Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices may be the most fascinating exhibition to be seen at an Australian public gallery this year. The bad news, from a purely local perspective, is that it will be shown only in Adelaide and Perth. It is the brainchild of James Bennett, Curator of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, who in 2009 gave us a stupendous survey of Japanese art called The Golden Journey. The current show, co-curated with Russell Kelty, takes on a more ambitious subject: the cultural interactions between Europe and Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries.
This period is sometimes called the Age of Exploration or the Age of Discovery – both terms giving an indication of the way we habitually view history from a European perspective. It was the Europeans – the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, the British – who were doing the exploring and discovering. Asia was the vast treasure trove into which they delved.
Matters might have been different had the Chinese continued down the path pioneered by admiral Zheng He between 1405–1433, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor. Yongle’s successor discontinued the voyages and disbanded the fleet, consigning China to splendid isolation. It was a decision that mitigated against progress and the exchange of ideas, leaving the Chinese unable to defend themselves against the weaponry of the European powers during the Opium Wars of the 19th century.
For hundreds of years European navigators and merchants would make their way to the East in search of spices, silks, porcelain, carpets, and everything else demanded by taste and fashion. What began as a voyage to unknown lands where the blanks on the maps were decorated with monsters, became a shuttle service. The process built up such momentum it would completely transform everyday life in Europe.
These new customers were not always a blessing for the countries that produced the desirable goods. The expansion of trade was closely aligned with the imperial aspirations of the Europeans, who realised it was more profitable to act as conquerors rather than traders. The catalogue – a monumental feat in its own right – records how in 1621, the Dutch East India Company “unleashed the first recorded genocide in modern history” on the inhabitants of the Banda Islands, to ensure a monopoly on the market for nutmeg.
As many as 15,000 Muslim men, women and children fell victim to this campaign – a reminder for us today that corporate ambition can be as ruthless as religious extremism. We may deplore the crimes committed in the name of one god or another, but this was an atrocity committed on behalf of the great God, Mammon, worshipped by all.
Because Treasure Ships is encyclopaedic in its ambitions, I can’t hope to cover all the topics it raises. The show is not arranged chronologically, but thematically – an approach that helps make sense of a collection of 300 items that includes paintings, sculptures, books, maps, furniture, pottery, carpets, textiles and diverse artefacts. Many of the best pieces come from the permanent collection of the AGSA, supplemented by brilliant loans from public and private collections, both at home and abroad.
India–Spain, Trinitarias carpet, early–mid-17th century, northern India, found in Madrid, Spain, wool pile, cotton warp and weft, 1044.0 x 336.5 cm, Felton Bequest 1959, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The show is an unspoken celebration of the depth of Australian private collections, and the willingness of those collectors to share their holdings. A few names dominate the roll call of lenders, notably Kerry Stokes, Michael Abbott and Andrew Gwinnett. These private loans, along with works donated by collectors to the AGSA collection, have been sourced and collected as part of a policy, never simply acquired on a whim.
Stokes is particularly strong on pieces relating to the voyages of exploration; Abbott’s strength lies in Asian textiles and artefacts, while Gwinnett owns extraordinary works of Japanese art. There is a huge difference between a museum using these loans in a scholarly context, and simply handing rooms over to the collector, which seems to be the preferred approach at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Many viewers will be engrossed in the books and maps. Aside from the novelty of first editions of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Robinson Crusoe (1719), one can marvel at the elaborate printing and illustrations of early treatises in science and natural history. Such books were the luxury items of their day, while most of the maps are literally works of art. Take, for instance, a magnificent 17th century map of the Seto Inland Sea spread across a pair of six panel screens, or a brilliantly coloured 1599 map of the trading port of Goa, engraved by the Dutch firm, Van Doetecum. There is a Buddhist map of the world, from the 17th or 18th century; and an early 19th century map from India, that portrays the earth as a set of concentric circles.
Art has been defined as the pursuit of useless beauty, but in this show there is no dividing line between things that are useful and those that are beautiful. Before the era of industrial standardisation and mass production, objects both large and small were hand-made, with their value determined by materials and craftsmanship. These were the days when artisans laboured to create objects for monarchs and nobles, churches and temples, and then the rising merchant classes.
The creations of Asian craftsmen were eagerly sought after in Europe, but there were also enterprising Europeans who set up workshops in the Asian ports, where they took advantage of local skills and low wages.
East and west learned from each other, creating hybrid works, such as a missal stand from Japan, dated 1600-79, decorated with mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer. An even stranger piece of Japanese lacquerwork is found on the doors of a portable altarpiece, enfolding a painting of Joseph holding the baby Jesus.
From 1750 there is a Japanese picture of an archery competition in which the artist has experimented with western one-point perspective, with startling results. In a delicate Iranian painting a turbaned version of the Greek philosopher, Plato, plays a lute to charm wild animals. There is an 1866 view of Sydney, made by Japanese printmaker, Yoshitoshi – presumably an imaginative reworking of another, unknown picture. The city also appears in an 1820 incarnation, painted on a Chinese bowl.
It’s tempting to keep listing unique artworks and objects, but that list would be too long for this column. What’s exciting about Treasure Ships is the almost infinite range of connections the show suggests, and the timeliness of such an exhibition as we move into the so-called Asian century. We see the beginnings of that phenomenon we now call ‘globalisation’, as the characteristic products of Asia became an essential element of European economies. The Dutch East India Company was the precursor of the multinational corporations of the modern world, and no less devoted to the search for profits.
It is only in recent times that the notion of large companies as good corporate citizens has taken hold. Nowadays, when every big company is conscious that it needs to form relationships with local communities, it feels as if a chasm separates these businesses from the Dutch traders who acted like an invading army.
There is also a relationship to be explored between those rich Europeans that sought out exotic goods from Asia for their private collections, and today’s wealthy collectors who are invited to share their treasures with the museum. We realise the degree to which culture has become a public affair, not the preserve of those privileged by birth or money.
The message, in brief, is that such an exhibition doesn’t teach us solely about the past, it allows us to think of all the things in our own lives that have been touched and moulded by the historic meeting of European and Asian cultures.
There were times when that meeting was catastrophic. Even at its best, the relationship was largely based on Europeans exploiting the resources of the East. But slowly and insidiously, the culture of the East found its way into the nooks and crannies of European civilisation, until those things that were once thought of as exotic began to seem natural. Today we are all hybrids, and if we can look beyond the evils of conflict and inequality, there’s every reason to believe the positive intermingling of cultures will only get stronger.
Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices
Art Gallery of SA, Adelaide, until 30 August
Art Gallery of WA, Perth, 9 Oct. – 31 Jan. 2016
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 25th July, 2015