New Yorkers could be forgiven this month for confusing their museum itineraries with the schedule of a vintage film festival, or an Anna May Wong-inspired Netflix binge. Two exhibitions, China: Through the Looking Glass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men at the Museum of the Museum of the Moving Image each make manifest (if not exactly “real”) cultural phenomena that are likely to be more familiar to visitors from something they’ve seen on TV or in the movies than from something they’ve encountered in a museum or a gallery. Aesthetically, conceptually, and in terms of their scope and scale, these two exhibitions could not be more different. But in their own ways, each one is a zeitgeist-tapping synthesis of the layered artistic and cultural influences that inspire screenwriters, and fashion designers, to evoke semi-fictional times and places in their creations.
China: Through the Looking Glass is the largest and most complex exhibition the Metropolitan Museum has ever mounted, described by director Thomas Campbell as a project that only the encyclopedic Met could undertake. He’s right, and it is an effort very well spent. The exhibition’s theme, of which there are numerous subcategories, is the “idea” of China, a concept that includes Chinoiserie, which is generally understood to refer to 18th-century European interpretations of Chinese aesthetics, and the influence of various aspects of Chinese culture on Western fashion. As curator Maxwell Hearn noted during his remarks at the press conference, contact between China and the West is not new: the Romans’ appetite for silk fueled trade between the hemispheres two millennia ago. What we see in this exhibition is not a portrait of a single culture, but a conversation between two cultures.
It doesn’t stop there: no less a filmmaker than Wong Kar-wai was responsible for “styling” the exhibition, resulting in something much closer to a multimedia installation, even as discrete objects (perfume bottles, skirt suits, and imperial robes) are the focal points of each gallery. It is a dazzling curatorial achievement, all the more astonishing when one considers the logistical feats that must have been necessary to coordinate loans from the Palace Museum in Beijing, to say nothing of Condé Nast and Vogue in preparation for the annual Costume Institute Gala. It is fitting that an exhibition about the confluence of film, fashion, and art should be fêted at a party that has its own personal hashtag (#MetGala).
The title cleverly refers to the “looking glass” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which achieves two important things. We immediately understand that this exhibition isn’t about China per se, but rather an experience of subjective Chineseness as it has been perceived by foreign observers through the centuries. Secondly, the quaint-sounding nod to Lewis Carroll (1832–1898) tells us that the point of view being explored here is one that is rooted in the past. This is not to say that the exhibition feels stuffy or old-fashioned — far from it, but rather that the Chinoiserie worldview is one that is inextricably linked with a colonial perspective in which the West is ordinary, and the East is exotic and different. (A terrific essay in the exhibition’s catalog by Bryn Mawr film scholar Homay King explores this idea.) As Wong Kar Wai elegantly explained during the press conference (appropriately enough, held on May 4th), this understanding of Chineseness is not “real” in the literal sense — we know that ordinary Chinese folks don’t generally swan dramatically about wearing dragon robes, nonchalantly grasping an opium pipe — but the style and legacy of Chinoiserie as it has been imagined by generations of Western designers and artists are palpable to the people who made the works on view, as well as for the viewers and consumers who have been enchanted by Western creations.
This exhibition is already a blockbuster, with visitors lined up down the block waiting to get in. It is to the museum’s credit that although it is quite literally “pretty/shiny” (black lacquer walls, mirrors, sequins, etc.) it’s not dumb, or even dumbed down. It was curated by Andrew Bolton, a curator of the Costume Institute, and Maxwell Hearn, the Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art. While it is fair to say that the Chanel day dresses covered in calligraphic script are a bit more immediately eye-catching than the ancient bronzes and porcelain bowls on view, the assemblage of works and their juxtaposition allow viewers to draw their own connections between objects, film imagery, and fashion.
One especially effective display pairs blue-and-white porcelain with a group of gowns inspired by the color palette and curves of Chinese ceramics, then ties them all together in a bow by projecting an image of “Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks,” an 1864 painting by James McNeill Whistler. The Whistler painting depicts a Western woman reclining in a faintly Asian-inspired silk robe, holding and admiring an array of blue-and-white ceramics. It’s pure Aesthetic Movement fantasia. Seeing the painting projected here (the real thing is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) has an effect akin to the uncanny familiarity of Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, a dystopic reimagining of Whistler’s “Peacock Room” now at the Freer Sackler Galleries.
