Archive for SF Asian Art Museum

Buddha & the Heiress: The Doris Duke Collection of SE Asian Art

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2009 by Liz Hager


Note: The “Emerald Cities” exhibit at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco runs through January 10, 2010.  These are the last weeks to view this large collection of Thai and Burmese art all together for an unspecified length of time.  Afterward, for conservation reasons, most of the articles in this exhibit will go back into storage.

Head of a Buddha image, Thailand,ca. 1800,
stucco, 46.4 x 40.6 cm.
(The Avery Brundage Collection, ©Asian Art Museum.)

In 2002, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum became one of only two U.S. institutions to receive a substantial donation of Southeast Asian art and antiques from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. (The other was Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.) The bequest became the cornerstone of the Asian’s now preeminent collection of 18th- and 19th century Thai, and, to a lesser degree, Burmese art.

Doris Duke, circa 1939.

Doris Duke was a most reluctant celebrity. Born in 1912, she was the only child of James Duke, North Carolina tobacco and power magnate. When he died prematurely in 1925, the 12 year old became the sole beneficiary of his considerable fortune, between $30 to $100 million depending on the source.

Intensely private, Duke spent most of  her life trying to avoid the glare of publicity, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews. Though twice married and often romantically linked, Doris Duke died alone in 1993 at her Beverly Hills mansion. She left the bulk of her $1.3 billion estate to two foundations that bear her name.

Interior of the larger of two rooms in the Coach Barn,
Duke Farms, New Jersey (2002).

On an around-the-world honeymoon in 1935 with her first husband, Duke began a lifelong fascination with other cultures. She was a diligent and thorough student, and over the years, she developed a keen eye for art. Though a shy person, Duke was a bold collector. Over her lifetime, she amassed a large and well-known collection of Islamic art, which is housed at her Shangri La estate in Honolulu.

Miniature temple, Northern Thailand, 1850-1900,
lacquer, pigmented natural resin, paint and gilding on wood.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©Asian Art Museum.)

During the 1950s and 60s, Duke also assembled a lesser-known (though no less extensive) Southeast Asian art collection, an eclectic array of high caliber objects, which she planned to house in a “Thai village” on one of her many properties.  Although her dream of a village was never realized, her zeal for the project propelled her to amass more than 2,000 religious and secular works. Because she was the only Westerner at the time buying works of such stature, Duke’s collection has turned out to be the most important of its kind outside Asia.

Illustrated manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, 1857,
paint, gold, lacquer, and ink on paper.
(Gift of Katherine Ball,  ©Asian Art Museum.)

Nearly 200 pieces from the Duke collection, as well as gifts from other collectors, are on display in the comprehensive “Emerald Cities” exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Some of the pieces have been exquisitely preserved, while others have succumbed to lamentable states of deterioration. (The Asian’s conservation staff labored painstakingly for thousands of hours to bring a great number of these back from the brink.)

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Thailand, 1825-1900,
paint, gold, and lacquer on wood.
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. © Asian Art Museum.)

Despite the individual disappointments, in aggregate the exhibit is a success. First, it is a rare opportunity to view superior artworks from the lesser-studied Asian countries, whose cultures are often overshadowed in the Western world by China and Japan.  Additionally, through the inclusion of scores of 19th-century artifacts, the show illustrates the huge transformation in Thai and Burmese societies during that time through the influx of huge numbers of Chinese and Europeans. But most importantly, “Emerald Cities” brightly illuminates the multiplicity of artistic expression associated with Theravada Buddhism, still the key cultural glue of SE Asia.

Seated crowned and bejeweled Buddha, Burma, 1895,
gilded dry lacquer with mirrored glass, 180.8 x 99.2 cm
(Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. ©The Asian Art Museum.)

The practice of Theravada Buddism centers on devotion to the three “gems”—the Buddha, the dharma (an understanding of his teachings) and the sangha (monastic orders). All the religious works in the show relate to these three elements.

Like Byzantine icons, images of the Buddha were not considered art objects to be displayed for their beauty, but were regarded as the Buddha himself. The meaning of this seated bejeweled Buddha above would have been interpreted differently by devotees of different backgrounds and status. But the fact that he is robed in royal attire suggests that he is a “Jambupati” Buddha, referring to Buddha’s conversion of vain King Jambupati.  Additionally Buddha’s hands assume the Bhumisparsa Mudra gesture, which would signal enlightenment to devotees.

Vessantara and his wife see
the approach of Vessantara’s father’s retinue,

Chapter 12 of the Story of Prince Vessantara, Central Thailand,
ca. 1850-1900,
paint and gold on cloth, approximate 57 x 46 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

Other than Buddha himself, the most popular subject in Theravada art is the depiction of scenes from the Buddha’s life.  Of particular note for its rarity is a stunning assemble of 13 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara (one of the Buddha’s former selves) . Generally, visual elements were used in conjunction with oral recitations; as such, they were conceived to be used in one temple for a single celebration. Thus, complete sets of this cycle do not generally survive. This set is additionally noteworthy for the many elements of Western art, such as perspective,  that were incorporated into the compositions.

