Review by William Sargent
Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia

Dennis Carr, with contributions by Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Timothy Brook, Mitchell Codding, Karina H. Corrigan, and Donna Pierce. Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia. Boston: MFA Publications, 2015. 160 pp.; 100 color illus., bibliography, index. $50.00.

It is stated in this small but rich volume that the opening of Spanish trade through what is now Mexico in 1565 placed New Spain at the crossroads of global trade routes. This is undoubtedly true of nearly every entrepôt in the worldwide rush to open ocean trade routes between Europe and Asia that began in earnest in the sixteenth century. What is unique about the influences in the Americas, as opposed to those in other parts of the world, is the more specific subject of this book. Donna Pierce, one of the contributors to the volume, relates that a “Mexico City household that was inventoried in 1645 included furniture constructed of luxury materials such as mahogany, ebony, and ivory from Germany, Cuba, China and the West Indies, along with a Turkish carpet and velvet pillows from China” (p. 56). This is an important acknowledgment that New Spain has its own place in the history of decorative arts and that it bows to no other entrepôt as being lesser.

The content of Made in the Americas is not a comprehensive response to the implications of the title, but it is a most admirable survey. How could it be comprehensive with the geographically head-spinning commission of discussing the interaction between Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Spanish, Portuguese, and North American–based British, Dutch, and French markets, not to mention a span of more than two hundred years—all in 122 pages of text interspersed with images?

But this is an immensely important task to undertake in this age, as the model of the European focus in art history fades and the recognition of indigenous and colonial cultures, as unique artistic centers on their own merits, rises. Although it is not explicitly stated, the real focus here is New Spain. Of the works illustrated (with 21 details), 63 are made (or modified) in the Americas. Of those, 43 are from New Spain (including Mexico, Columbia, Peru, and Ecuador), 5 from Brazil, and 13 from what became the United States. Three are from French Canada or France, 6 from the Philippines, 6 from China, 4 from India, and 4 from Japan. The rest (one each) are from Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium. It is obvious that the heart of this book lies in the Spanish- (and less so, Portuguese-) speaking New World.

Made in the Americas has the look of a nonthreatening book for the general public, in line with a series of other publications the MFA has done recently for a certain level of readership. Other titles along this line include Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, by Helen Burnham, with contributions by Sarah E. Thompson and Jane Braun (2014), and various “highlights” books on segments of the collections, including American paintings, American decorative arts, Native American art, European decorative arts, musical instruments, classical art, and so on.

But Dennis Carr has gathered an impressive roster of authors representing expertise in the fields of American decorative and Asian export arts, and the melding of the two. Each contributor makes an effort to include as much on his or her subject as possible, which can lead to a bullet-point style that never­theless results in a succinct and clear exposition of a tremendous amount of information. Add to this the healthy footnotes and you have a valuable resource that allows thorough follow-up on salient points. If you are interested in furniture, you will find, for one example, references to publications by María Campos Carlés de Pena and Jorge F. Rivas that are not listed in the bibliography (see p. 134 note 22).

European and North American chinoiserie has been well researched and published over the decades since the first wave of scholarly interest in the 1960s. It is time now for serious attention to the same theme in Middle, Central, and South America. The cover illustration depicts a detail of a lacquered desk inspired by Asian and Turkish designs, setting the stage for what may interest readers of American Furniture most. For readers of this journal, the index will guide you to such topics as “furniture,” “lacquerware,” and “wood,” as well as to individual furniture forms (cabinet, desk, headboard, etc). Using Spanish terms, you will be equally well directed to the points of interest.

The salon for women (estrado) and master bedrooms seem to have been the primary locations where Asian furnishings and local productions reflecting those influences could be found in Latin American homes. The paintings of interiors from New Spain included in the book illustrate the extensive use of Asian materials and the manifestations of their impact in these rooms.

Biombas (locally made folding screens) are particularly well known in Mexico, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and seem to be among the most prevalent and popular symbols of the influence of Asia on interiors in Latin America. The first documented arrival of a Japanese screen is in 1614, and by 1784 the inventory of the count of Xala in Mexico City listed four large screens from China, three short ones (rodaestrado), and eight painted screens, two of which had chinoiserie (achinado) figures.

