Opinion | Time to Rethink Chinoiserie

Posted in journal articles, opinion pages by Editor on November 2, 2021

Thomas Chippendale, Chinese Chairs, 1753; black ink, gray ink, and gray wash (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, From The Met’s online description: “Preparatory drawing for Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. Published in reverse as plate XXIII in the 1754 and 1755 editions. The plate is reworked and renumbered as plate XXVII in the 1762 edition. In the new version the arm chair on the right (left in the print) is left unaltered, while the chair back of the chair in the middle is changed and the chair on the left (right in the print) is changed completely.”

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The following op-ed was published online at Elle Decor in May with a version also appearing in the October issue of the print magazine. It’s the sort of essay that I’ve been hoping to find for a few years now, one that bridges the scholarship of the past two decades with contemporary design practice, particularly as promoted by shelter magazines. I suspect that it could be useful pedagogically as a way to connect the historical origins of the material to present-day decorating trends. CH

Aileen Kwun, “Opinion: It’s Time to Rethink Chinoiserie,” Elle Decor (27 May 2021). From pagoda motifs to floral wallpaper, chinoiserie has always openly borrowed from Asian visual culture. But is it harmful? A design writer and reporter asks the AAPI design community to weigh in.

Foo dogs. Ginger jars. Yin-yang tables. Pagoda motifs, fiery dragons, and bamboo stalks. See it in architecture, gardens, interiors, furnishings, products, graphic motifs, and at just about every scale of design. Chinoiserie, a genre of reproduction design dating back to 17th- and 18th-century Western Europe, has had a long history. From Louis XIV’s decor at Versailles to Ettore Sottsass’s pagoda-topped postmodern shelving, Westernized versions of Asian motifs have long been a mainstay of interior design. . . .

As a style of decor, chinoiserie is ubiquitous, even beautiful. But as an Asian American, chinoiserie has never sat well with me—as a motif or as a word—and, to varying degrees, I’m not the only one. “My reading of chinoiserie is that it’s ‘Asian’ in facsimile,” the architect Michael K. Chen says. “The way that chinoiserie is deployed in interiors is something that I am a little reflexively allergic to. As a component of a ‘traditional’ interior, it seems to highlight the question: Whose tradition are we talking about?” . . .

The full essay is available here»

OpEd | HECAA at 25 Conference Recap

Posted in conferences (summary), opinion pages by Editor on November 6, 2018

Back home from the HECAA at 25 Conference in Dallas, I feel my mind still whirling from what was perhaps the best conference I’ve ever attended. As strange as it may sound, a previous contender for me had been CSECS 2001 in Saskatoon, which included an extraordinary panel on ‘Post-Mortem Investigations: Then and Now’, organized around Samuel Johnson’s autopsy, a session that included not only Anita Guerrini, Helen Deutsch, and John Bender but also medical doctors and a dissected corpse(!), all with an eye toward anatomical similarities and differences across the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. The HECAA at 25 Conference brought the past and present into conversation in no less compelling ways, even with no cadaver. Indeed, I’m left with a clear distillation of something like pure vitality.

Having edited Enfilade since 2009, I’m aware of how irregular it is for me to chime in with anything more than a few words introducing a posting. From the start, I was keen to build a platform for the sharing of news related to the long eighteenth century with a very light editorial voice. In 2009 blogs were often derided as self-indulgent means for sharing breakfast and shampoo preferences, and I was set on staying out of the way. If it was clear to me that there were lots of exciting things happening in the field of eighteenth-century art, architecture, and visual studies, it was equally true that we as scholars were doing a particularly bad job of telling others (even ourselves) about those exciting things. Building out that communication piece seemed like a useful service to HECAA.

Rather stupidly, I hadn’t grasped that the nature of the web would very quickly transform a communication mechanism built for a small organization into one with a world-wide audience. And yet, if HECAA members constitute only a small minority of Enfilade readers, the connection between the platform and the organization remains important. And that’s why I feel compelled to report back about the conference. The views shared here are entirely my own as I am in no way speaking for the organization. And crucial, I think, for everyone reading—even if you aren’t a HECAA member—the successes of the conference readily pertain to other academic events.

