The Idler: Go East Young Man

By opening Hackerman House, in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore has not only given its previously hidden Asian art collection a glorious setting but has accommodated itself as well to the upper-middle-class penchant for museums as highbrow entertainment: the Shaker Heights version of the Roman baths, the Ivy League equivalent of the shopping mall. Those who recoil at the vulgarity of the food court at the mall can find refuge in the Walters’ up-scale tearoom and enjoy in the galleries an array of glittering things of this world with the happy knowledge that none of it is for sale. The approach to this new wing (actually an in-town mansion back to back with the Renaissance-style palazzo of the old Walters) is an enclosed causeway and glass cupola. The cupola, really a belvedere, and one of the few in America with a really nice view, introduces the museum-goer into the domestic-scale urban breathing space of Mt. Vernon Square, which to this reviewer’s eye rivals any Central European city square for graciousness and elegance.

The causeway leads by but not necessarily into the sunken restaurant. During an excellent lunch, which tends to predispose a reviewer to a purely detached and objective analysis free of the peevishness of museum fatigue, two mysterious  Japanese ladies in kimonos suddenly appeared, descended the stair halfway, consulted together, and vanished as inscrutably as they had come. Were they from the museum’s education program? The Japanese Embassy? Gilbert and Sullivan? Was this their usual costume? Were they vision, or mirage? In any case, they provided a glimpse of the inexplicable and exotic, a good introduction to an exhibition about which even an aficionado of Western art may know little enough.

The Asian art housed in Hackerman House was for the most part assembled by William Walters and his son Henry, barons of the Atlantic Coastline Railway, and like their collection of Western art, the Asian assemblage is of a costly, exquisite, and idiosyncratic nature. Where Andrew Mellon and Henry Clay Frick collected according to newly-laid principles of art history (mostly Berenson’s) and concentrated on painting, the Walters père et fils went in heavily for the decorative arts. They acquired mostly small precious objects whose domestic scale, like the modest scale of the Genoese palace Henry Walters built to house the collection, connote the trappings of the princely, not the kingly life. Perhaps they even sought to make a modern equivalent of the Renaissance encyclopedia, the princely scholar’s study collection representing art and nature in microcosm. What they were they looking for in the art of the Orient? From Hackerman House, one postulates the same curiosity evidenced by contemporary travelers (or at least travel writers): a taste for the exotic, the ironic, and the anomalous, surely, but also a real curiosity about points of contact and the truth about faraway places.

Points of contact and mutual interaction, East and West, give form to the downstairs rooms, the Collectors’ Galleries. These to some extent reconstruct a style of display that would have been familiar to William and Henry Walters and also preserve the beauties of the townhouse from the surgical starkness of the modern art museum. Photographs of the Walters’ own display of their collection, however, reveal that the galleries are only an approximation. The original exhibition was laid out along Scrooge McDuck lines, with heaps of porcelain and bronzes stacked in front of floor-to-ceiling paintings.

The present version shows more restraint, and, while resplendent, does not transgress our late-century boundaries of acceptable taste. Its stylish Bradbury and Bradbury wallpapers are an acceptable—at this point—surrogate for the original vivid polychrome and gilding. In time, it may be seen to have its own period foibles, like the ’30s look of the Gone with the Wind set, but for now, it is more than satisfactory.

The new exhibition, both downstairs and in the more conventional, cream-painted upstairs galleries, grapples well also with the problem of the label and the curator’s perpetual dilemma: how to make an unfamiliar art object accessible to an audience without making the information assume more importance than the object itself? How much should a label attempt to explain, and how much merely point out? What should a label presume about the viewer’s previous knowledge? With Asian art, it may be safe to assume a near-total ignorance of the object’s age, purpose, style, content, and context within society, religion, and life.

Given that, curator Hiram Woodward, Jr., has done a commendable job. It is, of course, not possible to answer every question that might arise, but the labels do provide enough information to place the objects in some kind of context and to raise questions, at least, among the museum-goers. Occasional leaflets proffer more detailed historical and stylistic analysis for later perusal or for the serious student, but for the most part the labels provide a skillfully compounded mix of context and explanation to make their subjects accessible, to provide them with a kind of frame. A good example is the case label attached to a group of Japanese sword guards, which protect the warrior’s hand from his lethal blade. Images on the tsuba, the label explains, often make reference to seasonal change. One is inscribed:

I will deck my head

with autumn chrysanthemums

at their lustrous best

for who can say whether my death

may come before they wither?

The point is not belabored. This particular label launched our group into a discussion comparing the Japanese view to the Greek attitude toward death, life, art, and transience, with reference to certain classical grave steles that depict a woman untying her shoelace, as if to lay aside her life as gently and naturally as one sets aside a sandal. From there, our attention was drawn in an adjoining gallery to a figure from a fragment of a temple frieze: its classical canon of proportions and its drapery uncannily recalled Greek sculpture. Its label revealed it to date from the fifth century B.C.

In some instances we need the labels to explain the inexplicable: a set of tiny, gold-spangled edged tools were the instruments of Kodo, the Way of Incense. With them, followers of the Way cut slivers of aromatic woods and burned them, identifying and compounding them in sequences that recalled images of poetry and literature. It is not clear from the label whether Kodo was an elaborate ritual for the jaded, a highly esoteric game, or a refined artistic exercise with religious overtones. Perhaps, given Japanese culture, the distinctions do not even apply. Equally mysterious is a framed panel of porcelain shards of a subtle robin’s egg blue, overlaid with rust: who framed them thus, and why? Were they significant to an Eastern taste, or a Westerner’s appreciation? Another label, affixed to a case of Chinese writing accessories, explains that it was bad etiquette to speak vulgarly or loudly in a Chinese garden, as it might offend the spirits of the flowers.

The Walters collection of Asian art comprises over 6,500 objects, about a sixth of which are on display: the problem of which ones to include and which to omit must have been a knotty one. Confessing a certain taste of her own for the glittering and bizarre, this reviewer had rather hoped to see the virtuoso exhibition pieces Japanese silversmiths submitted for admission to their guild: naturalistic frogs, reptiles, and insects with jointed legs and retractable tongues; silver snakes with fully articulated backbones that coiled in the hand with horrifying realism. Presumably they still lurk in scaly horror in some recess of storage, where it was their habit to terrorize the staff.

The objects that were chosen seem to have been selected specifically to deal with the question of when, how, or whether East does meet West, in the Walters’ era and our own. For instance, the downstairs parlor houses a case of Chinese porcelains turned beautiful monstrosity by the addition of French rococo gilt bronze mounts. (One blue and white ewer fared no better at the hands of the Turks: not content with gold additions, they studded it at intervals with multi-colored jewels.) While the West was open and avid to include the Orient in its discourses on form and function, there was no guarantee of a meeting of the minds.

Still, here and there, there were the William and the Henry Walters, who appreciated it all, neolithic jade and stoneware, porcelain, ormolu mounts, up-to-date export-market silverware, everything. Their curiosity seemed all-inclusive, not without humor or self-irony (one metalwork box depicts a monkey posing as a collector, peering learnedly through a pair of Western spectacles), and still, as it is displayed at Hackerman House, with a keen eye for works that demonstrate the effects of contact between East and West. The museum has been criticized, along with the Walters, for giving room to a 1914 Japanese carving of a schoolgirl in half-Western dress, yet she is precisely the point of the japoniste gallery. She stands at the point of contact, the threshold of mutual comprehension or of its failure. She recalls Degas’ ballerinas, with all that they entail of East-meets-West, but her faintly elegiac title, “Condoling Speech of Classmates,” remains enigmatic. In fact, she epitomizes a moment when East and West truly struggled to meet and accommodate each other, to comprehend and appreciate each other perhaps as never before—or since.

To return to the older portions of the Walters Art Gallery after seeing Hackerman House is to see Western art, particularly the decorative arts, with new eyes. Here, too, in the Western art galleries, is Western incomprehension of the East, in an eighteenth-century French horror, a perfumer encasing not one but two pieces of white Chinese porcelain in a veritable bower of ormolu, itself studded with Vincennes porcelain flowers.

Still, in the same era, French goldsmiths adopted Eastern techniques as well as motifs to raise metalwork to a point of refinement and technical panache that finds its heir only in Faberge. Hackerman House complements the existing exhibition of the Walters collection, itself splendidly renovated in recent years. At the same time, it exists as a separate and intriguing museum concept, a paradigm for the nineteenth-century Westerner’s openness and obsessive, possessive curiosity about the East. Hackerman House is not without a certain irony, too, for while it shows us the follies and misapprehensions of the curious of another era, it makes us uncomfortably aware that we may have our own.

By

After graduating from Wellesley College, Pittsburgh native Mary Elizabeth Podles pursued postgraduate studies in art history at Columbia University. She has employed her expertise in curating at the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington; most recently, she acted as the Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Since retiring, Podles has continued to engage in her field by her writing and lecturing, as well as taking up the practical study of art in order to better understand the process undergone by the artists themselves.

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