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Alan Chong & Noriko Murai, eds., Journeys East: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia.

Alan Chong & Noriko Murai, eds., Journeys East: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia. Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Pittsburgh: Gutenberg Periscope Publishing, 2009. 479 pages.

Journeys East: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia recalls the spirit of Gardner's great museum-palazzo. It is a jumbled and brimming array, full of appealing crannies, rounded into arguable cohesion only by Gardner's formidable personality and distinctive taste, well worth perambulating in a mood of naive wonder. This handsome coffee-table volume is both a catalogue of a 2009 exhibition that highlighted the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's Asian collection and a voluminous--surely definitive--study of Gardner's evolution as a devotee of Asian culture.

For starters, Journeys East corrects the impression that Gardner (1840-1924) was a strict Europhile. This misunderstanding largely owes to the demise of her "Chinese Room," which she installed in the basement of her Boston museum in 1902. Wanting more space and weary of caring for objects it considered not quite irst rate, the museum de-accessioned most of the room's contents in 1971 (46). As photographs tell the story, the room provided a small but densely packed dose of the Chinoiserie and Japonisme that flourished in fin-de-siecle Boston, energetically promoted by the likes of physician-collector William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926), scholar-curator Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), artist John La Farge (1835-1910), Harvard art professor Denman Ross (1853-1935), and self-appointed cultural ambassador Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913), author of the famed Book of Tea (1906) and mentor to Gardner in all things Japanese. ([dagger]) Trying to exculpate its own folly, the museum is now restoring the architecture of the Chinese room and may eventually reestablish some version of the original display.

Though she could be a dogged stalker of objects, Gardner did not especially exploit the Silk Road connecting Beacon Hill and points East. What is left of her collection of Japanese screens, stone Buddhas, lacquered boxes, and snuff bottles pales in comparison to her European painting collection, with its firework display of Bellini, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, and Rembrandt. Journeys East catalogues dozens of objects that remain in the museum's collection, but it reasonably enough declines to dwell on them. Its real gist is Gardner's engagement with Asia as collector, impresario, traveler, and student. In all of these guises, she embodied the earnest and problematic dilettantism by which the West began to court what it considered the wisdom and beauty of the East during the late nineteenth century; in these guises as well, she helped in her small way to stimulate the Orientalizing modernism whose chief avatars were Whistler, Yeats, and Pound (famously the legatee of Fenollosa's papers). Gardner's "Chinese room" was a minor curiosity compared to the resplendent travesty of Whistler's Peacock Room, which now graces the Freer Gallery, but it reflected the same moment and impulse.

Leaving no atom unturned in its conscientious micro-scholarship, Journeys East provides the last word on Gardner's Asianism. Alan Chong's introductory essay "Journeys East" anchors the volume, providing an overview Gardner's ambitious Asian jaunt of 1883-84; the laying of the Japanese garden at her home in Brookline, which anticipated the cultural theatrics of her museum; the founding of her museum at Fenway Court; her crucial friendship with Okakura Kakuzo, who functioned as tutor in Japanese art much as Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) functioned as tutor in Italian art; and the installation of the "Chinese Room." Succeeding essays flesh out the details of Gardner's tireless campaign of a life, sometimes with more than a little overlap. These essays are by turns academic and curatorial, at once bland and informative, prone to slight political genuflections ("Yet it would be misleading to identify an individual tourist like Mrs. Gardner with the whole of Western imperialism"--merely "misleading"?), and given to scholarly boilerplate ("The alterity--the otherness--of Oriental art and women in the masculine world of Western art collecting was a fact Gardner simultaneously embraced and challenged ...").

The pinnacle of Gardner's Asian activities was her pan-Asian tour of 1883 and 1884. This jaunt was not quite the stuff of Indiana Jones, but nor was it a matter of sipping tea and nibbling canapes on shaded verandas. In the company of her husband Jack, a staunch Sancho Panza, Gardner visited Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Java, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, and India. Cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai were modernized and Westernized enough, but much of the Gardner's journey led through rough, hot, poor, and politically unsettled terrain. Cambodia, which had burst upon the Western imagination with the irst published accounts of Angkor Wat in the 1860s, was a particularly exotic and remote destination. Buried deep in the jungle, it was approachable only by elephant and "bullock cart" amid potentially colossal rains. Gardner and her husband may have been an "archetypal high-bourgeois tourist couple, people of wealth and culture unwittingly advancing Western imperialism" (423), in Greg M. Thomas' somewhat stern judgment, but give them credit for intrepidity. A broken leg or viral fever in the middle of the Cambodian jungle would have been no small thing, and the Gardners, whose lives were charmed in everything save the death of their son, had much to lose. Gardner herself was nearly ideal as a traveler: tireless, fearless, curious, uncomplaining, and respectful. In his essay "Dust and Filth and Every Kind of Picturesque and Interesting Thing: Gardner's Aesthetic Response to China," Thomas gives the idea:
   [She] appears constantly interested in observing odd and exotic
   characters not as justifications of Western moral superiority--a
   standard trope of travel writing--but as examples of cultural and
   ethnic difference, which she embraces as a primary source of
   touristic pleasure and meaning. Without any taint of condescension,
   she enjoys "naked children," singing boat crews, processions of
   brides and funerals, Buddhist monks in "such strange yellow hats"
   and Daoist priests with coiled hair, bare-chested men throwing
   quoits, a boatwoman with a baby on her back, and children with
   silver hoops around their necks. (427)

Gardner reminds us that the nineteenth century's reputation for fainting and finger-wagging was largely a self-justifying invention of the modernists and later a lazy cliche of Hollywood; the era's true essence was adventurous, expansive, and eager, as its empires and inventions should suggest.

Journeys East's three-hundred-page core--its beating heart--reprints Gardner's running commentary, both diaristic and epistolary, on her long Asian journey. As a writer, Gardner was sufficiently concrete, observant, and lively, but she was no Edith Wharton or Isak Dinesen: her matronly guise did not conceal a furtive belles-lettrism. Gardner is likeably unpretentious in this regard, but at the same time three-hundred pages of what amounts to a lightly ornamented travel itinerary runs a little dry. Additionally memorializing her tour, Gardner filled six scrapbooks with photos she purchased from the Western-run studios along the route of her journey that catered to tourists in an age when cameras were cumbersome and difficult to use. Journeys East reproduces hundreds of these gorgeous, sepia-toned mementos, making the volume a signiicant trove of vintage travel photography. As a body, the photos powerfully evoke the alien beauty and squalor of pre-modern Asia, reminding us that an Asian journey of a hundred or more years ago was a veritable trip to the moon and that the contemporary Western traveler can never equivalently leave home.

The volume's principal flaws are organizational. The essays are not grouped with much apparent logic; the origins and locations of the catalogued objects remain hazy; and the scope and nature of the accompanying museum exhibition are not clearly detailed. Did the exhibition re-aggregate the items that the museum de-accessioned in 1971 and reconstitute the "Chinese room" on its original pattern? Or did it merely highlight remaining items in the collection and document Gardner's Asian influences and interests? The reader must infer as best he can. These flaws, however, are consistent with Gardner's own spirit, which was charmingly ad hoc.

Students of museum culture, nineteenth-century travel writing, and proto-modernist Orientalism will discover much to interest them in these pages. The real fascination, however, is Gardner herself. Journeys East commemorates her ardor and a certain nineteenth-century sinew long since gone soft.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


([dagger]) For the classic account of Boston's nineteenth-century Asian percolation, see Van Wyck Brooks' 1962 volume, Ernest Fenollosa and His Circle.
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Author:Ross, David A.
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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