Culture watchers have been circling this exhibition for months, anticipating gross steps out-of-bounds into the realm of appropriation and even outright racism. Happily, it deftly sidesteps this problem by ironically making cultural borrowing its subject. Yes, it seems to say, Chinoiserie is a complex, often fraught fantasy. Presented as a point of view without nuance or context, it can, and does, offend. In one gallery, images and movie clips of the first American-born movie star of Chinese descent, 1930s icon Anna May Wong, accompany chic chi pao gowns, while nearby, a dance sequence to “Limehouse Blues” featuring Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer from the 1945 Ziegfeld Follies plays. Astaire and Bremer dance with bright red fans and hats, sporting costumes that actually look more like very early Renaissance court dress as they encircle and fan one another. It’s not Chinese, nor is it really an effort to mimic Chinese performance of any sort. Crucially, both the objects on view and the film clips presented draw from Chinese and Western creative minds. As Fred Astaire dances in one room, Leslie Cheung performs in the 1993 film Farewell My Concubine in the faux-moonlit Astor Court, where the installation pays homage to Chinese Opera.
This is true of the fashion on view, too: plenty of Chanel and Yves St. Laurent sparkles from behind the plexiglass (including some wonderful early drawings prototyping the iconic YSL Opium perfume bottle). But in addition to antique examples of Chinese court dress from the 19th and early 20th centuries, Beijing-based designer Guo Pei has two couture works in the exhibition: the “Magnificent Gold” and the “Blue and Porcelain” dress, which is displayed alongside the Whistler painting. Guo Pei is also the mastermind behind the yellow dress with the enormous train that launched a thousand omelette memes after Rihanna appeared wearing it on the red carpet for the Met Gala.
It is this very confluence between the designer’s studio, the exhibition space, and the red carpet that underscores Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, on view at the Museum of the Moving Image. Like China: Through the Looking Glass, there is a meta quality to this exhibition, which isn’t about a “real” design movement or group of artworks, but rather the imaginary dialogue with Cold War America that gave rise to the Mad Men universe — a place in which fake people interact with real corporations and historical events. Tellingly, Weiner chose the iconic, peace-and-love-themed “I’d Like to Buy The World a Coke” ad, which was produced in real life by Don Draper’s TV employer, McCann Erickson, to close out the series in May. “The Real Thing,” indeed.
As an obsessive devotee of all manner of household objects from the 20th century, I had secretly hoped that if there were a Mad Men-related exhibition someday, it would occur at a design museum. But seeing this exhibition and taking stock of the ancillary programming around it, like the “Required Viewing” film series which includes all the movies Weiner insisted the writing staff watch, make this venue seem like a logical choice. The exhibit’s tight focus on a single iconic TV show can make it feel a little claustrophobic, and the presentation is an uneven mixture of wonderful “period rooms” (that is, actual Mad Men sets) with somewhat underwhelming collections of Matthew Weiner ephemera. But overall, the strength of this exhibition is that it lifts the lid off the creative process that made Mad Men, particularly as the show itself launched a genuine fascination with the material culture, media, and mores of the era.
Unlike China: Through the Looking Glass, the Mad Men exhibition feels a bit like the post-mortem of someone we once knew. Someone specific: Mad Men’s tortured protagonist, ad man Don Draper. The intimate scale of TV makes this both more ordinary and more affecting. This is especially true of the costume display, which presents all the beloved office ensembles worn by the actresses Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, and January Jones. The suits are a bit less interesting, but one object outshines them all: Don’s box of personal effects, all of which actually belong to “Don Draper,” the dead man whose identity Dick Whitman stole during the Korean War. The effect of seeing this invented souvenir in person is uncanny, and echoes the “through the looking glass” theme of the Met’s exhibition.
The looking glass, it seems, is our TV screens, our computer screens, and our smartphone screens, all of which — savvy curators and museum directors know well — mediate our experiences of objects, style, art, culture, fashion, and ourselves. Museums exist in the most literal sense within their own four walls, but they exist in our living rooms and on our phones, too. Earlier this year, as Björkgate was approaching peak cringe, there was copious handwringing among art critics and museum visitors about the need — sometimes desperate-seeming — of large museums to chase celebrities from genres other than their own. Is this necessary to capture the attention of would-be visitors?
What the Mad Men and China exhibitions prove, in different ways, is that this is not a “yes” or “no” question. There is no doubt that scholarly exhibitions should continue to form the programmatic backbone of encyclopedic museum exhibitions. But since visitors are also viewers and consumers, if there are points of intersection between leisure and culture where programming of real value can emerge, curators should not shy away. If making mediation itself the subject of a show, and buttressing that focus with scholarship and effective displays can draw people into museums for something that will really engage them, many of those visitors will come back to see something else. The physical space of these two museums has been temporarily transformed: recontextualized from something elite, inscrutable, and forbidding, into an extension of a world visitors already know, but want to know a lot more about.
China Through the Looking Glass continues at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 16.