Collecting Asian Art with Dr. Janet Baker

“How and why did Asian art come to America? Within two centuries, many museums have filled their galleries with works from China, India, Japan, and beyond. Dr. Baker looks at examples in the David Owsley Museum of Art and the Phoenix Museum of Art to see how American and Asian history and taste has shaped this phenomenon.” –from the flier

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Dr. Janet Baker came to Ball State as a visiting art historian on Wednesday October 16th, first presenting a lecture to the Asian Art History, AHS 290, class taught by Dr. Ron Rarick. Dr. Baker and Dr. Rarick both attended the same graduate school working closely together and have been friends for 30 years. She lectured on the Silk Road and specifically the caves at Dunhuang, on which she is an expert. The class had the unique opportunity to learn directly from an expert in the field. Later that day she attended an informal luncheon where students, faculty, and community members sat with her and discussed contemporary Asian artists and collecting Asian art, shared stories and experiences, and she gave advice to students on how to prepare for a career in art history.

That evening the School of Art and the David Owsley Museum of Art partnered to host Dr. Baker, who gave an enlightening presentation called “Collecting Asian Art.” Dr. Baker presented the condensed history of Asian art through objects from the Phoenix Museum of Art and the David Owsley Museum of Art.

She explained the origins of collecting Asian art in the West and specifically America came out of a desire for fine Chinese porcelain objects. Other Chinese art made its way to the West during the Opium War between England and China in the 1860’s. During the war, England and France sacked the Emperor’s summer palace, stealing large amounts of ceramic and bronze objects. Among the works, there were many fine examples of cloisonné enamel, which the French admired. At times the East and West meet, for example the Phoenix Museum of Art of owns a Chinese vessel that had a bronze stand created for it by a French artist in a “Chinese style.”

As collectors of art go, she praised David T. Owsley for not only having a passion for art but for the incredible knowledge he brings to collecting art. DOMA is incredibly lucky to have those qualities in one of their main benefactors, as he has donated many of the highlight objects in not only the Asian art galleries, but throughout the museum. Dr. Baker commented on the brilliance of the display of the three bodhisattvas in the China and Japan gallery, all given by David T. Owsley. She commented on how the progression of stylistic representations can be seen beginning with the static pose of the Qi bodhisattva on the left, followed by the slight curve of the body in the Tang bodhisattva torso in the middle, then the full-on “sexy” S curve of the body of the last bodhisattva on the right.

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Using examples from both the Phoenix Museum of Art and DOMA, Dr. Baker showed how details of everyday life can be discovered through looking at burial figures. An interesting example is the fashion and varying styles of dress from different dynasties in Chinese history. A female tomb figure of the Han dynasty can be identified based upon her modest style of dress, whereas Tang dynasty female figures are identified by their plumpness and more revealing and colorful dress.

Dr. Baker’s talk not only informed attendees of the history of Asian art, she enticed us to take closer looks at objects on display in DOMA and make a trip to the Phoenix Museum of Art to see the objects in their collection of Asian art.

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