Three things stand out for me: coherence of the program, communicative opportunities thoughtfully embedded into the schedule, and connections with extraordinary works of art and artifacts added not simply as incidental after-thoughts. First, the very simple decision to include no concurrent sessions meant that participants had a shared experience over the course of the three or four days. It meant that sessions unfolded as part of an ongoing conversation. It meant that the usual conference chaos resulting from choices (where am I trying to go? What did you just hear? You should have been in that session!) was entirely abrogated. Revelatory plenary addresses by Melissa Hyde and Daniela Bleichmar weren’t exceptional events that brought everyone together but extended versions of the kinds of talks others gave (amazing talks actually), with all of us engaged together. Second, time for good conversations, in a variety of settings, was carefully planned. Along with the usual coffee and lunch breaks, there were lively receptions, a boisterous evening of food and drink (with the restaurant all to ourselves and dinner served family style), and as an experiment of sorts, structured break-out sessions with preassigned groups. The efficacy of the group discussions presumably varied, but the activity stands out for me as hugely successful. Some of the most interesting ideas I heard discussed all weekend came out there (thanks goes not only to my group’s facilitators Amber Ludwig and Susanna Caviglia but also Aaron Wile for asking an opening question that couldn’t have been more effective). Third, time for looking at art was built into the schedule, with opportunities for exploring the strong holdings of the Meadows Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Kimbell Art Museum. How many art historical conferences have I attended where actual art was absent from the schedule? Too many.

All three qualities are widely applicable, and organizers should consider them. But there’s another crucial point to all of this, and it’s central to why I’m writing: the conference worked because HECAA is an amazing community of scholars. The final session on Saturday was aimed at thinking about the future of the field of eighteenth-century art studies. It was thought-provoking and (interestingly) the point at which some of the most significant points of difference emerged. To that conversation, I would like to add a modest addendum. For any discussion of what the ‘field’ might best do in the next five, ten, or twenty-five years is necessarily premised on there being a community to do that work. And here, I’m careful not to conflate HECAA with the whole study of eighteenth-century art and architecture (readers of Enfilade prove the point). But it’s no small matter to build a vibrant academic society characterized by goodwill, intellectual hospitality, and the nurturing of scholars along all stages of a career.

That should be celebrated, even as it also bestows responsibilities, obligations to both the present and the future. Organized by Amy Freund—brilliant and indefatigable—the conference underscores the impact an individual can have for a community (with thanks to all who served on the organizing committee). Taking a long view, HECAA has benefited tremendously from founding members who have remained committed to the organization for decades. The impact of Mary Sheriff was profound. I also can’t help mentioning Michael Yonan, who deserves the lion’s share of credit for what the organization has become; he was an enormously effective president at a time when things could have taken a rather different turn. Other officers—treasurers Jennifer Germann and Christina Lindeman and our current president Amelia Rauser—have been adept and sagacious. J18, an online journal affiliated with HECAA, launched by Noémie Etienne, Meredith Martin, and Hannah Williams offers another example of a few people making a huge contribution.

My point is that scholarship—whether conducted by the university professor, the museum curator, or the independent scholar—is a communal activity. My plea as we think forward to the future of HECAA is how to further cultivate that conviviality. I want to say very clearly that HECAA’s health didn’t just happen; examples of numerous academic organizations, big and small, in decline reinforce the point. As conversations happen around delineating future goals and projects, I would here note just one priority that resonates for me (admittedly one among several): widening the membership base with an egalitarian eye toward inclusion. The future of higher education will depend not only on tenured-track positions but ever growing numbers of affiliated faculty and adjuncts. I deeply want HECAA to be an intellectual home for independent scholars, for instructors at community colleges, a welcome place not only for curators at large museums but also directors of small house museums and members of the heritage community, for scholars who will have limited travel budgets for conferences. The goal is perfectly aligned with the core values of the organization. Conversations, for example, about how or why everyday museum visitors may feel comfortable or uncomfortable, at home or alienated by eighteenth-century exhibitions go directly to questions of higher education and the museum landscape broadly conceived. I want the field to matter not only for students at a prestigious liberal arts college or an R1 university, and part of that project means building out a wider community of scholars and museum professionals. Addressing how the eighteenth century matters today requires us to attend to questions of audience, constituency, and sociability.

The HECAA at 25 Conference manifestly demonstrated the organization’s capacity to be a profoundly supportive, stimulating community. Thanks to all of you who have helped forge that community. Thanks to all of you who were there in Dallas for such an extraordinary conference.

