East Meets West at Brooks Exhibition

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

Chinese, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) BURIAL SUIT AND HEADREST, likely 18th century (date of reconstruction unknown); Suit: Jade (nephrite), modern metal and silk bindings; Headrest: Jade (nephrite), over cloth covered modern wood frame.

(Photo: Courtesy of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)

INSET: Unknown Dutch Maker LOBED DISH, ca. 1680-1700 Tin-glazed earthenware.

(Photo: Courtesy of Bob Brown and Richard Tanner Collection)

These days Western nations are scurrying to make connections with China, which is at the center of global economic growth.

But a new exhibit at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art shows how cultural connections have existed between China and the West for centuries.

“A Taste for China,” open through June 15, features more than 100 pieces including paintings, furniture, textiles, porcelain ware and sculpture on loan from private Memphis collections. Some pieces belonging to the Brooks’ own permanent collection have never been on display before.

“One of the things that I think attracts people to Chinese art is that there is some sort of visual consistency,” said Stanton Thomas, the Brooks’ curator of European and decorative art, who curated the exhibit.

Thomas pointed out that while American and European art changes drastically from decade to decade, much of the imagery and style of Chinese art has survived through centuries including wars, revolutions and changing dynasties. Also, since many of the pieces on display were made especially for the export market, the pieces reflect how China related its art to western tastes.

The show opens with a massive cinnabar screen, which was made by suspending lead in 75 to 100 layers of lacquer before being carved and polished. Screens in China were made to be functional, but in the 18th century they were sought after as decorations in European salons and parlors. Much smaller, but just as impressive is a four-foot-long hand scroll composed of watercolor paintings depicting scenes from a novel on paper sheets bound together by silk. It dates back to 1600 during the Ming Dynasty but is in nearly perfect condition.

Chinese, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) ARMCHAIR, Qianlong Period, ca. 1736-1795; Cinnabar lacquer over wood frame.

(Photo: Courtesy of Belz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art)

Another large screen from the Brooks’ collection depicts a pagoda-like structure set in the middle of the sea with people, trees and waterfalls along far-off shores. The screen hasn’t been displayed before because the Brooks has no area for Chinese art in the permanent galleries.

“This was made around 1750 and probably was a series of 10 separate hanging scrolls,” Thomas said. “Probably what happened was that maybe in the 18th century this was exported to the Western world and someone cut up the hanging scrolls and mounted them to make screens. It’s the kind of thing that people were really interested in in the West in the 18th century.”

Porcelain was almost exclusively a Chinese art until Europeans managed to successfully replicate their processes, but until then Westerners ordered sets of China sometimes with hand-drawn, customized patterns.

A finely embroidered bedcover with birds of paradise, butterflies and peonies made for an emperor shows the reverse effect of the Chinese-Western trade connections.

“This shows that the Chinese were affected by Western taste,” Thomas said. “It isn’t the austere, simple, beautifully-organized type of art you associate with China. It’s much more active and busy. It’s the kind of thing they knew would be popular in the West.”

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a man-sized suit made of thousands of two-inch long jade ingots held together by cloth binding and metal wires. The suit would have been used to enshroud and preserve a body like a mummy. Thomas explained that to the Chinese, jade was believed to have similar properties as gold and associated it with wealth and immortality.