T he first thing you see when you enter "Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia," now on exhibit at Winterthur, is a lacquerware chest with inlaid mother-of-pearl, made in Japan around 1600. With its sparkling silver-and-gold surface, it seems to embody the greed and wonder of a moment when people all around the globe were discovering one another. With a chest like this, you don't even need a treasure.
It was made for export to the Portuguese and Spanish, whom the Japanese called "southern barbarians." They, in turn, brought them to the Americas. Especially in rich, sophisticated places like Mexico City and Lima, such objects inspired new American creations that fused Asian styles and methods, the desire of European conquerors and plunderers to make a show of their legitimacy, and the creativity of artisans in the Americas, some of them indigenous people and slaves from Africa. Often, because they lacked the materials and technologies available in Asia, they were able to create things unlike any the world had seen before.
This exhibition - curated by Dennis Carr of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it was first seen - presents globalism as not a new issue, but rather a process that began more than 500 years ago, even before Europeans fully understood the size of the sphere we live on. The Boston museum has a wing dedicated to the art of the Americas, and this show, which mixes objects from Bolivia to New England, along with some of the Old World artifacts that inspired them, reflects its expansive view of American art.
With about 80 objects from the 16th to the 18th centuries, it is not a huge show, but each object has its own often unlikely story, told on detailed labels that really must be read. Consider two small objects shown near the chest. One is a small blue-and-white porcelain plate bearing a coat of arms. But this plate, made around 1590 in China for a viceroy of Peru, is believed to be the earliest extant example of a work made in China to the specifications of a customer, the beginning of the export China trade.
Near it on the shelf is a charming 18th-century Nativity scene in which the ivory heads of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were carved in the Philippines then shipped across the Pacific and carried to what is now Ecuador, where their wooden bodies were carved and painted. This is truly a global supply chain.
For 250 years, Spanish galleons filled with objects acquired throughout Asia sailed regularly across the Pacific to Acapulco, where the wares were unloaded and brought to a great market specifically for Asian products in the main plaza of Mexico City. From there, they were carried to destinations in the Americas, or brought to Veracruz to be shipped to Europe. A wall text quotes a writer's 1604 encomium to Mexico City: "In thee Spain and China meet, Italy is linked with Japan, and now, finally, a world united in order and agreement."
We know it was not as peaceful as that in the Spanish Americas, but this show passes over the ugliness of the invasion, the diseases that killed so many of the indigenous peoples, and the violence of the extraction and seizure of vast quantities of silver and gold. Its focus is the fruits of the riches, the goods that fused visions of two, three, or four continents.
One of the highlights of the show is a desk and bookcase made in Puebla, Mexico, in the mid-1700s. Its bone-and-carved-wood exterior shows the angular Mudéjar style inspired by the Moors. The vermilion-painted interior is a European interpretation of Chinese style, and the doors are painted with maps resembling those done by indigenous people showing a plantation near Veracruz that contained a settlement of free Africans, who may be the people depicted on the map. This is one cosmopolitan highboy.
My favorite works in the show are those that use locally available materials in an effort to imitate Asian works, but that result in something new. Enconchado paintings, in which pieces of shell were encrusted in a wooden panel and then painted, began as an attempt to duplicate the kind of lacquer work found in the glowing chest. But in the examples shown here, especially Miracle of the Wedding of Cana (1693) by the Mexican artist Nicolás Correa, the results are completely different.
By painting on the surface of the mother-of-pearl, the artist is able to modulate the material's inner glow, which provides a dramatic and spiritual dimension to the work. Its impact doesn't begin to come across in photographs. The painting just pulses with life. Next to it is a desk and bookcase completely encrusted in a complex mother-of-pearl pattern made in Peru in the mid-1700s. Its goal is to knock your eye out.
Barniz de Pasto, another technique to imitate lacquerware, was a modification of techniques used by the indigenous residents of the area in Colombia where it originated. They chewed and heated a hard natural plant resin, then stretched it into thin sheets and cut it for application to furniture. You never knew gum stuck to a desk could ever look so good.
At least until the American Revolution, North America did not have direct contact with Asia. Nevertheless, practices like tea drinking made their way here, as did Asian styles that had become popular in Britain.
Thus, a New York sugar bowl from 1738 takes a distinctly Chinese form, though nothing quite like it would have been found in China. Its form recognizes that tea and the ritual of which it is part was far-fetched and exotic. It may have been crafted from South American silver, and the substance it held, sugar, drove colonial expansion and the slave trade. This little luxury in Chinese dress put the world on the tea table and became the epitome of American good taste.
"Art" by Thomas Hine and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.
Through Jan. 8 at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, 5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52), Winterthur, Del.
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $20; seniors (62) and students (with ID), $18; children (2-11), $5; infants, free.