Craig Hanson

Mantel on “Royal Bodies”

Posted in books, opinion pages by Editor on February 24, 2013

From the Editor

cov3504Hilary Mantel’s talk, “Undressing Anne Boleyn,” at the British Museum (4 February 2013), published as “Royal Bodies” in the London Review of Books (21 February 2013), has occasioned considerable discussion in the UK, thanks to the comments of the two-time Booker Prize recipient regarding the role of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, and her body in British society. With no intentions of fanning the flames of the controversy, I thought it might nonetheless be of interest to Enfilade readers, particularly since Marie Antoinette serves as one source for the argument (whatever one makes of Mantel’s engagement with history, I’m repeatedly gobsmacked by her writing and the views offered into the past). From the LRB article:

Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. . . .

coverMantel’s first novel, A Place of Greater Safety — finished in 1979 but not published until 1992 — addresses not Tudor England but Revolutionary France, imagining the lives of Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. Larissa MacFarquhar brilliantly profiled Mantel in the fall in “The Dead Are Real,” for The New Yorker (15 October 2012). And in terms of the current controversy, Jenny Hendrix, writing for The Los Angeles Times Books (19 February 2013), offers a sampling of the response in the British media. Here, I give the last words to Mantel:

It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. . .

Enfilade at Three — Buy a Book and Open a Door

Posted in anniversaries, books, opinion pages, site information by Editor on June 22, 2012

From the Editor

Enfilade turns three today, and to celebrate, I’m announcing a campaign to establish June 22 as Buy-an-Art-Book Day. As I’ve said repeatedly, you deserve credit for making this site so much more than I could have possibly envisioned when I stepped on-board several years ago as newsletter editor. With more than 220,000 hits on some 1300 posts, Enfilade attests to the global depth of interest in eighteenth-century art — both among scholars and a wider, engaged public. The site now receives around 10,000 hits each month with some 1500 from returning visits. In short, there are hundreds of you who read Enfilade on a regular basis, and the site’s success depends on you. Thank you!

With these numbers in mind, it seems to me that Enfilade readers could mobilize to make an impact — modest perhaps but still an impact. In transitioning from traditional print formats to the digital realm, academic publishing, particularly art historical publishing, faces tremendous challenges. With the ‘business’ of the academy more generally plagued by questions of sustainability, it’s easy to see how hard decisions about budgets have wreaked havoc on the sales of books (when major universities are cutting whole departments, declining library budgets may seem relatively benign, but in both cases, fewer books will be sold). For most of us, such gloomy observations are all too familiar, and you don’t turn to Enfilade for more bad news. Today is after all a birthday celebration!

So as a gesture of positive action, I’m asking all of you to buy a book today (and fellow bloggers to spread the word). It’s easy to think that it won’t matter, but it does. Most people are astounded to learn just how small the circulation numbers are for art history books published by university presses. However humbling it may be for those of us who spend years of our lives producing a book, it’s not uncommon for only 400 or 500 copies to be sold. Surpass 1000 and you’re a superstar. There’s a tendency to assume that university presses receive generous funding from their host universities. It’s almost never the case. If they’re not in the business to turn huge profits, they must still be economically viable. Several years ago, I heard Susan Bielstein, executive editor at the University of Chicago Press, give a talk on the nuts and bolts of publishing. How did she begin? By asking members of her audience (almost entirely composed of art historians) to go buy a book. She was entirely serious. So am I.

Many of you buy lots of art history books already. Bravo! Buying a book today won’t be any major change for you. As I think about my own buying habits, they tend to go something like this: I buy discounted display copies at conferences, I buy things I need for an upcoming talk, I buy remaindered copies of books I should have bought a year or two earlier, or I buy used copies I need for an article via Amazon. None of that’s what I have in mind in launching Buy-an-Art-Book Day. Those used books do nothing to help the authors or the university presses who produced them. For that matter, new purchases through Amazon often result in smaller royalties than buying from the publisher directly. Ever wonder who shoulders the expense of that reduced price? Yes, the publisher and the writer.

If 200 or 300 of you buy an art history book this week — ideally one treating the eighteenth century and, better yet, one written by a HECAA member — it would send a strong message that there is an eager audience for such books. Whether you spend $6 or $1000, buy a book.

I like the metaphor of an enfilade because of the way it suggests an open — almost limitless — vista, with each room leading to a deeper, more intimate experience. But such a vision is premised on those doors being opened. Reading a book — buying a book — is one way we turn the handle, one way we open doors to the eighteenth century.

-Craig Hanson

Farrow & Ball at the Met

Posted in exhibitions, opinion pages by Editor on February 9, 2012

I realize this exhibition — which I’ve not seen but have heard terrific things about — hardly falls in the eighteenth century — even a really long eighteenth century. But I’m completely intrigued by Farrow & Ball’s sponsorship and their use of the support in advertising. I received an email a few days ago, noting the precise paint colors with links to the company’s website (to be clear, I was already on their email list). In some ways this makes perfect sense to me, and the partnership is far less intrusive or annoying than other forms of support; personally, I’m quite glad to know the colors. And yet, the arrangement still somehow feels funny to me. Maybe this has been going on for years, and I’ve just never noticed (it would hardly be the first instance of that). -CH

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From Farrow & Ball:

Farrow & Ball paint colours are used around the world to adorn the walls of some of the most prestigious properties and art galleries. Visit them at:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini
December 21, 2011 to March 18, 2012

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts an exhibition celebrating the first great age of portraiture in Europe. Farrow & Ball paint colours Black Blue, Down Pipe, Studio Green, Mouse’s Back, Light Gray and Hague Blue provide a fitting backdrop to approximately 160 works, by artists including such masters as Donatello, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli and Bellini. The works of art on display range from exquisite painting and manuscript illumination to marble sculpture and bronze medals from the 15th Century.

