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Issue 10

Luke Syson on the Power of Objects

The Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, shares stories of migration, trade and transformation from this year’s Stand Out section, which brings together art and design from across the ages

BY Luke Syson in Frieze London & Frieze Masters , Frieze Masters | 05 OCT 22


The art we make, across time and the world, has important things in common: respect for an individual’s craft and ingenuity; a joy in exuberant, imaginative, disciplined pattern; the values we bestow upon rare and precious materials; our love, when we can afford it, of luxury; and the meanings we give to natural phenomena. We should notice cultural differences. But these common impulses are the veins and arteries for a flow of images and ideas that became ever more global. We travel. So does our art. It changes as a result.

Distinctions between our various motives for travel – trade, tourism, diplomacy, religion, science and sheer excitement – are hard to make. These broadly benign objectives are often inextricably bound with military or colonialist expansion, conquest and violence. This combination makes the art that arises from our interactions fascinating but complex, its interpretation fraught. But these journeys and encounters gave rise to increased knowledge that could be shared, and to the creation of beautiful things. Artists, makers and merchants are curious, competitive, adventurous. Imitation quickly becomes invention. This is a story of trade routes and great cosmopolitan cities – Alexandria, Rome, Baghdad, Chang’an, Constantinople, Beijing, London and New York – confident enough to experiment, annex and assimilate, to proclaim their territorial power, and, crucially, to enrich their cultures through imports and immigration. 

Axel Vervoordt

Caravan Culture

South Arabian Figure of a Woman, Qataban Kingdom, 2nd century BCE–1st century CE, veined calcite alabaster, 46 cm high. Courtesy: Axel Vervoordt

Arabia Felix. Happy Arabia.

A territory could become rich through passing trade. Merchants paid for the right to bearing their luxury goods safely from one side of the world to another. The ancient trade route across South Arabia hugged the coasts of what are now Oman and Yemen and then turned north through Saudi to the Mediterranean: 1550 miles, taking between 65 and 88 days. Levies imposed on the great camel caravans transporting gold and silver, pearls, ivory, exotic woods, cinnamon, silks and lapis lazuli increased the wealth of the Yemeni cities of Saba’ and Qatabān. And this region produced its own, highly lucrative luxury product – the marvellously scented frankincense, that precious plant sap which the Egyptians called the ‘sweat of the gods’, which could cost more than gold.

This trade route was established by 750 BC and the wealth derived from it became legendary; the mythical Queen of Sheba, bearing her spices, gold and jewels to wise Solomon, is probably to be associated with Saba'. In Qatabān, tombs and shrines were excavated only from the 1950s. They contained veined alabaster votive figures, sturdy, frontal, abstracted – the petitioning children of the moon god ‘Amm. These tomb statuettes provide us with a human presence that hints at a complex, sophisticated society now largely lost to us, shrouded by the passing of time and the inaccessibility of the region. (Stand B1 at Frieze Masters)

Prahlad Bubbar

Connective Threads

'In and Out Palmette' Isfahan carpet (detail), late 16th century–early 17th century, wool and cotton, 70 × 42 cm. Courtesy: Prahlad Bubbar

The rich and powerful have always loved magnificent textiles – the rustle and gleam of silk, the glitter of gold and silver threads woven or embroidered into a fabric, the elegant movement of figured velvet coats and gowns or breeze-animated hangings. And we share a fascination with pattern.

Luxury textiles were portable, moving with the body or from palace to palace. And they were traded in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the east of Asia, via the Indian subcontinent and the Eastern Mediterranean, to Western Europe and across the Atlantic. The warp and weft of this trade were, on the one hand, the merchants, shippers and backers whose company networks crossed national boundaries, who shared risk and reward and created long-distance loyalties, and, on the other, the states that showed off their wealth with textile art.

