Ironically so, much like the premise of the childhood game ‘Chinese whispers’, the accuracy and intention of Chinese art and creative currency is bent through Western translation. This year’s major exhibition critiques this very notion, and as much is said purely through its Alice in Wonderland-inspired title – China: Through the Looking Glass from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute at the Anna Wintour Costume Center in New York.
Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute since 2006, Andrew Bolton was not left unarmed when producing a show of bold excess and exquisite fashion wizardry. China: Through the Looking Glass celebrates over 140 pieces of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear fashion items in combination with significant works of Chinese art and clothing. This melting pot of dynastic masterpieces, Chinoiserie and impeccable craftsmanship not only dominated the basement-level Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, but also the Chinese galleries on the second floor – making this one of the Met’s largest shows to date.
The works of designers – such as Cristobal Balenciaga; Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Cartier, Roberto Cavalli, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, Paul Gaultier and Dries van Noten are presented along-side examples of traditional Chinese artistry – not limited to textile - such as traditional silks, Han figurines, Tang dynasty mirrors and Neolithic pottery; as well as filmic representations of China which are incorporated throughout to describe how our vision of China is born from a distillation by popular culture.
Very directly, the exhibition examines the West’s fantastical interpretation of China – with an example of this directness manifest in a series of garments by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, inspired by the wooden folding Coromandel screens in Chanel's apartment. But Coromandel screens aside, what exactly do we mean when we say ‘the West’? We often mean a geographic area the root of which is Europe and North America after the sixteenth century. Occasionally we add Australia and less so Latin America. We usually include the Classical Antiquity of Greece and Rome, but not the European Middle Ages, or ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The focus of the ‘West’ is actually much smaller, trimmed to the civilization that is known as Western Europe and some of the U.S.
This comparatively small societal region had a large impact on the understanding of a mega culture such as China’s, where only until recently, the West patronized the Non-west with terms such as ‘exotic’ and ‘curious’. Join me in a supremely brief historical synopsis of the China-West culture transaction to help contextualize this.
Although a history of conversation between Western fashion and Chinese decorative art can date back to the Neolithic period; the new era of Chinese-West contacts started predominantly in the eighteenth century where an enthusiasm for Chinese curio peaked during a period of revolution and great political and intellectual broiling. This was fanned by the flames of a period known as The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Through the 1700s, China’s imperial system blossoms under the Qing (Ch’ing) or Manchu dynasty and China is at the centre of the world economy as Europeans and Americans seek Chinese goods, ultimately giving birth to the term ‘Chinoiserie’ – a Western decorative style defined by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques. And, in the area of knowledge growth, European intellectuals such as Voltaire admire age-old Chinese ideas, embracing new thoughts built from Confucianism.
However, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century distract European attention away from China. Furthermore, the 1800s were not kind to China, where the decline of Imperial China was marked by events such as the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) and the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900). The fall of the monarchy sees the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; and later, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong – seeing an almost complete halt in the generation of dissenting artistic expression during his leadership from 1949 to 1976.
The 1970s sees a growth in unofficial art – crudely dissecting the contemporary Chinese cultural market as ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’. The 1980s, and more so the 1990s sees China experience rapid economic growth and pulls overwhelming global focus back to China, and Chinese art itself gains traction on the international stage due to globalization and marketization of the Chinese creative currency.
And so, after a long breath, this brings us back to where we started – the most recently celebrated of the China-West cultural interpretation: China: Through the Looking Glass. As we can see through the snack-size historical timeline, Chinese art and creativity is often made reductive by Westerner’s toe-dipping into a very mature, age-old creative culture. This sentiment is only sustained by such moments in the exhibition as teaming two gloriously opulent Chinese dragon robes with a lavishly embroidered dress by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent.
However, this is the very premise and admirable self-determined raison d'être of the exhibition – to shine a light on the West’s surreal twisting of Chinese culture through the hypnagogic format of fashion. It is a celebration. Not only in honour of the valuable Chinese influence, but also of the Western skew, and there is not an industry that expresses this skewed idealism more extravagantly than the fashion industry. Supreme examples are defined by Bolton himself, ‘A dress by Dior, from the fifties, in which he's looked to a poem that we have in the Museum's collection as a rubbing, it looks so beautiful and very poetic but the actual content is about the author having a stomach ache.’ He goes on to say, ‘Language can be about communication, but it's also about miscommunication.’
And so too is creative intent. The looking glass of the West is a charming, albeit fictitious chimera of the Chinese voice, where the West appears to have needed to stitch together its own idea of the Non-west in order to define a tangible identity of its relationship. This major exhibition offers a relief from reality and dazzling insight into a far-reaching imagination, leading directly to the coveted dream world of the rabbit hole.
Make sure to bring your best dress.
Due to the success of China: Through the Looking Glass, the exhibition has been extended until 7 September 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Photos The Metropolitan Museum of Art