Long before Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas, Portuguese explorers were colonizing islands in the eastern Atlantic and trading in Africa for slaves and gold. In 1499, Vasco da Gama completed his voyage to India, and the following year, a fleet commanded by Pedro Alvarez Cabral reached Brazil. Traders from Portugal arrived in China in 1513 and then ventured ashore in Japan three decades later.
Gama completed his voyage to India, and the following year, a fleet commanded by Pedro Alvarez Cabral reached Brazil. Traders from Portugal arrived in China in 1513 and then ventured ashore in Japan three decades later.
All this adventurous traveling and trading, anticipating our own era of globalization, led Europeans and their foreign cohorts to create new and hybrid forms of art. A blockbuster exhibit opening tomorrow at the Smithsonian, extending from the Sackler Gallery into the adjacent National Museum of African Art, reveals the diversity and sometime awkwardness of this cross-cultural interchange.
“Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries” is a sprawling, dimly lit show packed with treasures from nearly every continent. Chinese export porcelains decorated with Western motifs, African sculptures of European soldiers and Indian court paintings of an American turkey and an African zebra are among the 264 objects on display.
War, slavery and economic collapse as a result of foreign conquest and empire-building are downplayed within this diplomatic show. Its feel-good spin of mutual cultural understanding almost seems like a promotion for Portugal’s impending presidency of the European Union. (Mainly supported by the country’s ministry of culture, the exhibit will travel to Brussels this fall.)
Though weighted toward the Portuguese, the exhibit is peppered throughout with works from other European nations involved in foreign trade and colonization during and after the Renaissance. A small showing of contemporary art is included to address current-day global exchange but comes off as tacked-on and gratuitous.
Six geographically organized sections, meant to be independent from one another, are a refreshing change from the typical historical chronology. However, it’s hard to know where to start the journey because the galleries devoted to each section fan out in every direction from the exhibit’s entrance rotunda. It is best to proceed straight ahead into “Portugal and the Age of Discovery,” an overview of the increasingly ambitious voyages made possible by advances in shipbuilding and navigating tools. These Portuguese seafaring explorations did nothing less than change the perception and depiction of the world.
At the start of the display, an Italian version of ancient Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy’s world map shows Africa connected to eastern Asia, a predominant Renaissance vision that would become obsolete after navigators sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. Absent from the exhibit, however, are current maps showing the exact locations of the explorers’ travels and later trading in places like Goa and Gujarat. Hint to viewer: Brush up on your geography before you go.
Unlike later European empires, Portugal based its eastern expansion on a network of trading posts and forts, not occupation of vast areas of land. Supported by this commercial activity were Jesuit missionaries who traveled in China, Japan and India, bringing their religious imagery with them and commissioning local artisans to decorate new churches. The results often were odd mixtures of Eastern and Western styles: a stone archangel carved with a Chinese cloud, a Buddhist goddess resembling a Madonna, a Japanese lacquered altarpiece and a Mughal miniature painted with biblical iconography. These artifacts and others throughout the show testify to the surprisingly widespread adoption of Christian imagery and Western stylistic conventions by Asian artists — even to express their own cultures.
Africans also incorporated foreign motifs into their art after the Portuguese arrived in the eastern part of the continent in the late 1400s. Some of the most exquisite objects in the show are ivory salt cellars intricately carved in Sierra Leone for trade. They are so delicately detailed in their depictions of European explorers and their ships that scholars once thought they were made in India or Turkey. Edo artists in what is now Nigeria also were receptive to foreign influences, incorporating European facial features, dress and weaponry into copper plaques and brass statuary for royal palaces.
As is often the case with such cultural translations, misinterpretations were made. In depicting Africans with artifacts from American cultures, German artist Hans Burgkmair the Elder placed Indian feathered capes around their hips instead of their shoulders and treated headdresses as epaulets. His drawings are part of “Brazil and the New World,” one of the smaller, more easily digestible sections of this large show. It presents Portugal’s lucrative colony for harvesting wood and sugar cane mostly through the eyes of the Dutch, who settled in northeastern Brazil in the mid-1600s.
Not to be missed are Albert Eckhout’s full-length portraits of African slaves and native Indians, including a female cannibal with a human foot tucked into her backpack.
The exhibit winds down to a lower-level display that might be tempting to skip, given the scores of items in the show — but it is worth seeing, if only for an interesting sideline on wild animals imported from Africa and Asia. These creatures were so wondrous to 16th-century Europeans that they captured even the most serious artists’ imaginations. An albino elephant from Sri Lanka, called Hanno and presented as a gift to Pope Leo X, is drawn gracefully by a follower of Raphael. German artist Albrecht Durer’s lovable but inaccurate portrayal of a rhinoceros immortalizes the animal that was meant to join Hanno in Rome but drowned at sea in a shipwreck.
Like most travelers, Portuguese and other European merchants were not immune to purchasing a few tacky tourist trinkets. Ostrich egg cups, a heart-shaped tortoiseshell flask and a stool made out of elephant bones are among the more kitschy creations in the show. Amassed by Europeans for their private collections of art and exotica, they eventually led to the establishment of modern public museums. The entire exhibit resembles such a Kunstkammer, a wide-ranging but uneven grouping of artifacts. In representing the earliest globalists and their encounters with peoples around the world, it only tells part of the whole messy story.
WHAT: “Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries”
WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: Tomorrow through Sept. 16; daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
WEB SITE: www.asia.si.edu