“The East has a lot to teach us about attitudes to art,” curator Janet Boston explained as she looked around Eastern Exchanges, the exhibition that she has spent the last 10 years developing and researching.
Like much of the artwork around her, Boston’s description was something of an understatement. Across two large gallery rooms, the exhibition is a whistle-stop tour of the breadth and depth of East Asian art, from the monumental and traditional to the modern and the minimal.
There are 17 lenders to the show, and a lot of objects drawn from collections at Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Museum and Bolton Museum. Alongside the historic pieces, there are works from individual and young artists, to reflect the most recent work that East Asia had to offer.
You’d have to be a particularly stubborn artist not to find some inspiration within the almost overwhelming array of objects, with armour, textiles, pottery, wooden and ivory carvings and furniture showing the best of 1500 years of Chinese, Japanese and Korean craftsmanship.
It is this extensive history that most attracted Boston to the subject of East Asian art. “The Western canon of art is about 500 years old, while the East has an ancient tradition stretching back 1000s of years. We have a lot to learn from that.”
Despite the exhausting range of the objects, from seemingly disparate parts of East Asian history, there is an undeniable shared aesthetic amongst all of the forms. Everything is so beautiful, detailed, neat, and efficient. Nothing is surplus to requirement.
“Eastern design is special,” enthused Boston. “There’s a sensitivity towards balance, form and line drawn from a heritage of calligraphy. Despite being very modern, East Asia has tradition, and respect for that tradition.”
This coherency is one of the most powerful aspects of the Eastern Exchanges exhibition, and is an important lesson to be learnt. The past 200 years of Western art in particular has been largely defined by each new school of artists creating a rupture with tradition, developing a new style which starts rebellious and then is inevitably absorbed into the establishment, creating yet another tradition to be broken away from.
Based on Eastern Exchanges, each subsequent generation of Chinese, Korean and Japanese artists has felt the weight of history behind them, but rather than being restricted by this have acknowledged the font of inspiration at their disposal. The copious exquisite objects currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery are testament to the success of that process.
Boston’s enthusiasm for her finished product was clear. “I’m really proud of this. When I first had the thought 10 years ago I would never have dreamed that it would actually happen.
“For Western audiences, East Asian craft is less familiar, takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us see things in a different way.”
Hear, hear Janet!