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Reorienting the Far East Collections: China
The Museum’s Asian art collection is one of the oldest in Canada, indeed in North America. Created under the impetus of Frederick Cleveland Morgan, the Museum’s first volunteer curator, it brings together six thousand objects. The collection is a testament to the early twentieth-century infatuation wealthy Montrealers had for exotic faraway places, roused by the British Empire’s expansionist aspirations and the burgeoning market for these objects during the last Qing imperial dynasty. From a colonial perspective, China was a once powerful monolithic civilization, now forced to adapt to Western modernity. The two thousand objects in the Chinese collection reflect the art lovers’ gaze on the glorious vestiges – ceramics, textiles and funerary objects taken out of their context – that shaped a manufac tured image rather than reflected the multiple facets of a diverse culture dating back five thousand years. Today, transcultural accounts are bringing a better understanding of Chinese culture and opening up a free flow of dialogue through both time and space.
Historically, China was at the heart of a vast trade network, fueling a desire for wealth and consumption. It has always known how to adapt to external markets with its Jingdezhen porcelain, fanciful rococo Chinoiserie, and the plethora of products for sale in today’s various Chinatowns. The appetite for its manufactured goods has not waned since the ancient silk routes (silk served as a currency). Today, China’s titanic infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative – a modern-day Silk Road – will encompass, over land and sea, some 65 countries, representing 55% of the world’s GDP and reach some 4.4 billion people. The global leader in trade in 2017, China is the number one exporter and number two importer of goods in the world. One of the consequences of this meteoric economic development is massive pollution, including stifling smog.
Defined in relation to the Greco-Roman world, the “Orient” is a contraction of the Latin ab oriente sol (“where the sun rises”), contrary to the “Occident,” ab occidente sol (“where the sun sets”). These notions are variable and relative. The art created in the context of the Islamic world presents a stylistic unity owing to the movements of artists, merchants and patrons as well as to the circulation of works arising from the use of a common written alphabet, the importance of calligraphy and a repertoire of geometric, plant, zoomorphic and figurative ornamentation. Although most of the objects exhibited here were for secular use, they express the quest for a timeless language of beauty that, in the Islamic world, acquired spiritual resonance.
In 1917, Frederick Cleveland Morgan, the Museum’s first curator, began laying the groundwork for the collection with his donation of a remarkable thirteenth-century bowl that belonged to the last Ayyubid sultan of Aleppo and Damascus. With objects from the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and Muslim Spain, the collection of Persian art (present day Iran) predominates, reflecting the tastes of the art market at the time. Comprised primarily, and not surprisingly, of ceramics, it also features glass, textiles, rugs, metalwork, ivories and miniatures, among other things. The Muslim world sat at the crossroads of secular trade in Eurasia. Around the Mediterranean Sea, products (coffee), science (astronomy), techniques (majolica) and patterns (damask fabric) travelled through vast trade networks, following conflicts and migrations right up to the present, sowing the seeds for fertile intercultural dialogue.
Orientalism originated in the study of biblical civilizations. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of colonial empires, the Orientalist aesthetic was in fashion. It constructed its own history, often projecting male, political and intellectual domination. Orientalism largely enriched the arts and the decorative arts, iconography and ornamentation. Making reappropriations of appropriations, contemporary artists are taking back these stereotypes, with dynamic women on the frontlines affirming the plurality of their identities, statuses and voices.
Late Ayyubid period (about 1171-1260) or early Mamluk period (1250-1517), Syria, Basin, 2nd half of 13th c., engraved brass, originally with silver, copper and/or gold inlay made for al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf, Sultan of Aleppo (1236-1250) and Damascus (1250-1260). MMFA, purchase, gift of F. Cleveland Morgan. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest
Seen from space, the Earth appears blue because of the huge expanse of ocean. The Pacific Ocean spans over 150 square kilometres, equal to the Earth’s entire land mass! This half of the planet is conventionally truncated by planispheres. Established from a Western perspective, maps have been an instrument of knowledge as well as economic, political and military power since the expansion of maritime trade. Theo Eshetu’s video installation Atlas Fractured puts into question these conventional categorizations of our history and geography in the current era of globalization.