Merchants had great influence at the Deccan courts of Southern India, ensuring control of the ports that were the entry and exit point for textiles brought overland to their courts. Accounts of the Mughal court of Jahangir by the envious British were wide-eyed at the luxury textiles they saw. And Europeans – the Portuguese and the Genoese in the vanguard – controlled and protected their sea-routes, from Spain to Ukraine, and across the Indian Ocean, by the acquisition of port cities, an expansionism that would give rise to empires. The Genoese were great makers of textiles. Different terrains had different raw materials, but the ornamental language of textiles was astonishingly international. Ottomans and Italians swapped designs. The British imitated Indian prototypes. This was a language of pattern, rhythm, repetition and intricacy, of twists and turns and ordered tangles. It prepared us for twentieth-century pictorial abstraction. (Stand G2)

Oscar Humphries

Earth Works

Head of Haniwa Figure, Tumulus period, 5th–6th century, earthenware, wood base; 15.6 × 10.8 × 12.7 cm. Courtesy: Oscar Humphries and The Noguchi Museum Archives

The great Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi said ‘to know nature again as an adult, to exhaust one’s hands in the earth … one has to be a potter or a sculptor’. He was right. There is a wonderfully basic quality to clay and the things we make from it. Many of the world’s origin myths proposed the gods shaping humans, and artists emulate them every time they make a simple clay figure. Clay vessels have for millennia performed essential functional tasks – storing and transporting water and wine, used for cooking and eating food. Even these simple objects could be made to satisfy the eye with shape and proportion, with simple reiterated markings. Almost everywhere on Earth there are indigenous ceramic traditions, and those are the ceramics that root us.

Noguchi was the child of a shrinking globe. Born in 1904 to a Japanese poet father and an American writer mother, his life and art spanned his two countries of origin, and took him to France, Mexico, China and Italy, from designing for industrialised production to highly personal craft. His two spells in Japan were crucial: first in 1931, returning in 1950 to Seto, and in 1952 settling in the village of Kamakura to live in the compound of the ceramicist Kitaōji Rosanjin, who gave Noguchi access to materials and kiln. By creating pots and clay figures he centred himself, found a simplified mode of viewing and making that fed his sculpture and design. He looked to Haniwa ceramics, terracotta figures, built up from coiled clay, buried with the dead during the Kofun period (3rd-6th centuries AD). So, his work was timeless – both ancient and modern. (Stand C15)

Sam Fogg

Taking on New Meaning

Two Monumental Lions with Carving on Reverse from a 2nd Century Roman Triumphal Arch, Central Italy, c.1200–50, each 60 × 90 × 30 cm. Courtesy: Sam Fogg

So omnipresent are lions in the art of Medieval Europe, that we sometimes forget that the Christian communities of Medieval Italy, England or Scandinavia could never have seen the real living animal. Across the continent, proud, fierce lions guarded church doorways, bearing sturdy columns, structurally built into the fabric of the church, and acting physically and metaphorically as the entrance to, and foundation of, faith. The sculptors of these portals learnt how to describe lions by looking at metalwork and textiles imported from the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia. These almost mythical beasts arrived in Europe as empty forms that could be filled with new religious significance.

This symbolism was not fixed or stable. But those entering a church, attuned by repeated readings of the Bible, would have been reminded of passages in the Old Testament, where the lion’s ferocity was tempered by a myth of its mercy to those who prostrated themselves before it. So, the lion could stand for God himself – punitive, merciful. And, as king of beasts, he could also be a bold emblem of Christ, King of Kings. The lion had become Christianised.

This kind of annexation was not uncommon. Syrian and Mamluk brasswork, rich with entangled ornament, could be turned into vessels for Christian ritual or feasts. And lustre on pottery, that gave a precious glow to a modest medium, could literally illuminate the name of Christ, his IHS monogram, to make a dish that was appropriately both radiant and humble. These new Christian uses of Islamic technologies could be read as a kind of conversion. (Stand C1)

Raccanello Leprince

Italy at the Crossroads

Nicola Da Urbino, An exceptional dish painted with Europa and the bull from the celebrated ‘Calini Service’, tin-glazed earthenware, c. 480–1538. Courtesy: Jérémie Beylard and Raccanello LePrince

Maiolica, painted tin-glazed earthenware, with its bright colours, rowdy narratives and verdant landscapes, quintessentially an art form of Renaissance Italy, was a in reality melting-pot medium, a cross-roads product that then spread across Europe. The great pottery painter Maestro Nicola of Urbino owed his medium to an array of ideas, images and techniques that came originally from far away, dependent on imports, and evolving over centuries.

