Fireworks have come a long way since the 6th century, when the Chinese frightened away evil spirits with the cracking sounds of burning bamboo. After the invention of gunpowder, the production of fireworks became a thriving industry in south China, and by the beginning of the 19th century, hundreds of small factories were producing and exporting them to countries all over the world -- including the United States.
Since packaging has always been an art in the Orient, it is no surprise that by 1850 hundreds of artisans were hard at work making large, vividly colored labels to decorate crates the fireworks were shipped in. But they weren't your ordinary tear-off paper junk labels. They were hand-painted on gold leaf, and are now rare collectors' items. In China, few of these labels have survived, since boxes of fireworks were usually strung across narrow streets as holiday decorations, and exploded on New Year's Day -- boxes and all. Just in time for our own great fireworks celebration, however, a show of several such labels has turned up on Capitol Hill at the Anton Gallery, 415 East Capitol St. SE.
This rare lode of Chinese fireworks labels was discovered by Anton Gallery proprietor Gail Enns in the estate of her grandfather, a Los Angeles department store owner. However they survived, these glittering little rounds and square and rectangles -- which look almost like bits of tapestry from a distance -- represent an aspect of Chinese folk art well worth looking at. They are also advertising art of a high order.
Each one was presssed from gold leaf, using handcarved wooden blocks to produce an embossed scene. Backed with thin rice paper, the labels were then painted by hand in vivid -- sometimes garish -- colors. And while each "printing" from a block was the same, no two paintings were alike, since artists were obviously allowed to exercise their own highly individual color preferences. Their skills also varied widely, and as a result, some of the works are rather rough, while others are painted with great delicacy.
Subjects range from symbolic depictions of gods, myths and legends to a vision of Confucius surrounded by the five happinesses, and the more you know of Chinese life and lore, the more fascinating these works will be. The show will be open today, 2 to 7, and will continue through mid-July. Trocadero
Speaking of the Orient -- which more and more people are these days -- Trocadero, the closet thing Washington has to an Asian art gallery, has just opened in a commodious new space right on Dupont Circle at 1501 Connecticut Ave. NW, a block from where it began in 1978.
"We found that the market for Oceanic, African and pre-Columbian art just doesn't exist in this city," says proprietor David Kenny, explaining why the gallery had narrowed its field to Far Eastern and Southeast Asian art exclusively.
Inevitably, the shop has its share of antiques -- including two small plates from the wedding service of a Chinese emperor's daughter, circa 1830, and some nice if unimportant 17th- and 18th-century blue and while procelains. But the emphasis is on art, insists Kenny, and there are some impressive bronze and stone examples. Topping a constantly changing list at the moment is a 10th-century Indian Ganesh -- an elephant-headed deity carved from stone; a rare, tiny gilt bronze, Chimera dragon, and an 8th century bronze Tang mirror. The gallery will be open Tuesday through Saturday (including today) from 10:30 to 7. Lansburgh Center
ATTENTION ALL ARTISTS! Tired of looking for spaces to show your work and having dealers turn your donw? The Lansburgh Center has come to the rescue and is offering space at minimal cost -- and without taking a commission. Best of all, the space isn't inside but outside -- in the windows surrounding the center, which fills a city block between Seventh and Eighth and D and E streets NW, adjacent to the new Seventh Street arts corridor. Open 24 hours a day, the windows offer a constant audience of passers-by -- more than most galleries could hope for.
The cost: a mere $6 per week for a small window or $12 per week for a large one. The only requirements: The space must be rented for a minimum of four weeks, and will have to meet "certain standards" set by a visual arts committee. "But we have no jurying system or anything like that," says Lansburgh Center spokesman Francois Clay-Tor, insisting, "We're not elitist. What we want to do is encourage the creative process and provide a cultural experience to the community."
Clay-Tor also said that once the Lansburgh Center has completed its renovations, the windows will be used chiefly by arts organizations using the building. Miya Gallery and Studio Gallery have already used the windows to good advantage, as has the D.C. Slide Registry, which is currently exhibiting members' work in a window-show juried by David Tannous. Photographer Angela Rice and painter Donald Davidson are also currently showing. For further information contact Helene Steene, 724-2180. F Street Displays
Also getting into the new Seventh Street spirit is the downtown Hecht Co., which as decided to devote its display windows on F Street to Washington artists -- specifically sculptors. John Dickson is the current beneficiary of this admirable new venture, and Jim Sanborne and Wade Saunders were shown before him. Peggy Disney, assistant director of public relations for Hecht's, dreamed up the idea and is currently pursuing future possibilities. For now the windows will be available "through the summer at least," says Disney, who can be reached at 626-8418. With luck, it won't stop there.