With little land mass and a population of 38 million inhabitants, Oceania is the largest continent, the ocean being an integral part of Indigenous territorial representation, a conduit of trade networks. The first humans arrived in Oceania some 50,000 years ago, and various migration waves in the first millennium C.E. allowed the peoples of the region to land on its furthest reaches. It is the last continent to have been colonized by the West as a result of circumnavigation. Situated in the South Pacific, Oceania encompasses some 25,000 islands. Despite their isolation, these fragile islands are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, rising sea levels, overexploitation of resources, soil erosion, marine pollution, and more. Indeed, in the North Pacific, a 1.6-million kilometre ocean gyre has been identified, comprised of an ever-growing monstrous mass of swirling garbage accumulated over the years through planetary currents, and sometimes referred to as the “plastic continent,” the “Pacific trash vortex” and “plastic soup.”
Despite the upheavals caused by recent colonization, Oceania offers extraordinary cultural richness, which our modest collection can only touch on.
The works, primarily from Polynesia and Papua New Guinea, were acquired between the late 1940s and early 1970s from North American and British galleries and collectors, by Frederick Cleveland Morgan, a volunteer curator, and by Ernest Gagnon, a Jesuit. Only objects that were easy to transport were shipped across the oceans, offering but a tiny glimpse of Oceanic art. With so many intermediaries, entire chapters of the history of these objects far removed from their original settings have been forgotten. If we consider the fragmented and fragmentary nature of the collection, the works that are present, or absent, invite us to reflect on their complex trajectory in reaching us so that we can hear the voices of their creators and their descendants.
Maori (Ngāti Kahungunu lineage), New Zealand (Aotearoa), North Island, Whakaki, door Lintel ("pare"), about 1840, wood, mother-of-pearl inlays. MMFA, purchase, gift of F. Cleveland Morgan. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest
Postcolonialist philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote: “Another cultural geography of the world is in the process of taking shape.... There is no longer a peripheral art scene. To go along with the birth of this new world art history – however decentralized,” he calls for a “circulation of worlds,” with Africa being the body of a genealogy of interconnected objects, the aesthetic continent of a diaspora of works emerging from an imaginary in constant flux.
A legacy of the colonial era, the idea of “African art” in the singular negates the historical depth and sociocultural diversity of this vast continent. The cliché of atemporality persists and yet Africa was the site of major civilizations in ancient times, and still is. Exchanges among the multitudes of peoples have made stylistic analysis a complex enterprise. Moreover, there are multiple definitions of “artist” and “craftsperson” and their social role. Often acquired on the art market without regard for context, the origins of ancient works are unknown. Frequently relying on stylistic comparisons, research yields only elements of the answer.
The object of colonial seizures, ethnographic collections and, during the last century, aesthetic research by artists and collectors, Western museums now hold much of sub-Saharan Africa’s material heritage. This history of the “museum of the Other” is redefined here in the context of globalization. Privileging an intercultural approach, of re-appropriating appropriations, the boundaries that characterized accounts of modernity become intermingled. The goal is not an exhaustive representation of African arts, but rather an effort to contextualize them and open dialogue. Bolstered by an active diaspora, the vibrant African and Afrodescendent contemporary art scene is revisiting its history and affirming itself, propelled by youth from the continent that is at once the cradle of humanity, and home to the youngest population in the world.
Dogon, Mali, North-Central Bandiagara Plateau, "Tintam", male Figure, 16th-17th c., wood, metal. MMFA, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest
Derived from Latin, the word Mediterranean means “sea in the middle of the earth.” It has been a channel of maritime transport, migration and commercial and cultural exchange since very ancient times. It is situated at the birthplace of the silk route to China, the routes to spices and precious stones in India, to incense and ivory in Africa, and to raw materials (tin and wood) in the North.