The addition of tin to a glaze that made pottery white so it could be painted on was an idea that came to Italy from Islamic countries. In Persia and elsewhere in the Medieval Middle East, pottery, a modest medium compared to gold or silver, was favoured at the dining table for religious reasons, but potters turned scientists to help metals and minerals elevate the clay, to make it marvellous. Tin was brought to Italy from Cornwall in England. The colours – like antimony and cobalt, already used for glass-making – were also imported via Venice. They fused to the tin-glaze when a piece was fired, rendering its brilliance permanent. Pottery painters like Nicola told their stories by copying figures from engravings and woodcut illustrations, print techniques that had been pioneered in Germany.

Renaissance Italians were proud of their pottery’s varied colour. Great pottery painters emerged. Master Nicola was the most accomplished of all, prized by courtly connoisseurs like Isabella d’Este. His art – with its lovely, lively detail, and gloriously vivid skies – was highly individual, and yet the Europa he painted on this very special plate was much more than just European. (Stand D7)

Amir Mohtashemi

Blended Beauty: the Natural World

Company School Painting of Two Ducks, India, 19th century, watercolour on paper, 29 × 18 cm. Courtesy: Amir Mohtashemi

Our curiosity is always great about the natural wonders of faraway. And our interest in the art of elsewhere can match it. Wonderful new melded styles can emerge as a result.

In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Europeans ruthlessly pursued power and profit elsewhere in the world, they also sought to replace myth with accurate knowledge, looking for ways of systematically classifying flora and fauna. They invented coloured bird and botanical drawings, executed in watercolours on neutral backgrounds, showing nature as it really is, with details of anatomy, plumage, flowers and seeds.

And when the British arrived in India, China and the Malay Peninsula, trading in tea, acquiring territory, imposing their will, East India Company soldiers, settlers, merchants, judges, colonial administrators and their wives found painters whose styles and techniques made them brilliantly equipped to execute nature drawings of great accuracy and beauty: painters from Canton, Macao, from Calcutta and Lucknow. The Mughal court, from the time of Emperor Jahangir, had prized painted works on paper with elegant naturalistic detail and vivid colour. A Chinese treatise, the Mustard Seed Garden Manual, tells us of a tradition of care, precision and compositional brilliance. Artists from both regions travelled to Malacca, Java and Singapore to serve figures like Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Whole aviaries of illustrated birds, great botanic gardens of painted fruit and flowers, were sent back to Britain. Finding their way to museums, these marvellous artistic hybrids still support scientific enquiry to this day. (Stand D5)

Galerie Chenel

International Merger

Ptolemaic Queen, Egyptian, Ptolemaic period, 2nd–1st century BCE, basalt, 23 × 17 × 16 cm. Courtesy: ©Galerie Chenel

The Ptolomies, who ruled ancient Egypt from 331 BC for three centuries, would now be considered Greek, certainly at the outset. The descendants of the first Macedonian governor of Egypt after its conquest by Alexander the Great were the region’s last dynasty. They ruled the richest and most powerful of Hellenistic kingdoms, reaching their peak under Ptolemy III (246-222 BC). Alexandria was the largest city in the Greek world, a multicultural metropolis of half a million inhabitants, ‘the trading post of the world’ according to Strabo. Conquerors learned from the conquered, adapting their own ideas of art to create new styles that incorporated local traditions while introducing new ingredients that signalled regime change.

