The allure of the strange

Sèvres vase with chinoiserie decoration in gold and platinum on a 'mirror black' ground, c. 1780, at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL/Roy Fox

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).

Glazed earthenware vase with chinoiserie decoration, Frankfurt, c. 1680, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

The exhibition includes numerous examples of charmingly odd chinoiserie scenes, with tottering pagodas, willowy damsels, gnarled trees, monstrous flowers and gesturing mandarins.

Meissen sugar basin with chinoiserie decoration, c. 1725, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

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.

Composite chinoiserie object created by combining various Chinese and Japanese ceramics, late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL/Roy Fox

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.

Meissen teacup and saucer and two covered dishes with chinoiserie decoration in gold on white, c. 1720, at Ickworth, Suffolk. ©NTPL/Angelo Hornak

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.

Sèvres dish decorated with chinoiserie scenes in gold and platinum on a 'mirror black' ground, c. 1780, at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL/Roy Fox

The exhibition should be applauded in touching on the challenging and progressive as well as the escapist and fantastical aspects of chinoiserie.

10 Responses to “The allure of the strange”

  1. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    Being a keen collector of early porcelain, I would love to see the exhibition and read the curators’ analyses.

    I agree that the very whimsicality of these motifs made them attractive to western consumers; the _decorations_ are utterly different from anything 99% of Europeans would have ever seen in their lives. But the _shapes and functions_ of the objects, especially the Meissen objects, look European to my eyes.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes indeed the shapes are often European, or East Asian shapes that have been ‘translated’ to appeal to European taste and usage. Ditto the decoration, which was inspired by East Asian styles but was inevitably adapted and changed by European designers and craftsmen. And even the ‘real’ East Asian wares were often tailored to western tastes. So the story of East-West cultural exchange in the decorative arts is all about hybrids, and about hybrids of hybrids of hybrids, which I think is part of the fascination of it.

  3. Toby Worthington Says:

    ‘A temporary escape from the everyday’ has got to be my
    favorite line of the week. And I hadn’t considered (until this
    post) to what extent the multiple perspectives seen in chinoiserie
    design contributes to its charm and its ‘otherness’.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Glad I have contributed to your week 🙂

    Yes the genuine East Asian multiple perspective would have been startling (and still is) to the western eye; but also the way in which lacquer was cut up and re-assembled rather haphazardly in the west added to the strangeness, as large flowers ended up next to tiny people etc, which western craftsmen then copied, so that the ‘surreal landscape’ became a staple of chinoiserie.

  5. style court Says:

    Emile —

    So glad you weighed in on this one. Everywhere I turn lately I’m encountering more theories about the eighteenth century thirst for “exoticism” being a response to the Enlightenment. Fascinating. Wish you could guide us on a tour of the exhibition!

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thanks. As it happens, I am providing a quick ‘tour d’horizon’ of the history of chinoiserie during the evening panel session of the Christie’s Education study day about Chinese interiors and decorative arts in London on 9 November – but I am not expecting you to fly over from Atlanta especially 🙂

    And yes I definitely think that although sometimes chinoiserie seems to have been a reaction to Enlightenment thought, at other times it seems to have been an extension of it. Like any visual style, its meaning depends on who is using it, and on the intended audience. The political and intellectual and ‘taste’ context of the 1720s Meissen shown above, for instance, would have been very different from that of the 1780s Sevres.

  7. style court Says:

    Wish I could fly over for it. Let us know if it’s filmed or turned into a podcast or something. Sounds like it will be wonderful.

  8. style court Says:

    Just a random tidbit loosely related to the ongoing chinoiseire and East-meets-West discussions:

    The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is re-branding and recently selected a new, non-stereotypically Asian logo — an upside-down A to represent “for everyone,” or “for all.” The idea is to visually include all of the regions represented in the museum’s collections, for example Central Asia and the Middle East as well as the Far East, and all prospective visitors. And I think the logo is supposed to challenge different audiences to look at things from new angles.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, what an interesting example of cultural branding. Fascinating, too, that they now call themselves ‘Asian’, leaving out the ‘The … Art Museum’. That reminds me of how the Tate Gallery morphed into the overal ‘Tate’ brand, which then diversifies into Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. And of course my own organisation recently dropped the ‘The’ in front ot ‘National Trust’ – I suppose simply calling ourselves ‘Trust’ would have been a bit too presumptuous 🙂

  10. style court Says:

    Oh the ever-changing ‘The’s’ !! I’m constantly having to pause and see if I need to drop a ‘the’ or at least drop the cap T. Encountered your Tate example earlier this week 🙂

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