We live surrounded by a world of man-made images and objects. Many are familiar and comforting. Others are new and alarming. And there is no escape from the grip upon our lives of paintings, photographs, statues, advertisements, ceramics, calligraphy, product logos, cartoons, even graffiti.
An intriguing exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum examines the ways that art from other cultures or historical eras shapes our perspectives of the world – and of ourselves. Encounters: Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery displays sixty carefully-chosen works of art, for the most part from the Princeton University collection. These are juxtaposed in ways that show how preconceptions of “true art” may be called into question by a sight or insight new to us. These “encounters” occur every time we go to an art museum. “Encounters,” equally profound, confront us in the places where we live and work. We never cease encountering art.
A fitting object to begin a review of the Encounters exhibit is the ancient Greek wine cup known as a janiform kantharos. Like the two-faced god, Janus, the faces on the goblet look in opposite directions. But one face is that of an elegant Greek woman, the other of a Black African man. The physiological features of the African are so pronounced, so markedly those of dark skinned sub-Saharan ethic groups, that our immediate reaction is that this Greek cup is an early example of racist stereotyping. And such an assessment of this remarkable object would be entirely wrong.
The kantharos dates from the period just after the victory of the Greeks in the Persian War, 480-470 B.C. It was one of several types of wine cups used in the famous wine-drinking and philosophy-discussing parties known as symposia. These were men-only affairs, flute girls excepted. The wine was always mixed with water in a large bowl known as a krater. The most prevalent cups were the shallow, saucer-shaped kylix and the deep-draft skyphos, which looked like a coffee mug with small handles on the rim. A kantharos was likely to have been reserved for a special toast, as symposia, with the guests’ couches grouped in a circle, were designed to promote friendship rather than special status or honor.
Kantharos cups were clearly luxury items. The face-shaped bottoms were made in a mold, with the rims done on a potter’s wheel. The parts were then joined, painted and fired in a kiln. Examples with different face pairings have survived. A kantharos in the collection of the San Antonio Art Museum depicts Heracles in his lion skin on one side. An African, similar in appearance to the one on the Princeton kantharos, is on the other side. But there is no hint of racial prejudice on either cup.
To the Greeks, all non-Greek speakers were barbarians. Culture rather than race was the determining factor. Had the face on the kantharos depicted one of the defeated Persians, then it would likely have been made in reference to the war. Instead, the African face testifies to the Greek fascination with distant races and of their contacts with “Aethiopia” as they called the kingdom to the south of Egypt.
The kantharos cup on display in the Encounters exhibit reveals the ancient roots of the global civilization of the 21st Century. The archly humorous work, Six Pack of Kekou Kele by the Chinese artist, Zhang Hongtu, deftly skewers globalism’s pretensions of limitless supply and demand and the surreal lengths to which corporate “branding” is pushed.
Six Pack of Kekou Kele shows the hallmarks of one of the first “brands” to go global, the blue and white “china” of Ming China. The glazed porcelain, once so prized in Western Europe during the 1600’s, is here molded into the instantly recognizable shape of Coca Cola bottles. In some circles, critical of the extent of the United States’ worldwide influence, the very shape of the Coca Cola bottle has come to symbolize the relentless spread of “Americanization.”
Born in 1943, Zhang Hongtu witnessed the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s disenchantment with the Maoist regime infused his wickedly funny repainting of the “Mr. Quaker” logo on the Quaker Oats cereal box with the features of Chairman Mao. This occurred in 1987, just as China started to flex its muscles as an economic power. While still posturing as a Marxist utopia, China began to repackage its society in the “comfort food” guise of a capitalist economy.
It is worthy of note that Zhang transformed Mr. Quaker into Chairman Mao five years after he emigrated to the United States. The birth of Chinese “Political Pop” took place in his New York studio. This is an ironical state of affairs, all the more apparent in Six Pack of Kekou Kele, created in 2002. Is Zhang commenting here on the way that China’s millennia-old civilization is being crassly mass-marketed to enhance its leading role in the global economy? Or is it a subtle indictment of the West’s heedless consumerism, so oblivious to culture that it can appreciate nothing unless it is a familiar brand product beckoning from the supermarket shelf?
It may take decades to arrive at definitive answers to these questions. But Zhang, a hugely talented artist working in many media, has already made a profound statement concerning the open-ended nature of artistic encounters.
“I try to raise questions with my art — I do not often know the answers.”
Zhang Hongtu’s career illustrates the encounter of West and East in the media-saturated environment of the contemporary world. A century ago, a similar encounter occurred amid the dangerous currents of nationalism and colonialism. The Princeton exhibition illustrates the impact of European and American influence upon Japan by contrasting a 19th century Japanese woodblock print, one of the celebrated ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world,” with a masterful watercolor by Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Both pictures show that hidden costs often come in the wake of such artistic encounters.
The Japanese woodblock print, Nobility Taking in the Evening Cool, is a triptych showing the Emperor Meiji and two ladies of his court relaxing in a moonlit setting. It was the work of Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912). Chikanobu was a highly regarded master of the bijin-ga or “beautiful person picture.” His individual portraits and his depictions of time-honored Japanese customs were done in the best traditions of Japanese art. These carried on the spirit of earlier ukiyo-e artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Hiroshige. Japanese woodblock prints, when discovered in Europe in the 1870’s, created a sensational vogue called Japonisme.
