ‘theatrical optic’. By this he means (if I understand him correctly) that the perspective of chinoiserie is like that of a traveller in a foreign land, or a spectator in a theatre.
Glenn pointed out that with a lot of chinoiserie the viewer is simply invited to revel in the spectacle, and that there is no requirement to really understand what is being represented.
I think this is an excellent analysis of how a certain type of chinoiserie works – such as the outrageous decoration at Claydon House shown here.
But I also think that our ‘optic’ of China was – and is – always changing, and that certain types of chinoiserie do reveal something about ourselves, while others show evidence of a certain degree of interest in ‘the other’. The Chinese House at Stowe is an example of some of those ‘window’ and ‘mirror’ perspectives on China, I think.
May the debate continue.