- Travel, Collecting, and Museums of Asian Art in Nineteenth-Century Paris by Ting Chang
Travel, Collecting, and Museums of Asian Art in Nineteenth-Century Paris by Ting Chang is a significant study. Going beyond conventional art history and employing a cross-disciplinary, widely historical, and conceptual methodology, she focuses on the preeminent Parisian collectors Henri Cernuschi (1821–1896), Émile Étienne Guimet (1836–1918), and Edmond de Goncourt (1822–1896) as case studies of their era. She shows each collection to have served a functional role, focal point for a network of touchstones in the distinct profiles of these individuals and their collections of non-Western objects. Her findings apply not only to them, but also to the values, aspirations, and self-image of the France in which they lived, and more broadly to Westerners of the era generally.
Out of the large Parisian community entranced by the arts of China and Japan in the 1870’s and 1880’s, Chang’s choice of Cernuschi, Guimet, and de Goncourt was germane. The Franco-Prussian War and overlapping Paris Commune, twin blows to France, had upended the imperial government, destabilized its aristocracy, and reshaped the map of Europe. An altered balance of power with other nations and among classes at home galvanized quests for empire to replace territory and restore self-respect. Respectively an economist, political radical, Italian-born Jew and naturalized French citizen; successful bourgeois industrialist; and minor nobility of inherited wealth—the three mirrored socio-economic facets of this upheaval, while their collections touched materially upon dimensions of identity and prestige.
Chang makes some enlightening observations. Valuable are her overview of dealers, Asian and European, and her analysis of class-consciousness during this period. Especially compelling is her argument of the interconnectivity of Cernuschi’s collecting of Chinese bronzes and his influential theories of bimetallism. His successful model assimilated at lower valuation the silver-based currencies of Asia into the gold-based systems of Europe; she shows that objects of bronze, a lower-valued coinage metal relative to silver in China but definitive of its ancient history, embodied inferiority in relation to presumed wisdoms of Western superiority.
Chang’s important distinction between museums and private collections nevertheless highlights that beyond scattered references to the 1878 Exposition Universelle, particularly to Guimet’s exhibit, she omits international expositions. But a short overview is important to her argument. Paris dominated these preeminent statements of international political and commercial prestige, cultural exchange and display, hosting four during the lifetimes of all of her subjects. It is unlikely that Cernuschi alone attended at least one abroad. Similarly her consideration of Guimet in Japan excludes the extreme restrictions Meiji authorities placed on foreign travel in the 1870’s and its deep political symbolism. This and decrepit roads had a practical psychological impact upon the experience of jinrikshas and the Tokaido’s storied history and charming memorialization in Edo-era prints, and, in light of Guimet’s arrogance support her essential premise that the power dynamic did not necessarily abet Western aims. Some of her visual analysis is also unconvincing.
But these issues only highlight the sheer depth and breadth of Chang’s inquiry and the strong case she makes for the value of material culture studies to global studies in general. She has created a map for further explorations of her own, and has provided a strong model for future scholarship. I look forward to her continued work. [End Page 134]