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Art Review

The pedigree of the beautiful

Behind Asian show’s objects are matters of history, taste

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 5, 2010

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The history of taste and connoisseurship - why people came to value stuff, and when - can be as fascinating to contemplate as the stuff itself. The McMullen Museum of Art’s “Asian Journeys: Collecting Art in Post-War America’’ convincingly tells a story about how certain objects from Asia, mostly sculptures and ceramics, came to be valued in America.

It’s a story of wealth, power, public service, and geopolitical maneuvering. Almost as an aside, it presents for our delectation some of the most beautiful Asian sculptures and ceramics to be found anywhere in the country.

But there’s the rub. Who says these objects are so beautiful? Am I capable of making that judgment myself?

I like to think so, and not just because I’m an art critic. We are all - aren’t we? - sovereign judges of beauty. We know it when we see it.

And yet like Paris, whose presentation of the golden apple for the fairest goddess to Aphrodite was subject to divine manipulation (Aphrodite promised him the beautiful Helen), we are also subject to outside influence when making aesthetic judgments. We inherit criteria and internalize biases of which we are often only dimly aware.

So it is with the reception of Asian art in this country, and in the West generally. There’s a whole history of tastemakers whose engagement with Asian art in the 19th and 20th centuries led to the formation of America’s great collections of Asian objects. Many of these tastemakers were based in Boston, working for the Museum of Fine Arts, advising Isabella Stewart Gardner, teaching at Harvard University. Their research, their writings, and the collections they established continue to influence profoundly the way Americans see Asian art today.

By taking a closer look at one of the most celebrated collections of Asian art in America - the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, which forms the backbone of the collection of the Asia Society in New York - the McMullen exhibition reminds us of the historical flukes and contingencies that lie behind the formation of taste.

Such reminders are salutary. And yet the objects themselves remain, disconcertingly, as seductive as ever, reminding us that beauty has something independent, something imperiously aloof about it. Just as Aphrodite probably didn’t need to bribe Paris to get him to acknowledge her beauty, the objects in the Rockefeller Collection would look pretty dazzling, I’m betting, even without the imprimatur of the Rockefellers and their advisers.

Rockefeller grew up surrounded by beautiful objects. His parents’ house was hung with works by Piero della Francesca and Duccio, and displayed American folk art, Iranian glazed pottery, Islamic textiles, and Chinese porcelains. But the decision by John and Blanchette Rockefeller to begin collecting Asian art in earnest was heavily influenced by his diplomatic involvement with Asia in the years after World War II.

Japan had been comprehensively defeated, two of its cities flattened by atomic bombs. Much of Asia was impoverished and, in the judgment of US strategists, vulnerable to communist takeover. Rockefeller worked for the peace mission to Japan led by John Foster Dulles in 1951, and two years later established the Council on Economic and Cultural Affairs, an organization that sought to stimulate economic growth across Asia.

On his regular travels in Asia he became convinced that art could be a tool of diplomacy. Very simply, he believed that if you respected a people’s arts and culture, you would respect its people. And so it was with this ideal of fostering respect between the peoples of America and Asia - not to mention the aim of fending off communism - that the Rockefellers embarked on building a collection, exhibiting Asian art in public museums, and establishing the Asia Society in 1956.

In the first decade or so after the war, Rockefeller got to know at least one prominent Asian collector, Takakichi Aso, who was the son-in-law of Japan’s first postwar prime minister. Under Aso’s influence, the Rockefellers began collecting Chinese ceramics.

But by 1963, Rockefeller had decided he needed a professional adviser. The man who accepted the role was Sherman Lee. Lee had served in the US Navy during the war, and between 1946 and 1948 he worked as a civilian cataloging and preserving Japanese artworks. He arrived at the Cleveland Art Museum in 1952 (after stints at the Seattle Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Art), became its director in 1958, and led it for a quarter of a century.

The year after he took on the job of advising Rockefeller (he skirted potential conflicts by giving the museum the option to buy whatever he saw first, while anything Rockefeller discovered was automatically at his option), he published his “History of Far Eastern Art,’’ a book that had an enormous influence on studies of Asian art.

Lee’s collecting philosophy was simple: He believed in distinguishing “the important from the unimportant.’’ For the Rockefeller collection, his job was to insist on “the highest possible quality in the objects acquired.’’

So that’s the kind of collection it is. The key word, the unifying principle, is “quality.’’ Descriptions of the objects on show at the McMullen, both in the wall labels and in earlier catalogs of the Asia Society’s collection, are liberally sprinkled with words like “fine,’’ “graceful,’’ “rare,’’ and “important.’’

The fashion these days is to treat such claims with suspicion. Perhaps for good reason: The more we know about the background of these tastemakers (Rockefeller’s wealth and geopolitical convictions, his wife’s taste for modern art, Lee’s aesthetic conservatism, and so on), the more we come to suspect that words like “graceful,’’ “important,’’ and “fine’’ might be loaded with biases that have little to do with the culture that produced these works.

And yet Lee was a true expert. He learned all he could from his time in Asia. He got to know Asian collectors and art historians, he set up protocols to regulate the export of Japan’s cultural property, and he established inventories of art collections throughout the country.

Similarly, the Rockefellers’ aims seem, from today’s standpoint, benign. The Asia Society, one of New York’s finest and most flexible cultural institutions, is itself testimony to the upshot of his philosophy.

And so we return to the objects themselves. They are from all over, with particular emphasis on Chinese porcelains and sculpture from India, the Himalayas, and mainland Southeast Asia. Try to forget words like “fine’’ and “important’’ for a moment when you look at the two bronze standing Buddhas from sixth-century India.

Both figures have one leg bent, suggesting imminent movement, transparent, clinging robes, and right hands raised in a gesture of reassurance. You need but a sliver of spiritual and aesthetic sense to find these sculptures moving: serene, compassionate, sleek, ascetic, charged with a power at once elusive and mysteriously compacted.

And then there’s the 11th-century crowned Buddha Shakyamuni, who sits cross-legged, with one arm extended to touch the ground, symbolizing his defeat of the demon Mara. He is surrounded by four smaller Buddha images, two standing, two seated. The entire ensemble, fringed by ornamental carving, radiates extraordinary composure.

Compare it with the copper Bodhisattva from 13th-century Nepal, and you see the extraordinary vitality with which even seated, cross-legged figures could be endowed by that culture’s great sculptors. One slightly raised leg, a gentle twist of the torso, and a subtle tilt of the smiling head are all that is required to make this figure, adorned with jewelry, seem almost to dance.

There are many more objects of wondrous simplicity and refinement on show, from the eighth-century Thai “Bodhisattva Maitreya’’ that is regarded as one of the finest of its type in the world to the dozens of technically inventive and truly beautiful dishes, bowls, cups, flasks, and vases made from painted porcelains.

I came away freshly curious about the formation of taste and about the philosophies and ideologies on which expertise is built. And yet I felt as convinced as ever that “beauty,’’ which encompasses so many other categories of experience, from the spiritual to the erotic and the everyday, is no mere ideological construct. It is a thing unto itself.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

ASIAN JOURNEYS: Collecting Art In Post-War America

At: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College. 617-552-8100, www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/ cas/artmuseum