Portugal's Unending Sphere of Influence
Friday, July 20, 2007
To complement the Smithsonian's new mega-exhibition "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries," the Sackler and Freer galleries recently invited Portuguese director Pedro Costa to screen two of his films. Introducing "Colossal Youth," which observes impoverished immigrants in Lisbon, Costa suggested that while the show presents the "dream" of imperial Portugal, his movie reveals the "nightmare."
To guest curator Jay A. Levenson's credit, "Encompassing the Globe" is not that simple. This impressive if overly broad exhibition does have its celebratory aspects, but it's no whitewash. An opening statement credits Portugal's 16th- and 17th-century explorations with leading to "the first real interaction among almost all the world's peoples." Yet that interaction was not benign. Portuguese seafarers introduced rifles to Japan, the Inquisition to India and African slaves to Brazil, and most of that is acknowledged somewhere among the exhibit's more than 250 objects.
Finding every scrap of information in this sprawling array of art, kitsch, history and ethnography is a challenge. The typical large Sackler show uses a two-story gallery at the museum's center. This exhibition reserves that space entirely for artifacts from Portugal, and annexes most of the rest of the museum for five satellite areas devoted to places the country explored and sometimes claimed, including Brazil, China, Japan and the Indian Ocean.
The furthest-flung of the galleries, devoted to Africa, is next door in the National Museum of African Art. (Just follow the sign at the end of the Indian Ocean section.) The Portuguese proselytized for Christianity wherever they went and always sought trade opportunities. Yet their approach varied in different parts of the globe. In Brazil and West Africa, which were linked by climate, crops and ultimately the slave trade, Portugal claimed large colonies. In Asia, it staked out relatively small trading posts on the coasts of India and China.
The Portuguese held Goa until 1961, when India seized it, and didn't relinquish Macao to China till 1999. Yet they overplayed their hand in Japan, and were banned entirely in 1614, barely 70 years after they became the first Europeans to reach the country.
These divergent experiences help explain the wide range of pieces on display. All the sections include Christian devotional objects, including paintings, crucifixes and rosaries, some in the Portuguese style and others showing strong local influence. But only the Japan galleries hold "fumi-e" ("treading-pictures"): brass, wood and bronze plaques meant to be stomped by alleged Christians to prove they weren't adherents of the banned religion. And while some indigenous craftsmen produced faithful replicas of Portuguese Christian iconography, artists in Angola, Brazil and China mingled traditional and European archetypes, creating Christs and Madonnas that no one in 17th-century Lisbon would have recognized.
Much the same forces generated different results in various Portuguese spheres of influence.
In China, where the Jesuits found few converts, Matteo Ricci, an Italian-born monk dispatched from Lisbon, ingratiated himself with European scientific knowledge; that explains why this section of the show includes an astrolabe and a sundial as well as statues in which Mary and baby Jesus are conflated with Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Craftsmen in Benin made exquisite forks, spoons and salt cellars in what came to be known as the "Bini-Portuguese" style; these goods, created to trade to the Portuguese, are clearly African, yet became accepted in Europe as essentially Portuguese. In Japan, then as now a land of inspired adapters, local Christians made altarpieces and oratories whose central images look European, but whose ornate lacquer settings are utterly Japanese.
The exhibition contains too many themes to be appreciated in a single visit, and several mini-shows could be carved from its vastness. One could be devoted just to the beautifully detailed maps, which improve dramatically in less than a century. Asia, Africa and the east coast of the Americas are barely rumors in the earlier renderings, but by the mid-16th century they emerge in recognizable forms.
A second mini-show might cover Portugal's bitter rivalry with another small and ambitious nation, the Netherlands. The two countries' fleets arrived in the same places at roughly the same time, and there was no definitive victor: The Portuguese ran the Dutch out of Brazil and Macao but ultimately lost to them the Spice Islands of what is now Indonesia. And when Japan closed to the West, it was the Dutch -- well, a few of them -- who were allowed to remain.
Another subject buried in the larger whole is the Portuguese "improvement" of exotic objects. Once they got them home, Europeans often turned natural specimens and elegant artworks into gilded knickknacks for someone's Kunst und Wunderkammer ("chamber of art and wonder"). A large nut from the Seychelles Islands was fitted into a silver-gilt setting and became an odd sort of goblet, and elegant Chinese porcelain received similarly gaudy treatment. The denatured natural ingredients include feathers, rhinoceros horns and the bones of an elephant that ended up as a three-legged stool, engraved with the arms of Maxmilian II.
There are hints of colonial brutality in many sections of the exhibition, notably Brazil and Africa. So it's appropriate that the show ends with Adriana Varejao's 1999 "Tilework With Horizontal Incision," in which a characteristically Portuguese design splits to reveal a bloody mess of seemingly human guts. Here is an expression of filmmaker Costa's imperial "nightmare," and yet it's not necessarily the final word. Because of the way the show is arranged, few visitors will encounter Varejao's work last.
There are numerous ways to enter this exhibition, and many paths to follow. Even if much of what Europeans did during the Age of Exploration is now a closed subject, "Encompassing the Globe" is intriguingly open-ended.
ENCOMPASSING THE GLOBE: PORTUGAL AND THE WORLD IN THE 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES Through Sept. 16. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, and the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000. Open daily 10 to 5:30.