Nobility Taking in the Evening Cool represents the flip-side of Japonisme. It records the counter-veiling impact of the clothes, technology and world view of Europe and the United States upon Japan. It is a visual record of the Meiji Restoration, the not very subtle attempt by the Japanese government to adapt what they felt was useful from the West – Parisian fashions, steam engines and ironclad warships – while rejecting more unsettling and inconvenient western ideals like democracy and social justice.
Nobility Taking in the Evening Cool, while technically impressive, is an aesthetic failure. The scene is awkward, garish and unsettling. It cuts against the grain of all that made Japan so distinctive and admired among the cultured classes of Europe and America. Instead of displaying the traditional virtues of Japan, the emperor and his ladies flaunt up-to-date and preposterous-looking western outfits. It is all pose, an assertion of modernization through “conspicuous consumption.”
Chikanobu, the bijin-ga master, was increasingly called upon to create battle scenes celebrating the aggressive wars launched by the Japanese against China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05). His attempts to evoke the warrior ethos of the Samurai in the setting of modern warfare only magnified the contradictions inherent in the outwardly peaceful setting of Nobility Taking in the Evening Cool. Heroic commanders, attired in uniforms similar to the one worn by the Emperor Meiji, are shown leading massed ranks of faceless foot soldiers into battle. In doing so, Chikanobu helped to undermine ukiyo-e as a viable artistic discipline and unwittingly contributed to Japan’s march to Pearl Harbor.
Winslow Homer’s The Trysting Place recalls echoes of an earlier “total” war. The watercolor shows a fashionably dressed young American woman of the 1870’s. She is standing alone, her virginal white dress reflecting the fading light of a summer evening. If the painting’s title is a clue, she is apparently expecting a lover. But her blank, mournful face is an indication that she is waiting in vain.
The model for the woman in The Trysting Place was Homer’s sister-in-law, Alice, who married his brother Arthur in 1875, the year Homer painted her. Alice was fortunate to find a husband in post-Civil War America. With a staggering total of nearly 650,000 military deaths (civilian fatalities were never computed) many American women were left widows or unwed.
Homer painted a number of such melancholy or wistful young women during the 1870’s. Although there is no absolute proof that these paintings are directly linked to Civil War, it should be remembered that the war during the 1870’s was largely a taboo subject. It shrouded almost every aspect of American life, but could only be addressed indirectly. And it is also evident from his letters that Homer, a Union war artist, had been deeply disturbed by the slaughter.
One may read multiple meanings into The Trysting Place. But it is hard to shake the feeling that the oriental fan held by the young woman in this enigmatic painting is a keepsake from a lover, fiancé or husband who had “gone for a soldier.” The Trysting Place is a place of memory, her hallowed ground.
Interpretations like this assessment of The Trysting Place are not without their risks. There is always a danger of taking a subjective step too far. But the Encounters exhibit shows that risks are worth taking. By focusing on the ways that cultural dialog and interaction are expanding and modifying our ideas about art, the exhibit fosters a sense of time and creativity that is universal.
Encounters also highlights the role of the individual creator. This is an important point. For all of the vast range of media available in the arts today, the artist is still the primary agent for articulating new insights and promoting cultural change.
A case in point is the American sculptor David Smith (1906-1965). On display in the Encounters exhibit is Smith’s Painted Landscape (The Love Letter). This beautiful, mystifying sculpture, created in welded steel, dates to 1950. The same year, Smith produced another work, similar in name, theme and material. This was The Letter, regarded as an important transitional work, made before Smith channeled his energies into the statue-sized Tanktotem series.
Both of Smith’s Letters are tableau style works, arrays of personal symbols. In the case of Painted Landscape (The Love Letter) the title is likely a reference to Smith’s early career as a painter and to his belief that sculpture could help realize the aims of painting to a greater degree. The conception of a sculptor, Smith declared, “is as free as that of the painter. His wealth of response is as great as his draftsmanship.”
According to the legend of Smith’s career, he changed artistic gears during the early 1950’s, “going big.” He bought a ton of boiler plate and scrap iron and increased the scale of his sculptures from inches to feet. Having worked during World War II building locomotives and tanks, Smith brought a welder’s torch and hard-edged industrial methods to an artistic discipline rooted in the time-honored technique of casting from molds.
“What associations the metal possesses,” Smith declared, “are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction, brutality.”
Smith transformed tightly articulated table top pieces like Painted Landscape (The Love Letter) into works like Hudson River Landscape and Australia, both dating to 1951. These amazing welded sculptures seemed to float on air. A year later, he set to work on the Tanktotem series. The intimate scale of The Letter and Painted Landscape (The Love Letter) appeared to be a thing of the past.
As if to contradict all the text book explanations concerning the trajectory of Smith’s later career, the Princeton exhibition presents a work that reveals his continuing devotion to the human scale in art. At the very height of the production of the Tanktotem series, he produced a major series of calligraphic brush and ink works on paper. Smith was fascinated with Chinese and Japanese painting and calligraphy, examples of which are on display in the exhibition.
The effect of viewing Smith’s brush and ink Untitled, from 1957, and the late 15th–early 16th century hand scroll by the Ming era artist, Zhu Yunming, is startling. It takes but a few brief moments of comparison – and a double take or two – for all the scholarly definitions on art, timelines and analysis to fall away. The dialog between two great artists begins anew. And the museum visitor, thanks to this splendid, unconventional exhibition, is positively encouraged to join in.
Appearing at the Princeton University Art Museum, July 14, 2012 – September 23, 2012, Princeton, NJ (609-258-3788). The Museum is located on the Princeton University campus a short walk from Nassau Street in downtown Princeton.