The Macedonians brought with them a language for art that could be associated with Alexander’s empire – that we call Hellenistic or ‘Greek-looking’. In sculpture, that meant greater naturalism, bodies that looked fleshy or muscular, and an interest in expressiveness and emotion, in seeing the figure in the round. This was the opposite, in many ways, of the pharaonic sculptural tradition – formal, hieratic, powerfully still. The Ptolemaic dynasty found a way to bridge those seemingly contradictory impulses. The two worlds coexisted – the indigenous Egyptian, pharaonic tradition and the new Greco-Macedonian immigrant rulers. Their god-rulers were still divine, otherworldly, but now subtly more human. And the challenge of the medium came to the fore. Volcanic black basalt, hard and dense, was mined in the Nile delta and traditionally used for official art of the Egyptian court. To make it appear fleshly took extraordinary skill. A Ptolemaic queen like this one could still be remote but her cheeks are soft and her Libyan curls, associated with imagery of goddess Isis, have a gentle movement. Here is another kind of conquest – of stone itself. (Stand B7)

Peter Finer

The Global Art of War

Mathias Solano, An Historic Pair of Bronze Cannon, 1747, bronze, 186 × 48 × 48 cm (on their mount). Courtesy: Peter Finer

The artefacts of battle and military ceremonial contain a great global history of war and peace, of violence and alliance, conquest and resistance. It’s a history where the efficacy of weaponry and armour, and the ingenuity needed for its making, were proclaimed by the craft that went into both form and decoration, by ornamental details that proclaimed the pride of both maker and user.

In Japan, newly unified under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, armourers created a new helmet form by copying the shapes of the headgear sported by Portuguese traders and missionaries and adorning it with Japanese dragons. It may have been worn into battle with the Koreans during the biggest invasion by sea ever attempted. And such helmets were made even after the Japanese banished the Portuguese to pursue their policy of seclusion.

In 1747, a Spanish bronze founder signed two magnificently ornamented cannon sent to protect and suborn its colony San Domingo (present day Dominican Republic) on the island of Hispaniola. Spain, France and Britain all sought the vast profits of the sugar trade, competing to colonise the Caribbean and systemising the slave labour of Africans. Captured from enslaved Africans rebelling against their masters on the French-dominated part of the island (now Haiti), the cannon were taken to England by Lieutenant General John Simcoe, who in 1798 was tasked –reluctantly perhaps since he had promoted Abolition in Canada – with suppressing the slave revolution, a mission he resigned.

An Indian Mughal jade sword hilt fitted a century later with an Ottoman blade. A pair of Spanish percussion pistols exhibited at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. Arms and armour were understood across Asia, Europe and the Americas as an artistic expression of military power, and of the technical skills a state had at its disposal. The forms might be different, but the message remained the same. (Stand F9)

Gisèle Croës - Arts d’Extrême Orient s.a.

A World City: Chang’an

Earthenware Seated Lady, late Tang Dynasty (618–907)–early Song Dynasty (960–1279), orange earthenware, white, black, red and rose natural pigments, 25.5 cm high. Courtesy: Photo Studio R. Asselberghs – Frédéric Dehaen and Gisèle Croës Arts D'Extrême-Orient

A great city is most open to outsiders when it feels most powerful. Cultural retrenchment and isolationism occur when a culture feels under threat. From 618 to 907 AD, Chang’an (now Xi’an) was the largest city in the world. It owed its size and power in the region to the dominance of its ruling Tang Dynasty, and its wealth to its army-control of the Silk Road, the overland oasis trade route that crossed Asia. Merchants came to Chang’an from Samarkand, Bokhara, Persia, India and Syria.

Born and ending in bloody family strife, the Tang Dynasty reached its apogee during the rule of Emperor Xuanzong, a period of almost incredible prosperity. At its height, the Tang empire controlled fifty to eighty million people, with large armies formed to impose its authority on Central Asian provinces and peoples, all paying rich tribute. Its vast, teeming capital was remarkably receptive to foreign influence. The immigrant population – including Persians, Koreans, Indians, Central Asians – reached around 25,000, practicing a multitude of religions, and speaking different languages, including for art. At court, craft and high culture combined with sport, lavish feasting and conspicuous consumption. Gold and silver bowls and cups for wine – itself an exotic import from Central Asia – became fashionable, and Hellenistic, Iranian and Central Asian motifs found their way into their forms and techniques. Images of foreigners abounded. So did birds and animals – some from very far away. And they are remarkable for the exquisite use of gilding to emphasise the architecture, the raised elements, scrolling flowers, leaves and tendrils, of the objects.

