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Peabody Essex Museum August 9, 2010

Posted by flashbuzzer in Arts, History.
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I recently visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. This museum features a large art collection that provides a window into the diverse cultures of the Americas, Asia and Oceania.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. During the Joseon Dynasty, Korean artists tended to incorporate objects from nature in their creations; the objective in this case was to invoke blessings such as wealth, children, and longevity on their creations’ owners. Animals such as deer, tortoises, and cranes were viewed as symbols of these desired blessings, and so they were prominently featured in the artwork of this period. When preparing their artwork, Korean artists took great pains to 1) preserve the inherent beauty of the raw materials at hand and 2) leave traces of the creation process in the final product.

2. Korean artists also tended to incorporate symbols such as the swastika and the taegeuk in their creations. Note that “taegeuk” represents harmony and balance, while the term “swastika” arose from a Sanskrit word that was later modified in the prevailing Buddhist traditions in Korea. These symbols are analogous to the Chinese yin and yang. Interestingly, the Chinese character for “double happiness” also appears prominently in Korean art.

3. Village life in rural China was drastically altered during the Cultural Revolution. Loudspeakers were installed in many private homes to broadcast the government’s patriotic messages; in an annoying twist, the volume could not be adjusted. Also, people were forbidden from honoring their ancestors in their homes’ reception halls by burning incense and offering food and other gifts for the afterlife. In addition, strict limits on the degree of socializing in private homes were enforced; these restrictions were later lifted during the rule of Deng Xiaoping.

4. Village life in the Huizhou region of Anhui province revolved around agriculture; in particular, villagers focused on growing key crops including rice and tea, which apparently grows well on hillsides. Women and children comprised the bulk of the villagers, as the men usually worked in large cities such as Shanghai and Hangzhou. Interestingly, the men gravitated towards occupations such as pawnbroking and accounting, and they would send money home to the families that they could only visit infrequently.

5. To form porcelain, one would usually start with raw clay, especially soft kaolinite and hard petuntse. Then, a glaze would be applied that consisted of silica and cobalt oxide, which was used to add coloration. Finally, the resulting mixture would be fired at a high temperature to fuse the kaolinite and petuntse, yielding a beautiful material with both strength and translucence.

6. Porcelain is commonly considered to be unique to China, though the art of porcelain-making draws on external influences and has benefited from the creativity of Western artists. For example, the concept of applying cobalt oxides as part of the glaze-addition step was influenced by similar work that was done in Persia. Also, Chinese artists produced many beautiful porcelain wares that depicted Western motifs, including the coat of arms of their upper-class clientele. In addition, Western artists often took porcelain from China and embellished it via gilding, yielding more ornate objects that would be appropriate at formal gatherings.

7. During the 18th and 19th centuries, a typical upper-class New England resident would carefully select their home furnishings to earn their desired position in society. Women were particularly concerned with obtaining ornate tea sets and well-designed parlor furniture, as socializing was an integral aspect of high society in New England. Men were particularly concerned with obtaining furniture such as the great chair that would establish their sense of supremacy and authority. In general, these upper-class citizens selected raw materials of the finest quality and imitated Greek and Roman culture in the design and construction of their furniture.

8. The American painter Fitz Hugh Lane was one of the pre-eminent maritime artists of the 19th Century. He was influenced by the English maritime artist Robert Salmon. In general, Lane made a strong effort to capture the realism of the situations that he was depicting; in particular, he took great pains to accurately display the effects of light and water on the scene at hand.

9. In Navajo culture, it is common for one Navajo to introduce themselves to another Navajo by naming their mother’s clan and father’s clan. In particular, they note that they have been born to their mother’s clan and born for their father’s clan. This theme has been integrated into the work of artists such as Nathan Begaye.

10. One of the central themes in the work of modern Native American artists such as Diego Romero and Judith Lowry is the tension between their tribal heritage and external influences. In particular, their artwork explores issues such as the impact of nuclear weapons testing at the White Sands Missile Range on tribal life, the ramifications of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the “Westernizing” of Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yana people.

The museum, as expected, contained a literal treasure trove of beautiful art pieces. I especially enjoyed strolling around the Yin Yu Tang, as it provided a welcome window into domestic life in rural China. I was also impressed by the liberal sprinkling of “communal areas” throughout the museum, which provided opportunities for patrons to relax, read texts that provided additional insights into the artwork on display, and chat with other patrons.

In terms of quibbles, it was somewhat difficult to find the museum, as the directions on its website note that one should turn onto New Liberty Street to find the museum and a nearby parking garage. New Liberty Street, as of now, though, cannot be found on the relevant Google Maps directions.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend browsing it and exploring any special exhibits that may be on display.

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