By LIA CHANG
The Costume Institute’s spring 2015 exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, a collaboration between The Costume Institute and the Asian Art Department, as a celebration for their centennial, is currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 16, 2015. This is the second in a two-part series about the exhibition. View the first installment here.
Asian Art Galleries
The Astor Forecourt
Empire of the Sign
Film clips featuring Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong include Daughter of the Dragon, 1931 Directed by Lloyd Corrigan (Paramount Pictures, Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC); Limehouse Blues (1934) directed by Alexander Hall (Paramount Pictures UCLA Film & Television Archive); Piccadilly (1929) directed by E. A. Dupont (British International Pictures, Courtesy of Milestone Film & Video and British Film Institute); Shanghai Express, (1932) directed by Josef von Sternberg (Paramount Pictures, Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC); and The Toll of the Sea (1922) directed by Chester M. Franklin (Metro Pictures Corporation, UCLA Film & Television Archive) run on overhead screens in The Astor Forecourt. In terms of shaping Western fantasies of China, no figure has had a greater impact on fashion than Ms. Wong. Born in Los Angeles in 1905 as Huang Liushuang (”yellow willow frost”), she was fated to play opposing stereotypes of the Enigmatic Oriental, namely the docile, obedient, submissive Lotus Flower and the wily, predatory, calculating Dragon Lady.
Limited by race and social norms in America and constrained by one- dimensional caricatures in Hollywood, she moved to Europe, where the artistic avant-garde embraced her as a symbol of modernity, The artists Marianne Brandt and Edward Steichen found a muse in Anna May Wong, as did the theorist Walter Benjamin, who in a 1928 essay describes her in a richly evocative manner: “May Wong the name sounds colorfully margined, packed like marrow-bone yet light like tiny sticks that unfold to become a moon-filled, fragranceless blossom in a cup of tea,” Benjamin, like the designers in this gallery, enwraps Anna May Wong in Western allusions and associations, In so doing, he unearths latent empathies between the two cultures, which the fashions on display here extend through their creative liberties.
Gallery- Astor Garden
The exhibition’s subtitle “Through the Looking Glass” translates into Chinese as “Moon in the Water,” that alludes to Buddhism. In the Met’s Astor Chinese Garden Court, a moon was projected onto the ceiling and reflected in what appears to be a shallow pool. Dresses by John Galliano and Martin Margiela—which appear like apparitions on the water—were inspired by Beijing opera.
Like “Flower in the Mirror,” it suggests something that cannot be grasped, and has both positive and negative connotations. When used to describe a beautiful object, “moon in the water” can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomesmetaphor often expresses romantic longing, as the eleventh-century poet Huang Tingjian wrote: “Like picking a blossom in a mirror/Or grabbing at the moon in water/I stare at you but cannot get near you.” It also conveys unrequited love, as in the song “Hope Betrayed” in Cao Xueqin’s mid-eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber: “In vain were all her sighs and tears/In vain were all his anxious fears:/As moonlight mirrored in the water/Or flowers reflected in a glass.”
Two other garments by Maison Martin Margiela are recycled opera costumes from the 1930s that have been repurposed as haute couture, an extraordinarily East-meets-West display of technical virtuosity.
Gallery Ming Furniture Room
Film clips of Raise the Red Lantern (1991) directed by Zhang Yimou, Farewell My Concubine (1993) directed by Chen Kaige, Mei Lanfang’s Stage Art (1955) and Two Stage Sisters (1964) directed by Xie Jin serve as a vivid backdrop to the designs on display in the Ming Furniture Room.
In Chinese culture, the color red, which traditionally corresponds to the element of fire, symbolizes good fortune and happiness. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, red also came to represent the communist revolution. In the West, the color is so strongly associated with China that it has come to stand in for the nation and its peoples. When Valentino presented its Manifesto collection in Shanghai in 2013, the creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli dedicated it to “the many shades of red.” In choosing the color as the theme, they were also referencing the history of Valentino, as red has long been a signature color of the house. As early as the 1960s, its founder, Valentino Garavani, employed it throughout his collection, especially in his lavish evening designs. In this gallery are several gowns from the Manifesto collection, which epitomize the atelier’s exquisite lacework and meticulous and magnificent embroideries.
Gallery: Export Silk
Ever since the silk trade between China and the Roman Empire blossomed in the late first and early second centuries, Western fashion’s appetite for Chinese silk textiles has been insatiable. This craving intensified in the sixteenth century, when sea trade expanded the availability of Chinese luxury goods, giving rise in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to a lasting taste for chinoiserie.
Chinese export silks, like export wallpapers, have sometimes been subsumed into the history of the applied arts in the West. Yet despite their Western-inspired decoration, they remain part of the history of the material culture of China, particularly the port city of Canton (now Guangzhou). The relationship between producer and consumer, however, is complicated by the transmission of design elements between East and West. Like the sinuous motifs on the painted silks and wallpapers in these galleries, Chinese export art reveals multiple meanderings of influence from the earliest period of European contact with China, leading to the accumulation of layers and layers of stylistic translations and mistranslations.
