Of Empresses and Nature

Two major exhibitions at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Peabody Essex Museum
Court artists Empress Xiaoxian Chun (1712-1748) China, Qing dynasty, second half of 18th century, with 19th-century repainting. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk 108 1/4 x 51 9/16 in. Gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Sturgis Hinds, 1956. Peabody Essex Museum, E33619

An overnight trip to the North Shore seemed like a good way to celebrate the end of a recent cold snap. It was the weekend of the Super Bowl, which meant that if you ate at any public watering hole in Massachusetts, chances were good the televisions would be tuned to coverage of all things Patriots. For a traveler with New York sympathies, this was salt in the wound following another joyless season for the Giants. Fortunately, Salem has museums. There is a Witch Hunt Museum, from a time when the term described a very real and sometimes lethal miscarriage of justice. Not that I was interested in black magic. This was my first time at the Peabody Essex Museum, and expecting a provincial red brick affair along the lines of a converted library with a wizened docent at the entrance, I was instead surprised to encounter a major museum drawing big-city crowds. Turns out that the PEM—a conglomeration of the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute—has well-stocked collections of Asian and maritime art. At the moment, two sprawling and admirably researched shows have intersected: Empresses of China’s Forbidden City is drawing to a close, while Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment has just opened.

Empresses marks the first exhibition devoted solely to the lives of women in the Forbidden City. The show, built on a healthy platform of scholarship (female court members left no written records), opens with a gratuitous set piece that imagines the view from within an empress’s moving, shrouded carriage. There are multiple drone’s eye painted tableaux, each detailing an empress’s travels through the Forbidden City during the Qing Dynasty. In these paintings, hundreds of tiny figures stand in salutation on the streets and on the yardarms of docked ships. The first few rooms provide a slow exposition before things get moving with the introduction of objets d’art; two hundred items were borrowed from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Robes and gowns, precious metals woven into their fabric, are spectacular without lapsing into vulgarity. A four-armed bodhisattva, made of gold alloy and a host of decorously placed gems, reconciles meditation and materialism. Unsettling realities are not glossed over; thirteen year-old girls were groomed in hopes of joining the Emperor’s harem. If chosen, their lives promised to be both luxurious and powerless. This exhibition seeks to restore their long-muted voices.

Peabody Essex Museum
Festive robe with bats, clouds, and the character for longevity Probably Imperial Silk Manufactory, Nanjing (weaving), and Imperial Workshop, Beijing (tailoring) Qianlong period, 1785 or earlier. Patterned silk satin and embroidery, polychrome silk and metallic-wrapped threads on silk fabric 56 5⁄16 × 70 1⁄16 in. Palace Museum, Gu42136

Nature’s Nation also claims a first: “the first exhibition to trace environmental awareness in American art over the last three centuries.” It is an ambitious lift, in many ways. One observation is that the glorification of the American landscape was predicated on the premise that man is separate from nature. Take Thomas Moran, whose paintings of the apparently untouched western landscape were instrumental in the development of a National Parks System, an acknowledgement that developers would run roughshod over the length and width of the continent unless we cordoned off a few picturesque parcels. The exhibition notes a bracing context: before parkland earned federal protection, American Indians had to be removed. Moran’s exact contemporary, Winslow Homer, was also immersed in the American wilderness, but Homer unflinchingly observed man’s relationship with nature. A Huntsman and Dogs depicts a young ruffian standing among tree stumps on an Adirondack mountainside, a deer pelt slung over his shoulder. Natural beauty exists in this landscape, but it bears, for better and worse, the imprint of man. 

Peabody Essex Museum
Winslow Homer, A Huntsman and Dogs, 1891. Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 48 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William L. Elkins Collection.

Changes in cultural awareness are charted in urban subjects by Thomas Anshutz, George Bellows, and Hughie Lee-Smith. The Ironworkers’ Noontime, Anshutz’s best known work, depicts semi-nude male figures striking classical poses. The irony is that the frieze of stretched and relaxed bodies occurs not against an Arcadian backdrop—as in Swimming, by his teacher, Thomas Eakins—but in an alleyway beside a sunlit West Virginia factory. Where Ironworkers is stark, Bellows’ Cliff Dwellers is buoyant. A crowded lower Manhattan street teems with mothers and children, their lives circumscribed by the immense tenements towering around them. The scene simultaneously celebrates and critiques city life. Lee-Smith’s Slum Lad touches an entirely different note. In a premonition of mid-1960s riots, a young black man stands before burned-out buildings. The painting borrows elements of surrealism and social realism; the issue has evolved from industrialization (Anshutz) and immigrant housing (Bellows) to the bleak prospects of ghetto life. Lee-Smith was the second African-American artist to be elected a National Academician. For many years he taught at the League, where my mother studied with him during several summers in the early 1980s.

Peabody Essex Museum
George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913. Oil on canvas. 40 3/16 x 42 1/16 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund.

The exhibition tacks in yet another direction with a large color field canvas by Morris Louis. It’s not the painting that is the subject, but the artist’s materials. The fumes of the turpentine he used to create limpid color washes were thought to have caused his premature death by lung cancer. Adjacent to Louis’s painting is wall text that asks, “How can something sourced from nature be harmful?” Well, let us count the ways. Besides contributing to painters’ ill health, turpentine production accounted for massive deforestation in the South and was largely reliant upon the labor of African-American workers. When turpentine is forbidden in the classroom, it’s not just because the odor is offensive. 

Much of what’s explored in Nature’s Nation reminds us that our relation to nature is complicated and often exploitative. Amid contemporary installations and a revised view of the canon, we are asked, in effect, whether it’s enough to seek refuge on a greensward without being woke. It’s a fair question, though I tend to resist on-site installations, even those explicitly designed to make environmental statements—they’re often preachy and they block the view they’re extolling. The land speaks for itself if we choose to listen.

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