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New Exhibition Celebrates The Dynamic Cultural Exchange Between India And Portugal Around 1600

Press Release

At the end of the 15th century, Portugal discovered a direct maritime route into the Indian Ocean, establishing permanent trade and cultural contact with Asia. In addition to spices and other commodities, Portugal imported a variety of objects, often made of rare materials, triggering a demand for luxury goods made in India and Sri Lanka.

These works of Indo-Portuguese art represent a dynamic cultural exchange between East and West. Furniture, textiles, and religious items, made to order in the Indian Subcontinent, fused forms and styles. They are also the subject of Luxury for Export: Artistic Exchange between India and Portugal around 1600, a new scholarly exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, on view February 8–May 4, 2008. Curated by Pedro Moura Carvalho, a leading scholar of Islamic and Indian art, the exhibition includes objects lent by museums and collectors in the United States and Europe, including the Sequeira Pinto Collection, Porto, and the Monastery of Pedralbes, Barcelona.

“Luxury for Export expands on the Gardner Museum’s interest in cross-cultural connections, and in investigating how artists drew inspiration from distant civilizations,” says Anne Hawley, Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “It is a natural follow-up to Bellini and the East, which celebrated a Renaissance painter working in Istanbul in the 15th century, and recent contemporary programs that have dealt with the fruitful but sometimes fraught encounters between Asia and the West. This exhibition will focus new attention on the sophistication of Indian export art.”

The centerpiece of the exhibition is an embroidery purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1897. Almost nine feet high, the textile depicts a triumphal arch surrounded by portraits of Portuguese kings. Its borders are filled with a delightful abundance of plants, animals, and figures: mermaids cavort with fantastical creatures among the waves; chariots with planetary gods parade by; and hunters pursue wild beasts.

At various times, the embroidery was thought to have been made in Spain or Goa (the capital of Portuguese India), and its source and central theme have long confused experts. This exhibition reveals for the first time the source of the textile’s design: a print made in 1622 to commemorate the visit of Philip III to Lisbon. Moreover, the textile is more opulent than related examples; while about one hundred Bengali embroideries from this period are known, the Gardner’s textile is one of only two examples embroidered on blue silk, the others being undyed silk on plain cotton backings.
“For the first time, we can connect one of these fascinating Indo-Portuguese embroideries to a specific source, and establish an approximate date for it,” says Pedro Moura Carvalho, curator of the exhibition and author of the exhibition catalogue. “The Gardner embroidery is also one of the most magnificent and complex works of art ever made in Asia for the European market. The patron must have been someone of great importance, almost certainly connected with the court in Lisbon or the Portuguese viceroy in Goa. The embroidery also shows us how discerning Mrs. Gardner’s taste was.”

“We are proud to present a new interpretation of our Bengal embroidery,” says Alan Chong, Curator of the Collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “Although viewers have long enjoyed the delightful animals and figures that appear on the silk, the main theme of the work was a complete mystery. Pedro Moura Carvalho’s exciting discovery helps us appreciate Indian art made for Europe by focusing on an undiscovered masterpiece tucked in a corner of the museum.”

It is remarkable how quickly ideas traveled around the world some 400 years ago. A Portuguese patron could send a print to Bengal (in eastern India) as the model for an embroidery; Christian images entered the personal album of a Muslim emperor; and Indian works of art were eagerly bought by collectors throughout Europe. The title of the exhibition, Luxury for Export, suggests that the exhibited objects, made by artists in India and Sri Lanka for export to Europe, were not mere craft but sophisticated works of art. Prized equally for their exoticism and for their aesthetic qualities, such works continue to delight and amaze, just as they reveal the emergence of global cultural exchange.

The Luxury for Export exhibition also showcases works of art of the same period made in what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. These demonstrate the variety of exotic materials used in Indo-Portuguese art, including lacquer, rock crystal, tortoiseshell, rare gourds and nuts, mother-of-pearl, and ivory. Household objects – a chair, jewelry, writing cabinets, and a portable chess set – are displayed alongside religious works, including a bejeweled sculpture of the Christ Child. The exhibition also includes European items that were available in Asia, such as the print that inspired the embroidery and, remarkably, a painting of the Virgin and Child that was probably commissioned by the Mughal ruler of the northern Indian Subcontinent. Early Mughal emperors, though Muslim, were greatly interested in Christianity and enthusiastically collected Christian images.

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, written by Pedro Moura Carvalho, will be distributed internationally by Periscope Press and Prestel. The book establishes the historical context for the making of the Bengal embroidery, and each exhibited work receives a full entry. All objects are illustrated in color and a suggested reading list and bibliography complete the volume (hardcover; 90 pages; $24.95). A companion website explores the exhibition in depth. Individual objects are cross-linked visually by material and theme, and interactives allow visitors to explore each piece and the Gardner’s embroidery in close detail. The site also provides details of all the programs designed to further the experience of Luxury for Export – from a jazz concert by the Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet to a conversation with celebrated author Bharati Mukherjee; a lecture by Vishakha Desai, president of the Asia Society; and a performance by former Artist-in-Residence, Gcina Mhlophe.

Luxury for Export is made possible by a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM •  280 The Fenway   Boston, MA 02115   617 566 1401 www.gardnermuseum.org
•  Tue.-Sun., 11 am-5pm; plus Gardner After Hours each third Thursday 5-9pm •  $12 adults; $10 seniors; $5 students; $2 discount w/ same day Museums of Fine Arts admission; FREE for members, children under 18, and all named Isabella  •  Modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palazzo with an enclosed courtyard garden, the Gardner Museum displays a collection of art spanning 30 centuries, including works by Botticelli, Titian, Rembrandt, and Sargent. The museum also presents changing contemporary and historical exhibitions, garden displays, concerts, lectures, and special events.

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