The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is currently showing an exhibit called “China Through the Looking Glass” which runs until September 7, 2015. It takes up space on three floors (including the Anna Wintour Costume Center) and offers dozens of outfits and costumes by famous designers based on Chinese motifs and inspirations, along with other art objects (vases, sculptures, installations) and other commercial objects (e.g., perfumes). It even takes up space in that famous Chinese Courtyard on the second floor. There’s a labyrinthine quality to it all, matching the “Through the Looking Glass”/Alice in Wonderland reference, and one can easily get lost and leave without seeing everything, or see everything multiple times as you circle the place trying to get out. It doesn’t help that everything is so dark and it’s so crowded. Still, there’s a theme park aspect to it that should prove fun for adventurous museum-goers.
Here is the Museum's mission statement about this exhibit:
This exhibition explores the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries. In this collaboration between The Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art, high fashion is juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, to reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery.
From the earliest period of European contact with China in the sixteenth century, the West has been enchanted with enigmatic objects and imagery from the East, providing inspiration for fashion designers from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent, whose fashions are infused at every turn with romance, nostalgia, and make-believe. Through the looking glass of fashion, designers conjoin disparate stylistic references into a pastiche of Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions.
The exhibition features more than 140 examples of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear alongside Chinese art. Filmic representations of China are incorporated throughout to reveal how our visions of China are framed by narratives that draw upon popular culture, and also to recognize the importance of cinema as a medium through which to understand the richness of Chinese history.
My favorite parts, and the ones that got most of my attention, were the various screens in some of the galleries on which were projected film clips from famous Chinese, Hong Kong and Hollywood films. One whole section was devoted to Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American actress who was the first female Asian movie star in Hollywood. There are gowns and dresses inspired by or actual copies of her costumes in films, along with photos of her in her prime, including two very early color photos, and two screens showing a montage of clips from four of her Hollywood films and one of her English films.
(Although why they put the photos on the ceiling of the glass case and not in a more conventional display case baffles me.)
The films represented in the Anna May Wong montage are:
SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) Directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, this is arguably Ms. Wong’s finest Hollywood film, made while she was under contract to Paramount Pictures. She plays Dietrich’s friend and traveling companion on the title train.
LIMEHOUSE BLUES (1934) Another film made at Paramount, this one stars gangster actor George Raft as a half-Chinese racketeer in London.
TOLL OF THE SEA (1922) This was not only Wong’s first film, it was the first feature-length film made in the then-new Technicolor process. It has a tragic Madame Butterfly-type story. She was all of 17 when she made it.
PICCADILLY (1929) Fed up with the parts she was getting in Hollywood in the 1920s, Wong traveled to Europe to entertain film offers in England and Germany. This was her first English film.
DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931) A “yellow peril” Hollywood film and the kind of part Wong preferred to avoid. She plays the part of the sadistic daughter of Chinese criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (played by a future Charlie Chan, Warner Oland). But she did look great in it.
There were 24 film clips in all, by my count, and they included the following:
THE LAST EMPEROR (1987) – This film by Bernardo Bertolucci, a co-production of China, Italy, England and France, won the Best Picture Oscar for 1987 and told the story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China and the saga of his years after being dethroned. Clips from this film showed on two large screens on opposite sides of a single wall and illuminated various robes and ornamental garments worn by emperors in China over the centuries. (I’m not sure if they were the actual garments or replicas.) Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for the film was heard over the images.
One section, called Wuxia, was devoted to an installation of glass bamboo stalks:
...and the screen above it showed clips from:
A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971), King Hu’s classic wuxia epic of flying swordsmen and women in ancient China. Hsu Feng stars and is featured in the clips:
HERO (2002), Zhang Yimou’s highly stylized fantasy of politics and civil war in ancient China starring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi.
THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004), another fantasy swordplay epic from Zhang Yimou, this time with Zhang Ziyi as a blind swordswoman.
Tan Dun's score for HERO played over the whole montage.
Another section, devoted to more modern women and fashions...
...showed clips from the following films:
THE GODDESS (1934) a silent film about a single mother forced to work as a prostitute in Shanghai, starring the tragic actress Lingyu Ruan.
LUST, CAUTION (2007) Ang Lee’s controversial wartime drama starring Tang Wei and Tony Leung.
THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960), directed by Richard Quine, a Hollywood film that’s both revered and reviled by Asian film fans, and marked the film debut of Nancy Kwan as the title character, a Hong Kong prostitute who gets involved with a struggling American artist played by William Holden.
EROS: “The Hand” (2004) This segment of a multi-part, international anthology was directed by Wong Kar Wai and stars Gong Li.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000) Wong Kar Wai’s stylish drama of thwarted love in a crowded early '60s Hong Kong, starred Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and a breathtaking wardrobe of stunning cheongsam dresses worn by Maggie in the film.
Another section is devoted to Mainland China and the fashion statements of the Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution.
Here we see clips from the propaganda ballet film, THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (1971).
Despite its blatant propaganda content, the clips intrigued me enough, from an aesthetic standpoint, to make me want to see the entire film.
Another montage of film clips had an opium theme:
BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) A silent melodrama directed by D. W. Griffith, about the tragic love of a Chinese man for a white girl.
FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (1998) A Japanese-Taiwanese co-production, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, set in Shanghai in the 1880s and starring Tony Leung, who’s well represented in these films.
THE GRANDMASTER (2013) Wong Kar Wai’s martial arts drama about a historical figure, a famous kung fu teacher in Shanghai and China, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984) Sergio Leone’s epic gangster drama set in New York in the 1920s, included here for its final scene set in a Chinatown opium den.
In fact, the montage ends with the film’s final shot of Robert De Niro in an opium daze.
Ennio Morricone's music score for the latter film (one of my all-time favorite film scores) played over the whole montage.
Another section was devoted to the art of performance in Chinese culture, with an emphasis on Chinese opera.
STAGE ART OF MEI LANFANG (1955) showcases Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous Chinese opera performers of the 20th century and the first to bring the art form to international audiences. He specialized in playing female roles. I had never heard of him before and have since found some performance clips of his on YouTube.
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993) Chen Kaige’s epic drama based on the life of Mei Lanfang and starring Leslie Cheung and Gong Li.
RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991) Zhang Yimou’s drama about the life of a young woman forced to become the fourth wife (or third concubine of a wealthy middle-aged man in 1920s China.
TWO STAGE SISTERS (1965) A Mainland Chinese film, directed by Xie Jin, about two Chinese opera performers whose friendship weathers the political changes in China from the war years to the post-revolutionary period.
Finally, there’s a clip of Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer, doing a dance number in Chinese drag called “Limehouse Blues,” which was actually a famous song that predated the Anna May Wong film. It's from the musical revue film, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1945):
There were some things missing. There were no Shaw Bros. productions like EMPRESS WU or THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE represented.
And no Brigitte Lin from her great "wire-fu" epics like SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED and THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR.
For the more academically-inclined, here's a more detailed mission statement from the Museum's website attempting to neutralize any minefields that might explode over issues of cultural appropriation or the exoticization of Asia by western imperial culture:
In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the heroine enters an imaginary, alternative universe by climbing through a mirror in her house. In this world, a reflected version of her home, everything is topsy-turvy and back-to-front. Like Alice's make-believe world, the China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said's seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as a Eurocentric worldview that essentializes Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.
While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of "subordinated otherness" outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. Through careful juxtapositions of Western fashions and Chinese costumes and decorative arts, it presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings.
As if by magic, the distance between East and West, spanning perspectives that are often perceived as monolithic and diametrically opposed, diminishes. So, too, does the association of the East with the natural and the authentic and the West with the cultural and the simulacrum. As these binaries dissolve and disintegrate, what emerges is an active, dynamic two-way conversation, a liberating force of cross-cultural communication and representation.
Cinema often serves as a conduit for this reciprocal exchange. Film is frequently the first lens through which Western designers encounter Chinese imagery, and this exhibition explores the impact of movies in shaping their fantasies. Through the work of Chinese directors—especially the Fifth Generation, including Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang—the show also addresses China's role in shaping its own self-image. At times borrowing from Orientalist tropes, Chinese directors have perpetuated some of the misperceptions that had shaped Western fantasies of China. Aided by such cinematic representations, the comparisons and conversations in the exhibition reimagine the relationship between East and West not as one-sided mimicry but rather as a layered series of enfolded exchanges.
All pictures of the exhibit used here come from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. For more info on the exhibit and additional pictures, as well as the text quoted above, please go to this link: