A mania for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain swept through London in the 1870s as a new generation of artists and collectors “rediscovered” imported wares from Asia. Foremost among them was American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler. For him, porcelain was a source of serious aesthetic inspiration. For British shoppers, however, Chinese ceramics signified status and good taste. Cultural commentators of the time both embraced and poked fun at the porcelain craze. Illustrator George du Maurier parodied the fad in a series of cartoons for Punch magazine that documented what he mockingly called “Chinamania.”
More than a hundred fifty years later, American artist Walter McConnell explores Chinamania in our own time. In this exhibition, he juxtaposes two monumental porcelain sculptures, which he terms stupas, with export wares from China’s Kangxi period (1662–1722). Those blue-and-white ceramics are similar to those that once filled the shelves of Whistler’s Peacock Room in London. These historical porcelains also inspired McConnell to create a new work based on 3D-printed replicas. His interest in replication and in the serialized mass production of ceramic forms began after he visited China more than a decade ago. The large kilns and busy factories at Jingdezhen prompted McConnell to look at China as an enduring resource for ceramic production.
Chinamania complements the exhibition Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, a contemporary installation that reimagines the Peacock Room as a resplendent ruin. Inspired by museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s collection of Asian ceramics, Waterston painted scores of vessels and arranged them on the buckling shelves of Filthy Lucre. These oozing, misshapen ceramics convey a sense of unsustainable luxury and excess. They also echo McConnell’s interest in the interplay of creativity, the mass production of aesthetic objects, and the powerful forces of materialism and conspicuous consumption.
Chinamania artist Walter McConnell worked with Freer|Sackler staff for two weeks in June 2016 to install Dark Stupa and White Stupa. Watch them at work on this time lapse video.