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A Continent, a Kaleidoscope: Across Asia at the Walters

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Across Asia, the ambitious reinstallation of the Walters Art Museum’s Asian and Islamic collections, opened over the weekend—and it turns out to be a stunner. Filling the fourth floor of the Centre Street Building and featuring more than 500 objects, it offers a rich and polyphonic account of the largest continent’s remarkably varied artistic traditions. It also disrupts, with a calm confidence, the implicitly Eurocentric tilt of the museum’s longstanding layout. Wondering what lay beyond, say, the borders of the ancient Roman Empire or the reach of colonial France? Give this show some time, and your impression of both the Walters and the history of art may be challenged in refreshing ways.

Step off the elevator and into the lobby, and you’ll quickly gain a sense of the show’s tone and scope. A princely Chinese Bodhisattva carved from sandstone roughly 1,400 years ago stands just ahead, ready to help guide anyone in need; nearby, a vivacious 11th-century rendering of dancing Ganesha, the Hindu god affiliated with new beginnings, reinforces a sense of auspicious welcome. (Notably, that sense is largely maintained across the show, through a series of maps and interactive displays and a consistent emphasis upon accessibility.) To the left is a further hint of the show’s audacious range: a cluster of revolving contemporary works, including a quintet of virtuosic ceramic pieces made of fired stoneware.

The next step is up to you. The cosmopolitanism of the Ottoman Empire? The erudition of Ming Dynasty China? The intentionally fluid floor plan offers a choice—but emphatic color choices (paradisical green for Islamic art, blue for East Asian) allow you to maintain your thematic bearings. So let’s head left, into a rewarding thicket of Chinese and Korean ceramics and bronzes. 

 

Installation view. Photograph by Kerr Houston.
Seraphim by Fujikasa Satoko, Japan, ca. 2015, stoneware with white slip glaze, Gift of Betsy and Robert Feinberg, 2015
Wine Jar with Carp among Water Weeds and Lotuses, China, ca. 1522–1566, porcelain with underglaze blue decoration and overglaze enamels, Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931

Some of these works may seem familiar: a celebrated 16th-century Chinese jar decorated with gliding carp, for instance, is one of several objects that were also featured in a 1991 selection of the Walters’ Asian holdings. But curatorial touches further the air of lively relatability, as a video shows how bronze bells sound when rung and a placard summarizes local college students’ reactions to the items associated with a Chinese scholar’s study.

And then it’s on to Japan—and, interestingly, an overt allusion to the sprawling expositions at which Henry Walters purchased many of the works on display. A massive photograph of one of those fairs looms over three works featured in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, creating a potent visual effect and implicitly situating the objects in a complex nexus of culture and commerce.

But trans-continental exchanges are an ancient phenomenon in the history of Asian art, as a vitrine at the other end of the gallery reminds us. In it, several blue and white vessels testify to the gradual dissemination of cobalt glaze, from the mines of central Asia to the kilns of China, Turkey, and Holland. To be sure, this is a well-known example of art historical influence, often remarked on in textbooks and lecture halls. But the examples on display here clearly illustrate the central lesson: inexpensive, durable, and widely used, ceramics constituted a perfect vehicle for the transmission of artistic forms and technologies.

A small room just around the corner offers a welcome chance to slow down and to explore some appealing objects in different ways. In a huge display case built for this show, two sublime 17th-century painted paper screens depict venerable cherry trees, their blooming branches partially concealed by billowing clouds. The imagery verges at point on abstraction, and is deeply meditative: for while the short-lived blossoms of cherry trees connote ephemeral beauty, the evident age of the trunks also hints at an obdurate strength. Wisely, the curators place two benches before the screen, inviting us to take a seat and look at length. It’s an invitation worth accepting.

 

Mirror Cover, 18th century, Türkiye (Turkey), silk embroidery on linen, Acquired by Henry Walters, 1931
Photo by Kerr Houston.

For, after all, sitting and pondering is exactly what we might do if we were sipping tea in a traditional Japanese teahouse. And, indeed, an adjacent array of smaller items speaks of the sensuous (but not necessarily less sophisticated) pleasures of tea and tobacco. There’s even a touchable resin reproduction of a netsuke, a carved object used to attach a tobacco box to a sash. Take it in hand and delight in the varied surface, polished to preclude any damage to a silk outfit. 

Next, enjoy a stroll through the nearby gaggle of religious figures—various Hindu and Jain deities; languorous Buddhas—pausing at the impressive evocation of a Burmese shrine, capped by a sculpture of a serene, seated Buddha. This figure (which recently also held court in the museum’s Carriage House) is the product of a complex history: covered with paper-thin gold leaf donated by devotees, it also belonged to the billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke, before being donated to the Walters.

