The Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum have organised an interesting exhibition about the meaning of chinoiserie decoration on English ceramics between 1710 and 1830, entitled Way of the Dragon (which is still on until 6 November 2011).
The exhibition includes numerous examples of charmingly odd chinoiserie scenes, with tottering pagodas, willowy damsels, gnarled trees, monstrous flowers and gesturing mandarins.
The exhibition curators, Professor David Porter and Dr Kate Smith, posit that the very whimsicality of these motifs made them attractive to western consumers. In a period when scientific thinking was becoming increasingly widespread, chinoiserie offered an alternative space in which the imagination could still roam freely.
Chinoiserie also offered a glimpse of a visual grammar that was radically different from the orthodox western artistic tradition. Chinese style provided an alternative to the classically-inspired western canon. Its use of multiple perspectives challenged the primacy of the one-point perspective developed in the Renaissance.
The figures in chinoiserie landscapes, moreover, seemed to be inhabiting an ideal, carefree world – a vision giving the western consumer a temporary escape from the everyday.
The exhibition should be applauded in touching on the challenging and progressive as well as the escapist and fantastical aspects of chinoiserie.