Starting in the fifth millenium B.C.E., farming communities settled in the Fertile Crescent (spanning from present-day Iran to Egypt). Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Persian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Berber, Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Byzantine cultures, among others, successively occupied this territory. From Babylonia to Jerusalem, Alexandria to Rome, vast areas bordering the Mediterranean were consolidated into empires. Under Alexander the Great, Greek influence spread as far as Afghanistan and India. Three monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) emerged in the Middle East and spread across the Mediterranean Basin.
Considered the foundation of Western civilization, the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean. A flourishing Renaissance Europe was passionate about Greco-Roman antiquity, viewed as relics of a glorious and idealized past. They were featured in every collection and long dictated canons of beauty. Here, however, the objects exhibited, just like the transhistorical encounters represented, explore diversity and contrasting realities. With Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign, Egyptomania took Europe by storm, and Europe’s ambitions of imperial conquest endured until decolonization.
Today, the countries bordering the Mediterranean continue to be the strategic interface between Europe, the Middle East and Africa. An area of tensions and solidarities, the Mediterranean is one of the world’s hot spots most affected by the climate crisis. Overfishing, pollution, acidification of the sea, rising sea levels, soil erosion, scarcity of drinking water, demographic pressures and the migrant crisis paint a portrait of an environment under pressure.
Roman Empire (27 B.C.E.-476 C.E.), Standing Male Statue, 2nd quarter of 2nd c. C.E. (after a Greek original, possibly school of Polykleitos about 370 B.C.E.), Parian marble. MMFA, Purchase, the Museum Campaign 1988-1993 Fund, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' Volunteer Association Fund and anonymous gift. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest
The Museum’s collection of ancient and modern Indigenous and Latin American arts contains more than 1,500 objects (ceramics, textiles and metalwork) made over some five thousand years, predominantly from Mesoamerica and the Andes. It is the largest collection of its kind in Quebec. Unlike museum collections with an anthropological vocation, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ collection primarily features objects acquired by collectors for their aesthetic qualities without any precise information as to their origin, leaving identification today to comparative analysis.
Frederick Cleveland Morgan, a volunteer curator from 1916 to 1962, purchased pieces mostly from international dealers in Andean art, which became particularly fashionable after the spectacular “rediscovery” of Machu Picchu in 1911. In the 1960s, interest turned towards the arts of Mexico and Central America. Montreal collectors Gerald Benjamin, Rollande and Jean-Claude Bertounesque and Leo Rosshandler, among others, travelled abroad and purchased from local art markets.
It is obviously impossible today for the Museum’s collection to encompass the entire architectural monumentality and diversity of the Indigenous civilizations of ancient America. Instead featuring the tastes – sometimes tinged with a palate for exoticism – of art lovers and collectors, these objects were brought to Canada before the implementation of international conventions for the protection of archaeological heritage from illicit trafficking (UNESCO, 1970). These objects went from collectible items to protected cultural heritage, as peoples stood up against the poaching of their heritage in affirmation of their identity, culture, politics, economics or tourism. Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, however, continue to suffer the greatest archaeological plunder in the world (Interpol, 2011).
As travel to the South grew, so too did direct links with Montreal, with academic exchanges, immigration, tourism and visiting artists (including Stanley Cosgrove, René Derouin, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and others). A francophone metropolis, Montreal is also the most trilingual city (with English and Spanish) on the continent. Enriched by major gifts over the last decade, the Museum’s Pre-Columbian collection will for the first time be displayed in dialogue with commissioned and acquired artworks by contemporary artists. Through the stories they tell, these works testify to the globalization of goods (coffee, tobacco, gold, to name a few), the practices and world views of many communities, the desire of modern collectors to acquire them and the interconnected memories of peoples today.