Gallery – Calligraphy
Western fashion’s abiding interest in Chinese aesthetics embraces the graphic language of calligraphy, which in China is considered the highest form of artistic expression. Designers are typically inspired by calligraphy for its decorative possibilities rather than its linguistic significance. Chinese characters serve as the textile patterns on the dresses by Christian Dior and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in this gallery.
Because this language is seen as “exotic” or “foreign,” it can be read as purely allusive decoration. Dior and Chanel were likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on their dresses, which in the case of Dior has resulted in a surprising and humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth- century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache. Language that constitutes communication, it would seem, is also capable of conveying miscommunication. Here, the letter is presented as a rubbing, as are the other calligraphic examples in the surrounding cases. Before photography, rubbings were the key technology for transmitting calligraphy across generations. Some of the greatest treasures of Chinese calligraphy, including the Letter on a Stomachache that inspired Dior, survive only through such impressions.
Film Clip Edited by Wong Kar-Wai: Hero, 2002 Directed by Zhang Yimou (Miramax Films, Courtesy of EDKO FILMS LIMITED)
Gallery – Blue and White Porcelain
The story of blue-and-white porcelain encapsulates centuries of cultural exchange between East and West. Developed in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1271– 1368), blue-and-white porcelain was exported to Europe as early as the sixteenth century. As its popularity increased in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in tandem with a growing taste for chinoiserie, potters in the Netherlands (Delft), Germany (Meissen), and England (Worcester) began to produce their own imitations.
One of the most familiar examples is the Willow pattern, which usually depicts a landscape centered on a willow tree flanked by a large pagoda and a small bridge with three figures carrying various accoutrements. Made famous by the English potter Thomas Minton, founder of Thomas Minton & Sons in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, it was eventually mass- produced in Europe using the transfer-printing process. With the popularity of Willow-pattern porcelain, Chinese craftsmen began to produce their own hand-painted versions for export. Thus a design that came to be seen as typically Chinese was actually the product of various cultural exchanges between East and West.
Gallery – Perfume
Part of the power of perfume lies in its synesthetic possibilities, and the idea of China, confected from Western imagination, affords the perfumer a multiplicity of olfactory opportunities charged with the seductive mysteries of the East. Paul Poiret, famous for his fashions a la chinoise, was the first designer to produce a perfume fueled by the romance of China. Called Nuit de Chine, it was created in 1913 by Maurice Schaller and presented in a flacon inspired by Chinese snuff bottles designed by Georges Lepape, In the early 1920s, Poiret, excited by his dreams of Cathay, crafted several other perfumes, including orient and Sakya Mouni, both packaged in bottles inspired by Chinese seals.
The 1910s and 1920s saw an influx of China-inflected perfumes, partly stimulated by the well- publicized archaeological excavations of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Like Nuit de Chine, many were presented in flacons fashioned after Chinese snuff bottles, including Jean Patou’s Joy, Roger & Gallet’s Le Jade, and Henriette Gabilla’s Pa-Ri-Ki-Ri, named after a musical revue starring Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier. One of the more unusual flacons was created by the Callot Soeurs for the perfume La Fille du Roi de Chine. Shaped after a ”lotus shoe” for a bound foot, it explicitly associated perfume, in Western eyes, with the exotic practice of foot-binding.
Gallery – Saint Laurent & Opium
To this day, fashion’s most flamboyant expression of chinoiserie is Yves Saint Laurent’s extravagant fall/winter 1977 haute-couture collection. In a dazzling mélange of Chinese decorative elements, Saint Laurent reimagined Western ideas of Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors and the imperial splendor of the Qing court under Dowager Empress Cixi (1835–1908). Of the collection, Saint Laurent commented, “I returned to an age of elegance and wealth. In many ways I returned to my own past.”
His designs merge authentic and imaginary elements of Chinese costume into a polyglot bazaar of postmodern amalgamation. Scallop patterns, pagoda shoulders, and frog and tassel closures are combined with conical hats and jade and cinnabar jewelry to convey a sumptuous, seductive impression of Chinese style as luxurious and glamorous as Paul Poiret’s fantasies five decades earlier. The collection coincided with the launch of Saint Laurent’s fragrance Opium, a name controversial even in the hedonistic 1970s because of its perceived endorsement of drug use; trivialization of the mid-nineteenth-century Opium Wars between China and Britain; and objectification of women through its highly sexualized advertisement photographed by Helmut Newton and featuring Jerry Hall. Setting the tone for the so-called power scents of the 1980s, the perfume is composed of myrrh, amber, jasmine, mandarin, and bergamot notes.