As the dharma spread across India in the decades after the Buddha’s death (given as 483 BCE), differing interpretations of the original teachings led to schisms within the sangha and the emergence of as many as 18 distinct sects of Buddhism. Today, sects fall into two general branches—”southern,” including Theravada, and “Northern” (i.e. sects in China, Tibet, India, Japan, Korea.)

Burmese manuscript of excerpts from Buddhist texts, ca. 1850-1900,
lacquer and gilding on stiffened cloth or paper with wooden covers.
(Gift of Katherine Ball, ©Asian Art Museum.)

Theravada draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. The Pali canon is extensive—the English translation, for example,  fills over 12,000 pages in approximately fifty hardbound volumes, taking up about five linear feet of shelf space! The elaborate manuscript above—an from the Buddhist texts regarding the conduct of monks—follows the tradition form, that is, six lines of text richly adorned with scenes of the Buddha’s life or, in this case, birds and celestial beings.

The holy monk Phra Malai visiting hell, Central Thailand, ca.1850-1900,
gilded bronze with mirrored glass inlay and pigment, 49.5 x 14 cm.
(Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ©The Asian Art Museum.)

And finally among the most delicious pieces in the “Emerald Cities” exhibit is the sculptural Phra Malai Visiting Hell. The four figures  emerging from the underworld at the monk’s feet, beseeching him with prayer, are a reminder that Hell is a nasty place, even in the benevolent practice of Buddhism.

Wider Connections

Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950—exhibition catalog
Thai History
Thai Buddhism
Buddha Images—a comprehensive look at the representation of the Buddha in Thai art.
Burmese Art
Backpacking Burma

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , on November 30, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Dark Day Picks highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Asian Art Museum, SF—Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam & Burma. The first major exhibition in the West to explore the rich but little known arts of Siam and Burma from the 19th century. Many of the than 140 works, including sculptures, textiles, paintings, and ceramics come from the Doris Duke Collection (recently donated to the Museum) and have never been on display before. The only venue for this show.  Through January 10, 2010.

Modernism, 685 Market Street, SF—Catherine Courtenaye: Fieldhand and Other Works. “Courtenaye’s inscriptions gently mock the idea that every move of the artist’s hand registers some truth of personality or mood. The whole point of calligraphic penmanship was to suppress vagaries of temperament.”—Kenneth Baker.  Through December 23.

Cain Schulte, 714 Guerrero St. SF—Justin Quinn: Keep Out This Frost. “Justin Quinn continues his transcription of Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick into the letter E. This letter has become a surrogate for all letters in the alphabet, presenting a universal yet unreadable language.  This simplified system allows Quinn to explore the distance between reading and seeing.” Through December 23.

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Frontpiece, Darwin—Origin of Species, 1859

Rotunda Gallery, Bancroft Library, University of California, BerkeleyDarwin and the Evolution of a TheoryAugust 13-December 13, 2009.

With its 600,000 volumes of rare books, an equal number of manuscripts, and loads of artifacts, The Bancroft Library might qualify as the book-lover’s paradise in the Bay Area. Though non-circulating, works in the library’s collections may be viewed by members of the public (by request), which is reason enough to visit to the Library. Short of that, the current exhibit on Darwin in the first-floor gallery provides a small but fantastic sampling of the Library’s first-edition collection.  All the books Darwin would have had (though not his copies) are here, as well as photographs, models, and specimens from University’s zoological collections.

Asian Art Museum—Lords of the Samurai. Closing Sept. 20. The samurai culture and code of conduct, bushido, have long captivated the imaginations and aspirations of young and old in the Western world. More than just professional warriors, Japanese samurai of the highest rank were also visionaries who strove to master artistic, cultural, and spiritual pursuits. More than 160 works from Japanese museums—including paintings, textiles, laquerware, and musical instruments—are included in this exhibition.

Erickson Fine Art, Healdsburg, CA—
Summer 2009, group show of gallery artists including the unusual and evocative work in wood and concrete by sculptor Paul Van Lith.