Just a few steps away is another clear highlight of the show: a recently repaired 12-foot-tall thammat, or pulpit, from a Thai Buddhist temple. This wooden structure, the largest object in the Walters’ collection, once hosted monks as they recited Buddhist literature (in fact, an adjacent video screen offers a chance to hear a local monk doing just that). As a material object, it is riveting. The hundreds of reflective panels glitter, sharp contours of cut glass offset the less regular lines of joined wood, and solid elements and bold voids coexist in a provocative tension.

Thammat, Thailand, 19th century, wood, glass inlay, lacquer, gilt
Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s
Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2002
Image Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Several galleries are given to works of art from the Islamic world, marking the first time that the Walters has shown Asian and Islamic material in a contiguous manner. Particularly notable is a handsome case that evokes the furniture of a Persian collector and holds fifteen ceramic specimens: a concise and colorful visual primer. Nearby, several very different objects (Yemeni silver work likely executed by Jewish craftsmen; a jeweled Ottoman rifle made by an Armenian Christian) illustrate the complex intercultural intersections that have long characterized visual culture in the region.

Or, in one notable case, in Maryland.

In developing this show, Dimmig assembled an Islamic art advisory committee, which challenged her to consider the local relevance of such material. That resulted in the inclusion of a 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a West African Muslim who was briefly enslaved on Kent Island before being freed, welcomed into London’s educated circles, and painted. In the portrait, Diallo wears a Qur’an about his neck; in an adjacent case, a comparable Qur’an suggests the popularity of such a practice, and gives us a sense of the scale and heft of such texts, which also served as portable talismans.

In a sense, Diallo’s experience thus lines up neatly with the installation’s more general emphasis on cosmopolitanism and exchange. Again, these are hardly novel themes; exhibitions that focus on the Silk Road are common, and a 2017 show at the Denver Art Museum also foregrounded the relationship between Asian art, trade and devotion. Still, several of the objects on display are eloquent reminders of the complexity of those interactions. A powerful Baroque sculpture of the archangel Michael, for instance, is made of ivory gathered in both Africa and southeast Asia; carved in the Philippines by Chinese craftsmen, it was probably intended for a Catholic audience in either Europe or Mexico. The world was evidently already flat, in some senses, more than 300 years ago.

 

Installation view. Photograph by Kerr Houston.
Container and Tray with Floral Pattern, Indian (Artist) late 17th-18th century (Early Modern) rock crystal, gold, rubies (or spinels), emeralds (or beryls), and silver (Islamic World ). Acquired by Henry Walters. Photo by Kerr Houston.

But let’s begin to wrap things up by spending a moment with a jeweled Mughal container and tray made in around 1700. Studded with emeralds and rubies held in place with gold foil in a daring technique known as kundan, it’s a small, refined object whose delicacy belies the force that was needed in carving its rock crystal core. Cumulatively, it feels like a single, faceted jewel, and it thus glints variously as our perspective shifts, offering constantly evolving constellations of light.

And, in that sense, it’s an effective metonym for this entire show—which, similarly, offers a kaleidoscope of possible formal, material, and thematic connections and patterns. It is, admittedly, a dense and almost overwhelming installation; in scale and variety, it brings to mind the almost infinite complexity of Lao Tzu’s ten thousand things. In that sense, it virtually demands multiple visits. But that makes sense, for this is a show that was clearly built to last. And traversing the whole of Asia is, after all, no small thing.

Shows of this scale are consuming affairs, and the folks at the Walters have been busy. Over the course of five years, the development team raised more than $1 million in supporting funds, and the museum’s conservators restored numerous works, several of which are now being exhibited for the first time in Baltimore. A trio of curators—Adriana Proser, Dany Chan, and Ashley Dimmig—worked together to craft a show that accents culturally specific traditions while also emphasizing intercultural exchanges. Installation designers re-imagined the floor plan and devised a new system of scrims to control the light, and fabricators produced a series of diverse environments and displays. The end result, though, feels united, purposeful, and organic.

As always, I suppose, one could question certain aspects of the installation. Admirers of the Walters’ deep collection of scroll paintings may be disappointed by the relatively few examples in this show, which has a pronouncedly three-dimensional emphasis. And a few of the contemporary inclusions don’t quite manage to hold their own (although a recent piece of calligraphy on marbled paper by Mohamed Zakariya is a happy exception, as it fits in frictionlessly).

But such complaints would ultimately be misplaced—for, really, there are remarkably few weak points in this landmark reinstallation. The historical objects are remarkably strong, and it’s easy to sense, too, the shared excitement the curators felt in recontextualizing old favorites, introducing unfamiliar pieces, juxtaposing media, and teasing out thematic threads. There’s an old Japanese proverb that maintains that what is not said is flowers. This memorable show suggests a corollary: that what is shown can also be revelatory.

 

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