"Southern Barbarians" on Japan's Shores
Japan, Edo period, 17th century
one pair of a six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold on paper
Personally, I tend to enjoy exhibits that are organized by theme more so than I do those organized by one artist or style. It gives me the chance to see different individual’s views on a subject from different time periods and cultural perspectives as well as through different mediums. Not only do I enjoy the different perspectives of the art and artists I’m viewing, I also like contemplating what the theme means to me. A new exhibit at the Freer Sackler Gallery, Travelers Eye: Scenes of Asia is one example of a themed exhibit that I greatly enjoyed. The exhibit focuses on works representing travel throughout Asia presented with three sections highlighting how native Asians saw travel in their own region and another section featuring Westerners’ views of travel in Asia in the early 20th century.
Travelers on the Road to Shu
Style of Qui Ying (ca. 1494-1552)
China, Ming dynasty, 17th century
Handscroll; ink and color on silk
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.224
The first thing that struck me was positioned at the entrance to Travelers Eye: a huge, six panel representation of “southern barbarians” sailing into a Japanese port. In reality, it’s a depiction of westerners coming into a Japanese port during feudal Japan’s attempt to expel westerners with their religious zealousness from Japan in order to protect its culture and maintain a sense of what it meant to be Japanese. The first few works really gave me the impression that I was looking at a snapshot of life at that time period. The beauty of the intricate details really comes through when you see a work of art that seems to be depicting motion on a flat, unmoving surface. Back in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the average person rarely traveled far from their home, let alone to another region or country. Many of the artworks on display feel like stories or advertisements for those places similar to modern day travel websites that captivate viewers with what lay in faraway places. One common theme of the older works of art was that nature always dwarfs man in both size and importance. My eye was always drawn to the naturalistic aspects of each work even when people were the main subject. The parts of the work that focused on nature were always supremely beautiful.
Great Mosque, with al-Askari Shrine in the distance, Samarra
Iraq, first half of 20th century
Publisher: A & K Naman, Baghdad
Myron Bement Smith Collection
The final part of the exhibit showed Westerners’ takes on travel in Asia from the early 20th century, whether it was their own, personal travel experiences or what they imagined Asia was like at that time. This was evident in the various blueprints, sketches and old postcards on display. Another thing that I liked about the exhibit was how it displayed works from many different countries throughout the entire continent of Asia. The photography from India showed me glimpses into the beauty of their culture and the postcards showed me the idealized western interpretation of the Middle East and Muslim culture. Much of the Westerners’ point of view came from their own personal experiences with exploration in the region. I enjoyed getting insight into what the explorers went to Asia to focus on. Some made the individuals in the area their primary subject (like Freer with his workers and guards) while others focused purely on anthropology and preserving the legacy of whatever they were focusing on.