A Tiny Gem of a Show: Arts of the Islamic World

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , on December 5, 2008 by Liz Hager


Bowl with abstract motifs, 900-1000, NW Iran, slip painted earthware (©photo Liz Hager)

Judging by several visits in recent weeks to the Arts of the Islamic World from Turkey to Indonesia at the Asian Art Museum, this tiny but intriguing exhibit is being overlooked by many in favor of the more promoted Afghani show downstairs.  The Islamic World exhibit contains just sixty items—paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, metal wares, historic photographs, and even puppets—that span the years from the 10th century to present time. It would be a shame to miss these little jewels, for they encapsulate the truly magnificent and complex design traditions of Islamic world 

Oddly it took a man from Chicago to put San Francisco on the map of Asian art. The pieces displayed in this exhibit are a miniscule part of the original collection of athlete and industrialist Avery Brundage who donated some 5,000 objects to the city of San Francisco in 1960. For a while the works were housed in a Asian Museum’s special wing of the de Young, although it was always Brundage’s intention for the collection to have a home of its own. By the time the new museum moved downtown in 2003, more than half of its 17,000 objects had come from the collector. 

The pieces in this exhibit are testament to the extraordinary flowering of the ceramic arts in Persia, which began in the 8th century as a direct result of the expansion of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula across Mesopotamia to Spain and Saharan Africa. Although they had a long ceramic tradition of their own, Persians were  quick to absorb the techniques of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and contemporary China. 

Persian potters were quick learners, but they were also technical innovators, who achieved considerable strides in glazing and firing techniques. Painting on ceramics is tricky—colors can “burn” in a kiln that is too hot or glazes may melt, thus causing the design to bleed.  By developing a reliable double-glazing technique, Persians pushed the ceramic medium to new heights of sophistication, in the process achieving splendid intricacies of surface design. 

Their  production prowess was rewarded beginning in the years after 762, when the new Abbasid caliphate built its capital in Baghdad. Due to proximity, Persian cities grew as centers of ceramic production for the empire, serving the Caliphate, and, as the empire prospered, its citizenry as well. 

The stylized floral design on the slipware bowl pictured belies a delightful intricacy of design elements—abstraction, symmetry, positive and negative space, echoing motifs (dots & circles), and layering. The design was created by first dripping, painting, or splashing a liquid blend of glazes—ground down minerals such as quartz, feldspar or mica—and diluted clay, or slip, onto the bowl’s hard air-dried surface. The bowl was then covered with a transparent overglaze and fired in a kiln, which produced its glossy and smooth surface.  By the time of this bowl’s production, slip decoration was well-established in Persia, although this piece shows demonstrates its creator’s exquisite skill manipulating the liquid slip into fairly elaborate and intricate decorations.

Although this bowl is identified with NW Iran, it bears much resemblance to designs from the Nishapur area in NE Iran, which was once a strategic trade center on the Silk Route. The same remarkably modern color palette, which includes manganese purple, tomato red, olive green, yellow and brown tones, is found occasionally on Nishapur bowls.  Additionally the bowl reveals the characteristic Persian application of  sgraffiato (the technique of scratching  through a layer of colored slip to reveal a different colour or the base body underneath), which by the 10th century was being exploited to the full. 

Do not miss this show—it reminds us that the most surprising things can be wrapped in small packages. 


Brief history of Persian ceramics

 Giovanni Curatola—Persian Ceramics: 9th-14th Centuries

The Glory of Persia

Venerating Ancestors: A Fabric Sculpture by Soon-Hee Oh

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , on October 18, 2008 by Liz Hager

Soon-hee Oh, “Snow Flower,” 2006, ramie and silk (photo courtesy Asian Art Museum, SF)

Soon-hee Oh fashions abstract fiber sculptures using techniques that reference traditional Korean fiber crafts. Somber and elegant, her pieces venerate the human hand in the textile tradition.  In “Snow Flower,” Oh has linked the ramie (fiber made from the Boehmeria nivea, or flowering nettle plant) squares together by using maedeup, the complex three-dimensional knotting technique traditionally used in Korea for passementerie.  The black string against the white fabric suggests calligraphy, an art form Oh studied seriously in the 80s. This subtle reference to human activity reinforces the sense of respect in Oh’s pieces for traditional arts.   

The main element of “Snow Flower,” the accordian-folded drape, is angular and rigid. The vertical drape is “violated” by the smattering of boxy globes, seemingly irregular, but comprised of regular square elements. The folded fabric of “Snow Flower” suggests the drape of an invisible person, and its totemic shape reinforces a spiritual presence. Viewing the piece becomes a meditative act; my thoughts wander from the whole of human culture to specific persons no longer alive. The white ramie evokes purity and thus veneration; it also speaks to the silence and emptiness of snow, which of course is reinforced by the piece’s title. I wonder about the significance of the title: did Oh’s inspiration come from Korean Buddhist iconography? The lotus flower is the ur-symbol of Buddhism, denoting the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. After long searching I find precious few references in my sources to either snow flowers or snowflakes, but the transformational nature of flowers has suggested there is more meaning locked in the sculpture. 

Transparency and light are clearly at play in this sculpture. To that point, in reference to the forces that drive her artistically, Oh once remarked: “My ancestors’ eternal spirit remains in me as light.” 

More Soon-hee Oh

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