Happy New Year!

Posted in opinion pages by Editor on January 1, 2012

A VIEW of the FIRE-WORKES and ILLUMINATIONS at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND’S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. Performed by the direction of Charles Fredrick Esq.

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This image was used for Simon Werrett’s article “Fireworks: The Power of Pyrotechnics,” which appeared in History Today, volume 60 (November 2010).

Souvenir fan of the Royal Fireworks, hand-coloured etching on paper, with ivory sticks, 1749 (London: British Museum)

Organized to mark the signing of the treaty at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, which ended the War of Austrian Succession, a fireworks display in Green Park on 27 April 1749 proved disastrous as a stray rocket set ablaze one of the pavilions and killed a number of spectators. Far more successful was Handel’s musical contribution.

The print shown above documents fireworks from the following month. Pictorially, it fixes in time these bursts of color that are otherwise so fleeting. It asks us to hover just a bit longer in these moments of temporal suspension — and with such vibrant joy. Perhaps an appropriate way to usher one year out and another in. And if the print piques your curiosity about the history of fireworks, you’ll just need to get a copy of Werrett’s book, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History. All the best for a magnificent 2012! -CH

Art Historical Ethics: From Professional Codes to Ai Weiwei

Posted in opinion pages, the 18th century in the news by Editor on May 23, 2011

Photo from the Hurford Humanities Center, which is collecting graphics related to Ai Weiwei's imprisonment

A recent Google search for / HECAA art / provided a link to a page on ‘Art Ethics’ hosted by the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The section on professional associations includes about a dozen organizations, most of which (including HECAA) don’t supply a code of ethics — as noted, rather curiously I think, at the site (the point seems less to direct users to codes of ethics than to imply that lots of organizations don’t think about these things).

The HECAA link is out of date in any case, but it did get me thinking about the place of ethics for an association like ours. Given that we’re an affiliate of the College Art Association, I think it’s safe to say that we’re covered by its work in this area. The most relevant document is presumably  “A Code of Ethics for Art Historians and Guidelines for the Professional Practice of Art History.” Probably more complicated than articulating an ethical code for Art History is doing so for museum practices. Here, too, CAA has certainly addressed the problem, though it seems that new dilemmas often call for new responses.

In considering one example of the challenges museum officials face, Mary Louise Schumacher offers this piece on the intersection of Chinese involvement in the eighteenth-century exhibition, The Emperor’s Private Paradise, which opens in Milwaukee in June, and China’s recent imprisonment of the contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei. -CH.

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Mary Louise Schumacher, “Should the Milwaukee Art Museum Protest Ai Weiwei’s Detention?,” Journal Sentinel, 20 May 2011.

. . . Because of this new level of cultural exchange, China’s Palace Museum has authorized, for the first time, a large-scale exhibition of its treasures to travel to the U.S. This art historically significant show of 18th-century art and decorative objects, The Emperor’s Private Paradise will make its final stop at the Milwaukee Art Museum this summer.

Meanwhile, China has also imprisoned its most famous living artist Ai Weiwei. Ai is one of dozens of artists, lawyers, activists and bloggers arrested or gone missing in recent months in one of the worst spikes in repression in more than a decade and a presumed attempt to prevent the kinds of uprisings that have taken place across the Middle East and Nortth Africa, according to Human Rights Watch. . . .

These contradictory narratives are about to intersect in a unique way here in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Art Museum is the only museum in the world about to open a major exhibition of Chinese art organized in direct cooperation with China.

On the one hand, it is a coup for MAM to snag this critically acclaimed show, fresh from a successful run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which organized the show in cooperation with China’s Palace Museum. . . .

MAM is making this show, which has been in the works for many years, the centerpiece of its Summer of China, an entire slate of exhibits and events. Early on, the museum sought to include an outdoor installation by Ai Weiwei, but those plans fell through. The museum couldn’t identify an artwork that fit its plans and budgets, museum officials said.

The exhibit places MAM in an uneasy spot and raises ethical questions.