Mochica (250-900 C.E.), Peru, North Coast, "Portrait Vessel"-type Stirrup-spout Bottle, 450-900 C.E., earthenware, slip, painted decoration. MMFA, Purchase, gift of F. Cleveland Morgan. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest
The Japanese collection predominates with four thousand objects, notably an exceptional collection of incense boxes (kōgō). It reflects the compulsive obsession of collectors to appropriate a mysterious country, long inaccessible, and never colonized. Indeed, with the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912),
Japan brought to a close centuries of voluntary isolation and opened up to the world. The Museum’s collection is primarily comprised of prints, teabowls, ceramic and laquer-work from the Edo era (1615-1868). Although the French politician Georges Clemenceau held the most extensive collection of kōgō, a group of Montreal friends – Sir William Van Horne, Mabel Molson, Lord Strathcona and curator Frederick Cleveland Morgan – held a similar passion for this art, propelled onto the market with the network of world fairs and the craze for Japonisme that swept the West. They collected a large quantity of small objects that were easy to transport, handle and conserve, often classified taxonomically. Their taste echoed that of international connoisseurs of the period Edward Sylvester Morse in Boston and Siegfried Bing in Paris.
The collection has been enriched with contemporary design thanks to Liliane M. Stewart, as well as with photographs and other works and objects. Although the Japanese aesthetic is celebrated as the height of good taste, with its spiritual minimalism, sensitivity to the ephemeral and respect for nature, all of this is turned on its head with iconoclastic contemporary voices that are socially critical and openly kitsch, including those of Tetsumi Kudo and Takashi Murakami, who parody the nuclear threat and consumerist bling.
Edo period (1615-1868), Japan, tosei gusoku armour with dragon and shishi lion, 17th c., iron, leather, lacquer, silk. MMFA, anonymous gift. Photo MMFA, Jean François Brière
The Eye is characteristic of the work of David Altmejd, one of the most internationally renowned Quebec artists. The sculptor, whose influences range from Louise Bourgeois and David Lynch to Francisco de Goya, believes that contemporary art is accessible to everyone and doesn’t require extensive explanation to be appreciated. Here, we see a winged standing figure with a large hole in the middle of its torso, from which hands are emerging. Its head is formed by casts of the artist’s hands, and one of its arms seems to be a prosthesis. But what secrets does this mysterious figure hide?
Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the work’s powerful symbolism. With the hands that seem to at once compose and be shaping the body, Altmejd wanted to evoke a human in the making, whose ultimate form eludes him. In fact, metamorphosis is a recurring theme with the artist, hence his fascination with fantastical beings. The gaping hole represents an infinite inner space that is the gateway to art, culture and knowledge. Eminently positive, it lets through light, air and life. As for the sculpture’s monumental size, the artist has said that working at this scale allows him to live intensely and counterbalances his shyness. The artist added wings to bring some lightness to the overall feel of the sculpture.
David Altmejd (Born in Montreal in 1974), The Eye, 2010-2011, bronze, cast Atelier du Bronze, Inverness, Quebec. MMFA, gift of the artist and the employees of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts during the Museum Campaign 2008-2012
Executed in 1981, these bronze busts are part of a series of six works dedicated to all those who have been Joe Fafard was a Canadian artist from Saskatchewan. He is best known for his realistic bronze sculptures of animals such as cows, horses, wolves and buffalo. Life-size or larger, they are often exhibited in public spaces. Claudia is a good example of Fafard’s bronze animal figures, in its realistic detail. But beyond its faithful representation in form, posture, size and anatomical features, there is something special about this cow. As he does in all his sculptures, Fafard imparts to Claudia an inner life; a personality that exudes dignity, strength and self-possession, as well as an appearance of being in the present moment. It is this interiority that gives Fafard’s animal sculptures a living presence.
Artists often attempt to pursue artistic goals or interests, or explore psychological, social and political issues by means of distortion of form and other techniques. Fafard’s career and his long dedication to the sculpture of realistic animals have led some to wonder about his influences and whether perhaps animals have some particular meaning for the artist. When asked about this, Fafard simply answered that sculpting animals was “a good way to make a living.” Whether or not animals had a deeper significance for Fafard than he admitted, the creative urge is a force in art that seeks to express itself in its own way and not necessarily with any particular goal or motive. Sometimes a cow is just a cow.
Joe Fafard, Claudia, 2003, bronze, cast Atelier Julienne, pense, Saskatchewan. MMFA, purchase, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' Volunteer Association Fund
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