One style of decoration that was applied to furniture as well as to other arts was invented in New Spain (Mexico): a merger of inlay, japanning, and painting in a style called enconchado (shell inlay). The shell inlay work was inspired by examples from Japan and India (Goa and Gujarat) that was mixed with the Spanish-Moorish traditions in the hands of Latin American craftsmen in what is now Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Paraguay.

Lacquer is of particular note since there was an indigenous tradition of such work dating back two thousand years using mopa mopa in a lacquerware style referred to as barniz de Pasto (Pasto varnish), which had been produced in Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru, and then Mexico, particularly in Michoacán. Mitchell Codding provides detailed and precise descriptions of various lacquer techniques in use in New Spain.

The most ubiquitous piece of furniture may be the locally made chest, although examples found in the New World were imported from Germany, Holland, Spain, Italy, or Asia (Korea, Japan, and India). Is there any doubt that New Spain was anything but a “backwater”?

I suppose no review would be complete without raising an issue or two. There is an inevitable repetition of some story lines, facts, and descriptions of certain techniques. Despite these redundancies, the repetition of this basic information can be seen as a helpful feature if you are not reading cover to cover. The map is missing Canton, Nagasaki, Cape Town, and directional arrows, which would have helped the reader to understand the flow of traffic and goods. Wallpaper is a particular interest of mine, and there is one sentence on the topic; using the footnote leads to more information, but the term is not found in the index. The same is true with “fan.” The footnotes are extensive and delve much further into resources than the selected bibliography implies, so don’t pass up reading them.

Carr reminds us that rather than seeing these “outposts” of art as “cultural backwaters” (the old way of thinking perhaps, but who would say such a thing these days?), they were each vibrant centers of creativity receiving their influences from Asian, indigenous, and European cultures to create a new style of art. This concept makes me think of the casta (caste) paintings, one of which is included, which depict spouses of different cultures and the child they bear that is a melding of the parents’ heritage.

The only indication that this accompanies an exhibition is a passing reference in the director’s foreword, but indeed this book is associated with a show that carries the same title as the book. The exhibition is a gem. The small photographs in the book do not do justice to the extraordinary objects which can be seen on display. There are, however, some inexplicable differences between the two. I tried to make a list of what was in one and not in the other, but therein lies madness. The installation follows a different format as well.

For furniture enthusiasts, there are at least eight objects in the exhibition that are not illustrated or discussed at length in the book. For example, a Gardner family japanned chair is mentioned in the book (but not illustrated, and not referenced in the index), but two examples are on display. Also in the exhibition are a Japanese nanban domed coffer; a New England high chest, armchair, and tea table; an English Chinese Chippendale chair (from the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire); and a japanned mirror. Other surprisingly beautiful pieces in the exhibition and not in the book include a cluster of Talavera ware, some superb textiles, and more American silver. The exhibition runs until February 15, 2016, at the MFA, and then travels to the Winterthur Museum, where it will be seen in a slightly different iteration from March 26, 2016, to January 3, 2017.

You could hardly ask for a more informative and beautiful record of the interior of an upper-class home than the 1751 ex-voto painting of the house of a Mexico City merchant, Don Juan Garcia Truxillo. This one image says volumes about the importance of Asian art and its influences in New Spain. Timothy Brook said it best in his essay: “we too must look onward, beyond conventional narratives of European influence and toward America’s key role in the more expansive, multicultural world” (p. 16). Looking beyond conventional narratives is the purpose of this book and exhibition, and they succeed admirably, rising to the daunting challenge to create a cohesive look at a very complex subject.

This is the first book for the general public, and the first exhibition, to specifically examine the influence of Asia on the arts of all the Americas, and it arrives roughly in time to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Spanish galleon trade between the Philippines and New Spain (the first ship sailed in 1565). There were, recently, similar exhibitions planned by three or four other museums, but they have not materialized. Luckily, Dennis Carr and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have succeeded.

William Sargent
Bonhams (USA)

American Furniture 2015