Monday, January 5, 2009

Chinoiserie tapestries

At a special exhibit of European tapestries at the Art Institute in Chicago, I saw something I didn’t expect: a tapestry depicting one of the early Qing emperors, woven by the Royal Beauvais Manufacture in France, 1716-22:

The tapestry, made at the height of European upper classes’ interest in Chinoiserie, seems to be a sort of cut-and-paste of well-known motifs from Chinese culture: it looks like there’s a phoenix at the upper right, and dragons at the top. (I love European representations of Chinese dragons from this period, because they look like something St. George might fight, much different than images of the long from China itself—the translation is, after all, a bit arbitrary.) Beside the dragons are images of a couple almost-naked Chinese men sitting down—who are they? Perhaps they’re supposed to be wise Chinese philosophers. The emperor relaxes on his luxurious boat, surrounded by, it appears, slaves and concubines. And what on earth is up with those little heads on the pillars with wings coming out of their ears?

It’s always fascinating to stumble upon such brazen examples of Orientalism in unlikely places. For another tapestry from this series, have a look at this.

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