News at Tipitaka Network
'Emerald Cities' at the Asian Art Museum
By Candace Jackson, Wall Street Journal, Friday, October 30, 2009
Some of the Buddha paintings and gilded bronze sculptures that are part of a major upcoming exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco took an unusual detour en route to the museum: They spent decades in storage in a shooting gallery at tobacco heiress Doris Duke's New Jersey mansion.
The artwork in "Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950," which opens this weekend, is largely drawn from Ms. Duke's private collection, part of which was donated to the museum in 2002. The museum says that Duke likely had the most significant collection of work from that era anywhere in the world—including Myanmar, formerly called Burma, and Thailand, formerly called Siam.
It was all the more surprising that the artwork went unseen for many years, stored in unusual nooks and crannies of Ms. Duke's Princeton, N.J., estate, says the show's curator, Forrest McGill. Ms. Duke, for example, purchased a Thai pavilion similar to the one built for the 1964 World's Fair in New York and partly reconstructed it on her property, he says. As well as shooting range storage, she also kept art on her indoor tennis court.
Some of the Buddhist ceremonial paintings are among the last remaining of their style, he says, partly because ceremonies were so elaborate that new paintings would be commissioned each time, and the old ones forgotten. One painting on cloth with gold depicts Buddha descending to earth, with hell below. There are theatrical masks, puppets and ornate gold shrines.
One piece is a wooden and lacquer sculpture of a mythical bird-man, with his hands pressed together in prayer and wings coming from his hips, made in central Thailand sometime between 1775 and 1850. Mr. McGill says the statue would have been used in royal ceremonies like coronations.
Conservators at the Asian Art Museum spent 7,500 hours over the last seven years restoring pieces. Some were badly damaged by the humid climates of Burma and Thailand which exposed some of the wooden and cloth pieces to infestations from termites and other insects as well as Ms. Duke's less-than-ideal storage methods. In some cases, conservators painstakingly glued down tiny pieces of flaking paint. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 which hit much of the East Coast also damaged some rare furniture and textiles. Conservators worked to remove visible tide lines.
The only child of American Tobacco Company founder and Duke University benefactor, James Buchanan Duke, Ms. Duke inherited much of her father's fortune in 1925 and became known as "the richest girl in the world." Ms. Duke, who spoke several languages, traveled the world and worked as a foreign correspondent. Edward P. Henry, president of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, says her interest in Thailand and Burma grew from her travels there in the 1930s on a one-year, around-the-world honeymoon. She died in 1993 at 80.
She amassed what, at the time, was a highly unconventional collection of artwork and craft objects from Thailand and what was then Burma, as well as Islamic art. Most of her friends would have likely been collecting European old master paintings, Mr. McGill says. Ms. Duke's collection "almost becomes a question of, 'Who knew?'" says Mr. Henry from the Charitable Foundation.
The Asian Art Museum curator visited her New Jersey estate 10 years ago, partly to figure out whether the collection was valuable. Pieces were stashed everywhere. Some were valuable; others weren't. After commissioning an extensive inventory of Ms. Duke's works, the foundation decided to give away the collection. Part of her Asian collection was donated to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and the remainder divided among more than 20 museums in the U.S. and Britain, including the British Museum in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Her estate that housed her vast collection of Islamic art has been turned into a museum in Honolulu.
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