Connected \\ September 4, 2019

Desiring luxury

Asian export art

Some people go the postcard route. Scottish merchant James Drummond sought a more sumptuous souvenir to remember the 20 years he spent living and working in Guangzhou, China. He commissioned a local Chinese artist to create an entire room of wallpaper to capture views of this thriving port city.

For 175 years, the panoramic wall covering hung in his family’s castle in Scotland. Today the rare work gloriously adorns PEM’s new Asian Export Art gallery. Visitors on the second-floor space can admire the enveloping scene, sit in armchairs by a cozy crackling fire (a convincing video of one) and listen to a soundscape that evokes the experience of traveling from Scotland to China and back again.

As a team, we worked hard to make this room come to life,” says Karina Corrigan, The H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art. “You’ll hear the sound of rain and bagpipes and wind through the heather, which morphs into the noises of a busy waterfront with passing ships, flags flapping and people speaking in different languages.

Beginning in the 16th century, many luxuries made in Asia, like this wallpaper, were superior to anything the rest of the world could produce. And Europeans and Americans went to great lengths to acquire these coveted goods — translucent Chinese porcelain, sumptuous Indian muslins and glittering Japanese lacquers.

Now known as Asian export art, these objects connected societies and created a complex global economy that continues to shape our world today.

Coromandel Coast, India, woman’s yoke (detail), about 1750. Cotton, linen, silk. Museum purchase, the Veldman-Eecen Collection. 2012.22.28. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM.

We want to disrupt the notion that ours is the first global era,” says Corrigan. “What for us is a simple act of clicking a mouse and getting something delivered from China has been happening for centuries. It took a lot longer. It cost a lot more. It was fraught with danger. But it’s fundamentally the same kind of global connection.

PEM owns the world’s most comprehensive collection of Asian export art, including ceramics, paintings, furniture and other works made in China, Japan and South Asia specifically for export. The gallery showcases this abundance of riches in new ways. More than 200 works of art on view demonstrate the beauty and ingenuity of objects that are created through blending artistic traditions, materials and technologies.

Japanese artist, jewel box (detail), about 1640

Japanese artist, jewel box (detail), about 1640. Lacquer, wood, ivory, gold. Museum purchase in honor of Anne G. Studzinski, made possible by anonymous donors, 2009. Photo by Dennis Helmar/PEM.

Chinese artists, large covered vase (detail), 1710

Chinese artists, large covered vase (detail), 1710. Porcelain. Museum purchase made possible by an anonymous donor, 2001. AE85782.AB. © Peabody Essex Museum.

Chinese porcelain is one of the collection’s greatest strengths. One “wow” feature of the new space is a wall with 130 pieces of porcelain, inspired by displays in European palaces.

The new gallery also addresses the uncomfortable truth that many of these luxuries were originally purchased with profits derived from illegal opium sales. “During the 1800s, millions of Indian and Chinese lives were devastated by opium. Telling that part of the story is hard but essential,” says Corrigan, who notes the parallels to today’s opioid epidemic in the United States.

Throughout the gallery, a central question is posed: How far would you go to get what you want?

Augustus the Strong, a king in Poland, went further than most. He traded an entire regiment of soldiers to get his hands on a large porcelain vase in the gallery. A three-minute animated video tells this fascinating story of obsession.

A new PEM is launching this September — a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

For more behind-the-scenes stories from PEM, sign up for What's On, our monthly e-newsletter, here.

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