Should the museum join many of the world’s other cultural institutions in signing petitions and speaking publicly? Would China pull the show? And if they did, would MAM lose the exhibition fee, presumably in the millions?

If MAM is mum, however, will it run the risk of the appearance of appeasement? Does the museum have an obligation to educate its audience about the oppression of Ai Weiwei during its “Summer of China?”

Does this show provide an opportunity for dialogue or even diplomacy? And – a question for all art museums – will overt forms of protest be more effective than behind-the-scenes efforts in affecting Ai’s release . . .

The full article is available here»

Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding . . .

Posted in opinion pages, site information by Editor on March 17, 2011

Note from the Editor

Yesterday, Enfilade topped the 100,000 mark! In just over 20 months, there have been 100,062 views for the site (and counting). I realize that by most digital standards (certainly any commercial standards), this is pretty insignificant, but given Enfilade’s focus on serious engagements with eighteenth-century art, architecture, and visual culture, I think it’s immensely exciting. Thanks so much to all of you for reading and for submitting. Our monthly numbers continue to grow, steadily if slowly (February was our best month to date, with over 6,900 views). As a result of seeing how much energy there is for the period — in terms of exhibitions, new publications, and conferences — I’m quite optimistic about the future of eighteenth-century studies.

It’s especially appropriate and gratifying that we would pass this milestone at the start of this year’s ASECS conference in Vancouver. I arrived with my wife and eight-month old daughter earlier today. What a wonderful city! I look forward to catching up with many of you over the next few days. And to everyone else, thanks again for all you’ve done to support HECAA and Enfilade.

Craig Hanson, editor

Reviewing for Enfilade

Posted in books, opinion pages, reviews, site information by Editor on January 22, 2011

From the Editor

I recently received three books with requests that I consider publishing reviews of them here at Enfilade. Given that expanding the site’s original content is one goal, I’m certainly open to the idea. Consequently, I’m writing to solicit reviewers. In many ways, Enfilade remains a work-in-progress, and I would imagine this new direction (even if it succeeds) will call for adjustments along the way. I would like to propose the following ideas as a starting point. I welcome any feedback or advice readers might have.

A. Reviewers must be HECAA members in good standing.

B. Given that Enfilade is intended to serve as a newsletter for those interested in eighteenth-century art and architecture — as opposed to serving as an academic journal in its own right — it seems that the goal of a review at Enfilade is different than a review published in an academic journal. Description of contents and assessment of potential audiences are probably more important, for instance, than teasing out the nuances of a particular argument. An informed characterization premised on the scholarly expertise of the reviewer should still be an important goal, but the model for emulation might be more akin to a brief notice in The New York Review of Books or the TLS than The Art Bulletin or Eighteenth-Century Studies.

C. The blog format lends itself to relatively brief postings: 400-800 words might be an appropriate length. Prompt turn-around seems especially important for a newsletter format, and again the brevity should help in this regard.

D. One big problem: HECAA has no budget to fund the logistics of reviewing books (Enfilade costs absolutely nothing to produce). If publishers send me books, I have no money to send out copies to reviewers. In the case of the three books at hand, I’m happy to haul them to New York with me for CAA and distribute copies there (likewise with ASECS in Vancouver). Otherwise, I think the cost of shipping would have to be paid by the reviewer. It’s less than ideal, but given the cost of art books (easily ranging from $50 to 125), paying several dollars for shipping is perhaps not unreasonable.

The three books I presently have address two current exhibitions in the United States and the topic of eighteenth-century furniture. If you would like to be added to the list of potential reviewers, please send me an email outlining your particular areas of expertise (a brief CV would be helpful, too). Graduate students are encouraged to contribute, though any member of HECAA should feel free to volunteer. Again, I welcome your suggestions. -C.H.

Welcoming in 2011

Posted in opinion pages, site information by Editor on December 24, 2010

Thanks so much to all of you for your ongoing support of Enfilade. The site has received over 81,000 hits since its founding in the summer of 2009. It now receives over 900 visits each month from return readers. I’m especially grateful for your submissions. It makes my job easier and the site better.

Here at the end of the year, let me also put in a plug for your financial support for the Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art & Architecture. Now is a good time to send in your HECAA membership dues for 2011 (just $20/$5 for graduate students). Please also consider making an additional donation to help fund the Dora Wiebenson Prize or the Mary Vidal Memorial Fund. Checks should be sent directly to Denise Baxter. Anyone interested in the eighteenth century is welcome as a HECAA member. So if you’re reading, consider joining.

I’m taking a few days off, but postings will resume the first week of January. All the best for what little remains of 2010 and warm wishes for the new year! -CH

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