Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2011
Michael North, ed. Artistic and Cultural Exchanges between Europe and Asia, 1400–1900: Rethinking Markets, Workshops and Collections Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 216 pp.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $114.95 (9780754669371)

The necessary precondition for a world art history is the close study of cultural exchanges. Even nowadays, when you can travel from New York to Beijing in less than a day, the distance between America’s and China’s visual cultures is still immense. When such travel was much slower, and curators were not much concerned with exotic art, the diverse artistic traditions were relatively self-sufficient. But once Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the globe, it was inevitable that those artifacts called works of art would move from their places of origin to other cultures. The world had become one, which is to say that all art traditions were interconnected. This, then, is why close analysis of the slow-moving process in which Europeans brought their art to China, India, and other places outside the West, as well as collected non-European art, is extremely important.

Artistic and Cultural Exchanges between Europe and Asia, an anthology that collects the proceedings of a conference held in Sydney in 2005, contains an introduction by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Michael North, and essays by Karl-Heinz Spiess on Asian artifacts in Western European courts during the Middle Ages; Peter Borschberg on the trade in Bezour stones, the minerals believed to possess magical properties; Ting Chang on French fantasies about Asia; Martin Krieger on Dutch collecting in colonial India, circa 1800; Alexander Drost on Mughal architecture as it was incorporated into European memorials in seventeenth-century India; North on art making by European companies in Asia; Mia Mochizuki on the uses of Dutch maps in Japan; Kaufmann on markets in Funi-e; and Yoriko Kobayashi-Sato on the relationships between Japan and the West during the Edo period.

When relatively isolated cultures encounter one another, they exchange artifacts. Some sorts of things move relatively easily from one society to another. Paper, a Chinese invention, was taken up by the Islamic world; corn and turkeys, foodstuffs from the Americans, made their way to Europe; Islamic carpets were imported into Renaissance Europe. And of course military technology has always moved readily from one culture to another. When such movements take place, artifacts or practices are usually transformed. Chinese food in contemporary America has only a vague family resemblance to that cuisine in China. Art museums are now found almost everywhere, though museums in China and India differ from those of Europe.

The volume’s very brief introduction poses some good questions about how to describe these two-way exchanges: “Just as Asian art had an important impact on European material culture, so were European objects received in Asia” (5). Because Japan was never colonized, it is suggested, it “provides a pre-eminent example of the different and even contradictory modes in which ’foreign’ culture might be received” (7). Artifacts whose function depends upon beliefs or practices specific to one culture are less likely to be easily exported than food staples or commercial products. The Muslims used Chinese-style paper for their Qurans, but did not make scroll paintings. The Chinese, fascinated by European armaments, did not take up the painting of fresco cycles, like those found in Italian churches. Nor, conversely, did Europeans take up the practice of Chinese-style calligraphy. Religions migrate only under exceptional circumstances, as when Buddhism moved from India to China. Renaissance Christians were not much interested in understanding Islam, nor did Muslims seek to analyze Buddhism. The rise of disinterested scholarly interest in alien religions and social systems, a relatively recent development, is still not found everywhere.The Taliban employ Western automobiles and web sites, but are not particularly interested in Western liberal views of human rights.

Works of art are merely one special sort of object, whose uses are transformed in these migrations. Artifacts from everywhere can co-exist in a museum of world art history only because they are detached from their original functions and setting, and transformed into works of art, a change that affects medieval European Christian art as much as Hindu temple sculpture. In their search for an appropriate theoretical framework to discuss these exchanges, the authors wish to avoid the tendency of older Eurocentric scholarship to speak in terms of movements from center to periphery. When Europeans colonized India, they created a market for their art. But, in turn, the styles of their art were much influenced by indigenous Indian culture. That Europeans conquered almost the entire world, except for Japan, does not mean that they merely exported their artifacts, for they were in turn influenced by these other cultures. How, then, can these two-way exchanges be described in an accurate and politically correct way? Kaufmann is unhappy with speaking of influence, on the grounds that it implies movement from a European source to a weaker culture. But that argument is incorrect, for just as a smart question by an undergraduate can influence a receptive senior professor, so a politically and militarily weaker culture may influence its stronger conqueror. To influence means that you learn something from someone. That one culture influences another thus says nothing in itself about this comparative balance of power. In the late nineteenth century, Japanese art influenced the Western avant-garde, while their Western peers influenced Japanese artists. Where, then, is the center and the periphery? My thinking about this issue has been decisively influenced by a wise comment made by the art historian Stephan Bann. When I praised his writing while judging it eccentric, he replied, “But where is the center?” It would be better, he was suggesting, to speak of centers.

Mochizuki’s account of how the Japanese copying of Dutch maps moved the center from Europe to Japan demonstrates the ways in which each culture tends to center representations on itself. Kaufmann’s extraordinarily suggestive account of Fumi-e, trampling images—the copies of sacred Christian pictures used by the Japanese to detect crypto-Christians—shows how works of art can become mere utilitarian artifacts. And, finally, Kobayashi-Sato’s discussion of how Japanese artists modified European vanishing point perspective provides a highly subtle discussion of cultural diffusion. All of these essays, which are clear and mercifully brief, are informative. None of these authors, except for Chang and Kaufmann, are much involved in theorizing. The Goncourts, Chang notes, “saw Japan as an instrument to affirm their national identity” (52). There is no ultimate difference in kind, she is suggesting, between their intellectually refined Orientalism and the sex ads at the back of every U.S. alternative newspaper, which play on fantasies of Asian female eroticism not unlike those found in Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

How, then, out of this laboriously assembled material can we develop a comprehensive overview and a general theory of the processes of cultural exchanges? What interesting generalizations will this material support? What is most striking is how slowly artistic exchanges developed. Europeans sought spices from Asia and gold from the New Americas. But it took much longer for them to appreciate art from these cultures. Many Western artists traveled to Asia. But my sense, perhaps mistaken, is that not until the late nineteenth century did artists from Asia significantly influence their Western peers. (This at least is true in the fine arts; the decorative arts are another story.) It was only when the Western tradition completed its relatively self-sufficient development, I believe, that it became highly receptive to these influences. The crucial figure was Henri Matisse, the first major Western painter whose visual worldview owes a decisive debt to a non-European tradition, Islamic art. Earlier Westerners who traveled to Asia merely painted Asian subjects in European styles.

Europeans conquered much of the world, and while that says nothing, as old-fashioned imperialists claimed, about the superiority of their culture, it does mean that they established the terms of the debate. After all, an Anglo-American publisher publishes this volume in English, with its contributors from Europe, Japan, Singapore, and the United States. And the large museums devoted to world art are found in London, New York, Paris, and Washington, but not in Beijing, New Delhi, or Tokyo. That the required language for art historians who seek large readership is English reflects the present political realities. “Whistler and van Gogh,” Kobalyashi-Sato writes, “not only sympathized with something wholly different, but also discovered new possibilities properly innate in their own Western manner of art” (186). “When two cultures encounter each other,” she concludes, “something new is born” (186). And so the task is to find a way of describing this history, which does justice to present realities and the morally reprehensible history of imperialism. This, in my opinion, is the most intellectually exciting and, in some ways, the most politically pressing concern facing art history right now. This slim, unfortunately expensive volume makes a decisive contribution to this debate.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar