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Cabinet of Curiosities

JUNE 28, 2010
Tucked into a corner of a European Decorative Arts gallery at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a curious object that has fascinated me over the years. I think it's a fairly recent piece in the collection; it may actually be on loan to the MFA. Anyway, there it is, this hulking monstrosity in a room judiciously populated with naturalistic Meissen porcelain peacocks, views of Venice by Guardi and Caneletto, a large allegorical painting by Tiepolo and a rustic romance by Gainsborough.
It is an almost six foot tall cabinet made in Germany in the mid 1700's.The decorative style mimics Asian lacquerware with rich reds and golds used on a black ground. This piece of furniture however was created entirely by craftsmen who had never travelled far from their German homes. Every surface is decorated with exotic scenes of people and potentates traveling and hunting. According to the caption that accompanies the exhibit, the illustrations were derived from a popular 1699 German translation (presumably) of Johannes Nieuhof's " An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China." Nieuhof and a his delegation of Dutch businessmen visited Peking in 1655 to negotiate trade agreements with the Chinese. What they found was a country in the middle of a war. As a result, the embassy took longer to achieve its mission and this gave Nieuhof time to amass his observations. The resulting book was popular and it is an indication of how the European world was shrinking as trade and empires expanded. In a short time, popular tastes began to include the results of the new realities of global business.
A marble bust of Jaques-Rolland Moreau (by LeMoyne) and the Miessen peacock assess the cabinet. Is it worthy or a crass party crasher? We are voyeurs to Crespi's voluptuous "Woman Playing a Lute" lost in her own world of music.
I like that the cabinet is illustrated. Every surface has a picture of some little adventure: a group of men pilot a ship that is half Dutch galleon and half Chinese junk. A fashionable woman rides in an ornate litter carried by two hefty Chinese lads, a peasant man in exotic pajamas confronts a lion with spear and shield and two gentlemen enjoy tea under a leafy Oriental bower. There's this charming and awkward clash of cultures: Chinese to Dutch to German… to me!
I like that in this gallery filled with Art, there is a clunky decorated thing. Artists were commissioned to make images that reflected and informed the worldview of the owners. Despite my training as a fine artist, I like illustration and Decorative Art better. The messages seem clearer than Art. The images seem unafraid to be just what they are. And in this case, clumsiness of execution reveals the humanity (good & bad) behind the enterprise. The reasons for its existence are down to earth and in accord with the scale of my interests.
cheap camera no flash = fuzzy images. I try not be too precious in my photo documentation of things I'd rather internalize and make my own.
In 2009 I heard about Kerala, India and I started drawing these whimsical boats. They were doodled offshoots from the German cabinet boats. I hadn't seen any photos of Kerala at the time but my boats bear a slight resemblance to boats from this intriguing coastal area of southern India. More importantly, they were an adaptation of my research concerning the German cabinet. I started seeing these boats all over.
So, 350 years ago, the Dutch went on a fishing expedition seeking trade and returned with a catalogue an an exotic culture. The Germans, enmeshed in a market for luxury goods catered to popular taste and adapted their traditional working methods. Later, A collector appreciated the craftsmanship of the cabinet and eventually wanted to share it with the world by loaning it to the museum. I then bring along all my personal and cultural baggage and aspirations and cherry-pick what I love and apply it to my own artistic projects. At some point it's all bound to come full circle. I wonder what that would look like?