Film Clips Edited by Wong Kar-Wai: Broken Blossoms, 1919, Directed by D. W. Griffith, (D.W. Griffith Productions, Courtesy of Kino Lorber); Flowers of Shanghai, 1998 Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien (3H Productions and Shochiku Company, Courtesy of Shochiku Company) © 1998 Shochiku Co., Ltd.; Once Upon a Time in America, 1984 Directed by Sergio Leone (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment); The Grandmaster, 2013 Directed by Wong Kar Wai (Block 2 Pictures, Courtesy of Block 2 Pictures Inc.) ©2013 Block 2 Pictures Inc. All rights reserved.
The idea of China reflected in the haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear fashions in this gallery is a fictional, fabulous invention, offering an alternate reality with a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory, illogic. This fanciful imagery, which combines Eastern and Western stylistic elements into an incredible pastiche, belongs to the tradition of chinoiserie (from the French chinois, meaning Chinese), a style that emerged in the late seventeenth century and reached its pinnacle in the mid-eighteenth century. China was a land outside the reach of most travelers in the latter century (and, for many others, still an imaginary land called “Cathay”), and chinoiserie presented a vision of the East as a place of mystery and romance.
Stylistically, its main characteristics include Chinese figures, pagodas with sweeping roofs, and picturesque landscapes with elaborate pavilions, exotic birds, and flowering plants. Sometimes these motifs were copied directly from objects, especially lacquerware, but more often they originated in the designer’s imagination. Chinoiserie’s prescribed and restricted vocabulary directly produces its aesthetic power.
Gallery- Ancient China
China’s varied and vibrant artistic traditions have served as sources of continuous invention and reinvention for Western fashion. Works of art from the seventeenth century onward resonate most strongly with designers. As this gallery and the adjacent gallery reveal, however, designers have also found inspiration in earlier forms, including Neolithic pottery, Shang-dynasty bronzes, Tang-dynasty mirrors, Han-dynasty tomb figurines and architectural models, early Buddhist sculpture and iconography, and ancient Chinese literature, including wuxfa.
These cross-cultural comparisons, as with others in the show, have an appeal that rests on their clarity and legibility that is, on one’s ability to decode the motifs and stylistic references. The comparisons demonstrate how the creative process is inherently transformative, a phenomenon seen here in works of art that boldly reduce a complex matrix of meanings into graphic signs that say ‘China’ not as literal copies but as explicit allusions to a prototype.
The Small Buddha Gallery – Guo Pei
Like their Western counterparts, Chinese designers frequently find inspiration in the aesthetic and cultural traditions of the East. Paradoxically, they often gravitate toward the same motifs and imagery. While it is important to distinguish between internal and external views of the East, such affinities support, at least in fashion, a unified language of shared signs. The small Buddha gallery is devoted to this single gown by the Chinese designer Guo Pei, in which Buddhist iconography provides the primary source of inspiration.
The bodice is shaped like a lotus flower, which is one of the eight Buddhist symbols and represents spiritual purity and enlightenment. The motif is also embroidered onto the skirt. In an act of Occidentalism, the shape of the skirt, which has no archetypes in Eastern dress traditions, is based on the inflated crinoline silhouette that emerged as modish apparel in the West in the 1850s. As with the Western designers in this exhibition, Guo Pei does not practice an exoticism of replication but rather one of assimilation, combining Eastern and Western elements into a common cultural language.
Wuxia, which roughly translates as “martial hero,” relates the adventures of wandering swordsmen whose martial- arts skills are so highly developed that they can internalize their qi (life force) and unleash such superhuman powers as “thunder palms,” “shout weapons,” and “weightless leaps.” The stories often take place in an underworld calledjiang hu (rivers and lakes), in which martial artists cohabit with monks, bandits, and burglars. The heroes are governed by xia, a strict code of chivalry, whose common attributes include justice, honesty, benevolence, and a disregard for wealth and desire. Such traits have led many wuxia novels to be read as expositions on Buddhism, an association played out in this gallery, which displays some of the museum’s earliest examples of Chinese Buddhist art.
China: Through the Looking Glass is organized by Andrew Bolton, Curator, with the support of Harold Koda, Curator in Charge, both of The Costume Institute. Additional support is provided by Maxwell Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman; Denise Patry Leidy, Curator; and Zhixin Jason Sun, Curator, all of the Department of Asian Art.Internationally renowned filmmaker Wong Kar Wai is the exhibition’s artistic director working with his longtime collaborator William Chang, who supervised styling. Nathan Crowley serves as production designer for the exhibition-he has worked on three previous Costume Institute exhibitions including Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008), American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity (2010), and Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations (2012).
Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. All text and photographs are the property of Lia Chang Multimedia. She blogs at email@example.com where this piece first appeared. It is republished here with permission from the author.