“In the period from 1500 to 1800, Asians and Europeans often met as equals. Indeed, at centers of dominance such as Ming and Qing China, Tokugawa Japan and Mughal India, the encounter took place on Asian terms.”
Fascinating art and history on exhibit in London.
October 13, 2004
East and West: A Show About How the Twain Did Meet, 500 Years Ago
By ALAN RIDING
LONDON – It is tempting to imagine that Europeans’ fear of putrid food led a Portuguese navigator to open the sea routes to India and, in the process, alter the history of Europe and Asia. It was almost that simple. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Turks seized control of the overland trade routes from the East, and Europe was suddenly short of the Asian spices needed to preserve its food.
In that sense, the arrival of Vasco da Gama on the Indian coast in 1498 saved the day. It also provides the departure point for the rich story told in “Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500-1800,” the latest in a series of ambitious thematic exhibitions organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum here. “Encounters,” which follows recent shows on English Gothic, Art Deco, Art Nouveau and the Victorians, runs though Dec. 5.
In their eagerness to make exhibitions appear relevant, museums often try to connect history to today. In this case, the parallels need no underlining. In an age in which Europeans and Americans are trying to come to terms with the real and potential might of Asia, “Encounters” reminds us that we have been there before. Even globalization is not new. Half a millennium ago, distant lands came to know one another through trade.
The first object in this exhibition, a magnificent six-panel gold-leaf screen showing a Portuguese trade mission landing in Japan about 1630, captures the mood of bustle and excitement. From left to right, it depicts the arrival of a ship carrying seamen, merchants and priests; cargo being unloaded before curious bystanders; and men carrying caged peacocks, perhaps as gifts for Japanese merchants sitting in open-fronted rooms in the background.
Alas, there is no equivalent illustration of cargo vessels docking in Lisbon, bringing everything from tropical hardwood to live elephants for distribution across Europe, and helping turn the Portuguese capital into Europe’s richest city. But “Encounters” amply illustrates the range of exotica arriving from Asia: porcelain, ivory, pearls, rubies, silk, hand-painted cotton, lacquered furniture and myriad spices (nutmeg, cloves, ginger and cinnamon among them).
With its great navigating tradition, Portugal led the way, establishing more than 100 Asian trading posts, from Goa in India to Macao. But by the end of the 16th century, it faced competition. Spain, fresh from its conquests in the Americas, made the Philippines its colony in 1565, while England, France and the Netherlands, then still more interested in trade than in empire, worked through their East India companies to penetrate India, China, Japan and Indonesia.
The New World also played a role. Mexican silver crossed the Pacific from Acapulco, Mexico, to Manila and then financed the purchase of prized Asian products to be shipped to Europe. By 1800, when Europe began imposing imperial rule on parts of Asia, an extraordinary cultural exchange had taken place: Europe had influenced Asia with its art, technology and firepower, while Asia had infiltrated European taste and style.
“What is fascinating about this period is that it was characterized by fluidity and hybridity, not by dichotomy,” Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, who organized “Encounters,” write in an introduction to the show’s accompanying book. And they add: “In the period from 1500 to 1800, Asians and Europeans often met as equals. Indeed, at centers of dominance such as Ming and Qing China, Tokugawa Japan and Mughal India, the encounter took place on Asian terms.”
This, indeed, was one of Europe’s discoveries: Asia was anything but backward. Not only had intra-Asian trade from the Red Sea to China flourished for centuries, but Asia’s rulers were also rich, powerful and initially unimpressed by the paltry gifts brought by the foreigners. Appearing in thick woolen garments to meet rulers dressed in silk, the European merchants neither looked nor smelled the part of envoys from great kings. One Japanese court writer described them as “unnamable creatures somewhat similar in shape to the human being.”
Organized into “Discoveries,” “Encounters” and “Exchanges,” this show traces how the Europeans adjusted to the “Asian terms,” even to the point of prostrating themselves before rulers to win trade deals. In time, social interaction and Christian proselytizing increased. By the 18th century, Asian luxury goods were not only the rage in Europe, but Asian craftsmen were also adapting their designs – for instance, Chinese wallpaper – to European tastes.
The Victoria and Albert dwells extensively on India because of Britain’s subsequent rule of the subcontinent (and the museum’s own valuable Indian collections). But India was also far more open to outside influence than, say, China, which limited foreigners to coastal trading posts like Canton, and Japan, which traded only with the Dutch East India Company from 1639 to 1854. No style, though, would influence European drawing-rooms more than chinoiserie.
Among the almost 200 objects on display here, there is a splendid array of Chinese porcelain, including the so-called Gaignières-Fonthill vase, dating from 1300 to 1330 and said to be the earliest surviving piece of Chinese porcelain to arrive in Europe. From the 17th century on, European craftsmen often adorned Chinese vases, as well as bowls and plates, with silver mounts. Mother-of-pearl caskets from India were similarly transformed into something still more luxurious.
Conversely, Indian, Chinese and Japanese craftsmen made Christian religious objects, from beautifully woven vestments and carved pulpits to rock-crystal statues of “Child Jesus” and painted scenes from the New Testament. The show also includes a late-17th-century Japanese edict banning Christianity, but a Christian presence survived in both India and China. A Chinese woodprint of the Crucifixion carries the legend “Birth Records of the Deeds of God Who Became Man.”
Along with clock-making, cartography, astronomy, mirrors and guns, Europe also introduced Asia to Renaissance-style painting, including the novelty of perspective. Thus, just as Europeans were delighted to paint portraits of visiting Asians dressed in their traditional clothes, some Asians enjoyed being painted as Europeans, as in the 17th-century portrait of the bewigged “Yongzheng Emperor in European Dress.”
Many delightful paintings in “Encounters” record meetings of East and West, usually seen from an Asian perspective, with Europeans shown kowtowing to Indian or Chinese rulers. Later, European men are portrayed in Asian garb, lounging on carpets, while their new Asian wives or mistresses are balancing precariously on chairs.
Some images are quite explicit. One amusing late-18th-century Japanese woodblock depicts a bearded, fully dressed Dutchman making love to a Maruyama courtesan, who is burning incense to combat his body odor. He is talking, and a written text gives her reply, which suggests that she is not being satisfied. A more bucolic watercolor from the mid-17th century illustrates “The Private Pleasures of the Portuguese Commander-in-Chief.”
The exhibition ends with “Tipu’s Tiger,” a work rich in political symbolism. In the late 18th century, as India’s Mughal Empire was crumbling, Tipu Sultan, ruler of the southern region of Mysore, ordered this object, an automaton of a Bengal tiger devouring an Englishman; it even reproduced the roar of the tiger and the cries of its victim. But in 1799, after Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed by the British, “Tipu’s Tiger” was seized by the East India Company. Today its capture is seen as symbolizing the end of three centuries of East-West coexistence and the beginning of direct British rule of India.