“Histórias de Um Império” at the Fundação Oriente, Lisbon

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The names given to early museums provide a clue to their original function: Peter the Great had his Wunderkammer, the Shah of Iran had his Ajayeb-khane, the Pasha of Egypt his Muthaf. All these words mean a home for marvels. The original museums did not contain paintings or sculpture. These were admired in palaces, homes or churches. The wonderful and rare, which had no place in the decoration of familiar spaces, required special locations, designated accordingly.

Porto-based entrepreneur Alvaro Sequeira Pinto started collecting forty years ago, inspired by his maternal grandparents’ stories about Asia. His is an atypical collection in its focus: he seeks to recreate the sense of discovery that Europeans first experienced in their contacts with Asia. It was not the art of Asia that interested the 16th century Portuguese, but the exotic raw materials and finished products available in the Eastern markets: bezoar stones, narwhal ivories, coral, rock crystals and meteorites and much more.

 

oriente2These objects appear as wonderful to us as they did to the scientist Garcia de Orta who first described them in 1563. The poster for the new exhibition at the Fundação Oriente in Lisbon features a bezoar stone set in silver with a corral finial. These stones, extracted from animal digestive tracks, were thought to act as antidotes against poisons, as well as having aphrodisiac properties. Europeans eagerly acquired this potent medicine from the east, especially from Malaysia. Likewise, unicorn horns, later identified to be narwhal tusks, sold for twenty times their weight in gold. Two specimens are exhibited in the show.

The focus of the exhibition at the Fundação Oriente is somewhat more traditional. Rather than focusing on the scientific or exotic elements of the collection, it selects 140 objects out of over one thousand to tell the story of Portugal’s interaction with Asia and the resulting artistic synthesis. The simple, velvet covered medieval coffret, for example, is transformed by Indian and Japanese artists into an iridescent marvel of mother of pearl. One of the show’s outstanding pieces is such a coffret in lac and mother of pearl where petals of peonies, paulownias and camelia intertwine in a frozen rhythm.

 

oriente3Indian, Chinese and Japanese craftsmen began to fill Portuguese orders for western objects enhanced with local techniques. Of the ubiquitous contadores, secretary desks with multiple drawers, the show features beautiful examples in teak, ebony, inlaid with ivory and with gilded knobs and locks. Filling western demand turned into a big business for Qing dynasty China, which produced porcelain table settings on an industrial scale with the feudal heraldry of Portuguese noble families. Finally, Catholic liturgical objects, crafted in ivory and ebony with an inimitable Indian gracefulness, feature prominently. The ivory infant Jesus decorated with gold and enamel poses with the transcendence of the Buddha.

The arrival of the Portuguese not only resulted in exported arts. Indians, Chinese and Japanese noted, often with anxiety, the exotic appearance of the voyagers in their oversized black ships. A terracotta tile from Bengal shows Portuguese soldiers marching in procession, either as a warning or perhaps as an advertisement for their mercenary services. An Edo period painting shows an Iberian couple and explicitly warns that these people are a bad influence on the Japanese.

Visitors to the exhibit may find there are too many similar objects making the same point. The organization and pedagogy of the show are very clear. We learn the story of why the Portuguese sailed to the east, and the respective impacts on both western and Asian luxury production and consumption. I would have liked to see a bit more of the variety of the collection, but this opportunity will arise shortly, as Porto’s Matosinhos Museum will soon be renovated as a permanent home for this remarkable collection. It could be that Dr Sequeira Pinto was saving the best for last.

 

The exhibition runs at the Fundação Oriente through 2 October 2021.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.