The end of Tang dynasty rule was marked by massacres of the very foreigners who had contributed so much to this culture, and perhaps by then their contribution was longer distinguishable. Certainly, the succeeding Liao Dynasty (916-1125) from the northeast of China, controlling part of the territory ruled by the Tang, assimilated Tang techniques into their metalwork, using it to assert a cultural and political continuity. (Stand C6)

Lullo Pampoulides

A World City: London

Giovanni Battista Amendola, A moment’s rest (Portrait of the painter, Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema), 1884, silver, 53.2 cm high. Courtesy: Lullo • Pampoulides

The brilliant Neapolitan, Paris-trained sculptor, Giovanni Battista Amendola (1848-1887), was one of a long line of talented painters and sculptors, metalworkers, composers and performers from all over Europe, to come to Britain’s capital. The reasons for London’s open arms are two-fold: confidence and the lack of it. The city was assured enough of its cosmopolitan identity to embrace foreign artists and they came to receive praise and commissions. At the same time, their British audience were persuaded that Europeans were simply better at certain art forms than the English. This inferiority complex goes back to the 1500s and it cast a persistent shadow.

Of course, British-born artists could be hugely successful, especially from the mid eighteenth century on. But even at the height of London’s power as the dirty, wicked, glittering and sometimes high-minded capital of a vast Victorian empire, that old current of uncertainty could benefit foreign artists. Amendola was the guest and protégé of the Dutch-born painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and his wife, Laura Theresa, was the pensive, alluring model for A Moment’s Rest. Like Alma-Tadema, he portrayed the German-born baritone, pianist, conductor and composer, Sir Isidor George Henschel, showing him handsome, focused. Between 1879 and 1886, Amendola exhibited a series of works in marble, terracotta, silver and bronze at the Royal Academy, classically inspired as befits his Italian heritage but with a flair and an emotional immediacy that came from Paris. London wanted the best and it looked to Amendola and his fellow Europeans for its artistic and cultural enrichment. (Stand B3)

Oscar Graf

Asia to Europe: Designing the Modern

Paul Grandhomme & Gustave Moreau, Poête mort porté par un centaure, c.1897. Courtesy of Oscar Graf

In 1853 the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed with gunboats into Edo Bay, ending Japan two-century policy of ‘sakoku’ – its long seclusion. A first trade deal was signed the next year, and goods flowed into Europe and America: prints, ceramics, weapons, miniature ivory carvings. Europeans, wedded to eclecticism, now had a new source of inspiration, but unlike other forms of nineteeth-century ‘Orientalism’, combining the grandeur of empire with a louche, lavish sensuousness, Japanese art was prized for its purity, for the flatness and asymmetry of its images, its brilliant colour, clean lines and the high degree of stylisation.

The term Japonisme was coined in 1872, and jeweller Lucien Falize wrote of Japanese craftsmen: ‘They have taught us the poetry of this world.’ He had felt the effect of Shintoism’s reverence for the natural world, seduced by the pleasure in fleeting moments, the flicker of fish in water, a flutter of blossom. In 1876, British designer Christopher Dresser made it to Japan after promoting the virtus of its art for more than a decade. His new book helped consumers understand the aesthetic concept ‘art for art’s sake’, and here too lie the roots of modernism, with its stress on function and its rejection of fussy, exuberant ornament. Looking to Japanese art, increasingly industrialised methods of manufacture could celebrate their modernity – making objects that had an elegance and honesty that proclaimed new modern values. Freedom from clutter and conspicuous consumption spoke for larger freedoms and an exciting internationalism of outlook. (Stand C11)


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Main image: A Royal Canopy with Cloud Bands and Arabesques, c. 1580, Golconda, Deccan, India, , gold and silver wire on velvet, 170 × 130 cm. Courtesy Prahlad Bubbar

Luke Syson is Director and Marlay Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK. He was previously the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA; Curator of Italian Painting and Head of Research at the National Gallery, London, UK; Curator of Medals at the British Museum, London; and Senior Curator for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.