West met East, and each found the results equally exotic

November 5, 2004

The lavish publication that accompanies the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition "Encounters" explores 300 years of cultural, commercial and technological interaction between Europe and maritime Asia, following the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to India in 1498. But the book is more than a catalogue - it is a tour de force .

The text of this extraordinary volume is complemented by a complete and opulent display of objects in the exhibition, which include the Fonthill Vase, the earliest piece of Chinese porcelain in Europe; the Van Diemen Box, one of the most important pieces of Japanese lacquer in the world; jewelled clocks from the Forbidden City in Beijing; panoramic wallpapers depicting Canton in the late 18th century (from Strathallan Castle); and Tippoo's Tiger, a mechanical toy created as a gruesome Indian political statement by Tipu Sultan in 1795. Portraits by Kneller, Reynolds, Vigée-Lebrun and Zoffany round out the presentation.

One of the book's strengths is its broad approach, drawing together scholars working in a variety of fields. Although some of the material has been discussed in other publications, this is the first time such a rich array of objects and ideas has been brought together.

The editors' introduction provides a compelling, concise background to the period and raises the underlying theme of the text: that both East and West were intrigued by one another and that the notion of exoticism, a concept generally associated with the Western construct of the East, works both ways.

This is a fascinating period, which starts with the arrival of the Portuguese in Asia in 1498 and closes with the establishment of British military and economic hegemony over much of South and East Asia at the end of the 18th century. Although relations between Europeans and Asians were often marred by misunderstanding and greed, it was an age of cultural dialogue, hybridity and fluidity; these essays show that globalisation is nothing new. But in this period, globalisation was not a case of one culture dominating others but of the mutual appropriation and absorption of elements of many cultures.

The book follows the innovative thematic approach of the exhibition.

"Discoveries", the first section, explores the state of play at the brink of the encounter. The renowned scholar, the late David Woodward, provides a cartographic view of the world in the early modern period, from both European and Asian perspectives. It was luxury goods and wonders of nature from Asia that provided Renaissance collectors with a vision of the East.

Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Rose Kerr explore the appeal of Asian novelties at the time of the discoveries.

Until recently, these and the subsequent encounters were seen from a Western perspective - but not in this book. John Guy's chapter on "Asian trade and exchange before 1600", for example, brings to light a hitherto neglected subject: the trade routes that existed at the time Europeans arrived in Asia.

The main appeal of the book lies in the middle section, "Encounters".

Chapters on diplomatic encounters between Europe and South Asia (by Amin Jaffer) and between Europe and East Asia (James Hevia) are insightful about conventions in Asia, illustrated with images of the gifts exchanged and representations of the meetings themselves.

Gauvin Bailey explores the religious encounter, in particular the way Christian missionaries employed works of art to communicate across profound language barriers. Liturgical objects from Europe were copied in the East, demonstrating that missionary orders were engaged in an active dialogue with local craftsmen and the development of an iconography that is fascinatingly hybrid. The architectural environment for Europeans in their settlements is addressed by Paulo Varela Gomes (the Portuguese), by Leonard Blusse (the Dutch) and J. P. Losty (the British).

Personal relationships form the backbone of the encounter. Once again, this subject has never been addressed properly in an art exhibition before. The three chapters by William Dalrymple, Blussé and Rupert Faulkner are perhaps the most engaging and amusing of the book, drawing readers into an intimate world of East-West relationships. Those on the Asian visual response to the arrival of curious-looking Westerners are remarkable for the freshness of information and compelling images. Rosemary Crill and Anna Jackson explore how Asians perceived and represented Europeans and how the exotic European was absorbed into the artistic landscape.

The final section, "Exchanges", explores the material dimension of the relationship. The story of Asian luxury goods made specifically for export to Europe is well known. Here, a team of curators - Kerr, Julia Hutt, Jaffer, Crill and William Sargent - contextualise this production in different media: porcelain, lacquer, furniture, textiles and paintings. But the reverse story - what Asia consumed from Europe - is seldom addressed in East-West exhibitions. These chapters alone render this book indispensable.

Susan Stronge, Catherine Pagani and Timon Screech examine, respectively, how India, China and Japan responded to Western goods and technologies. The book culminates in chapters exploring how elites in both Europe and Asia created fantastic spaces representing the "other" devoted to leisure and escapism.

The role of the East in the formation of Western fantasy, explored here by Steven Parissien, is well known. But fantasy worked in reverse too.

European images and objects were recontextualised in the East, inspiring in Asians a corresponding vision of the exotic West.

The main chapters are augmented with double-page features on discrete subjects, ranging from the trade in exotic animals and shipwreck cargoes to the impact of Western war technology in Asia. There is also a prodigious chronology.

Encounters deserves to stand as an independent book after the exhibition closes. My only reservation is that although a hand-list of exhibits is included in the book in rather small type at the end, it does not provide much object-based information. Also, the placement of images and the over-use of cut-outs detracts from the elegance of what is otherwise a landmark publication in the study of East-West cultural relations.

Christopher Ondaatje is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and the author of books on Africa and South Asia. "Encounters" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until December 5.

Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800

Editor - Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 395
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 1 85177 432 7

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