Asian Art in London (AAL; 3–12 November) was founded in 1997, and its role since its inception has been to shine a light on the quality and variety of Asian art on view in the capital – whether in the city’s museums, commercial galleries or salerooms. London dealers save their best acquisitions for the event; foreign dealers fly in with treasures; the auction houses muster tempting offerings; symposia, lectures and seminars celebrate the expertise and enthusiasm to be found at the fair. This year there are lectures on shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand; on early Indian sculpture and its international legacy; on Islamic art and the supernatural; and the custodianship of 19th-century photography. Other highlights include young artist Xue Geng’s affecting ‘porcelain film’ Mr Sea at the China Exchange; and Arjuna’s Meditation, a performance derived from the Mahabharata where the story is told using traditional Indonesian shadow puppets (British Museum).
The roll call of exhibitors reflects how radically the Asian art market has shifted over the past two decades. At that time, the London market was focused almost exclusively on the traditional collecting fields: antique Chinese porcelain, jade and bronze; Indian paintings and ancient sculpture; Japanese netsuke and inrō; Islamic ceramics and metalwork. The event’s context has since shifted dramatically with the proliferation of 20th-century and contemporary Asian art in the galleries and salerooms – now, blue-chip galleries vie to sign up Korean Dansaekhwa masters, the estates of Gutai artists, and rising stars from Japan, China, India, Southeast Asia and beyond. Moreover, European and American connoisseurs compete with Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Korean collectors to find prize pieces.
In response to this shift, the event increasingly offers a platform for modern and contemporary Asian art. Grosvenor Gallery’s ‘Indian Modernist Landscapes 1950–1970’ showcases F.N. Souza, Sadanand Bakre and Lancelot Ribeiro (the latter is also explored in a lecture by Nicholas Treadwell at the British Museum). Gregg Baker, a leading dealer in antique Japanese screens, stages an exhibition of paintings by the Japanese post-war avant-garde artist, Suda Kokuta. Richard Saltoun is running a retrospective of work by the Taiwanese artist, Li Yuan-chia. Intriguingly, this rebellious pioneer of conceptual and abstract work, grounded in Chinese culture and philosophy, lived in Cumbria for the last 20 years of his life. Aktis Gallery, specialists in émigré artists living in post-war Paris, shows ink paintings by the renowned Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-Ki, now highly sought after at auction, alongside the abstracted wooden sculptures of Wang Keping, who emigrated to France in 1984. Raquelle Azran, a New York collector and curator specialising in Vietnamese contemporary work, is bringing lacquer paintings by 20th-century artist Hoang Tich Chu.
Among living artists, the work on show emphasises the dialogue between the East and West, between tradition and modernity. Amrita Jhaveri of Mumbai-based Jhaveri Contemporary presents the mysterious work of Pakistani artist Ali Kazim, whose series of watercolours was inspired by a visit to an ancient Indus Valley Civilisation site on the banks of the Ravi River. Jhaveri describes them as ‘classically beautiful works, using the techniques of miniature painting, but on a larger, contemporary scale’. Eskenazi, renowned dealers in early Chinese bronzes, ceramics, sculpture, porcelain and Chinese furniture, offers 24 outstanding early Chinese works from private collections, including a wine vessel (zun) from the early Western Zhou period (1046–771 BC). This rare piece was shown at the celebrated exhibition of Chinese art at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice in 1954. An archaic jade notched disc from the late Neolithic Shang period (2000–1500 BC; Fig. 2) is another highlight. Alongside these antiquities, the dealer is mounting the first European exhibition of the exquisite ink paintings of Zeng Xiaojun, himself a major collector of antique Chinese furniture. Chen Jiang-Hong, exhibiting with Elena Shchukina Gallery, combines Indian ink with unusual raw materials, such as sawdust, to create atmospheric paintings based on the traditional Chinese vocabulary of bamboos and lotus flowers. London dealer Simon Pilling offers Ando Saeko’s extraordinary abstract compositions constructed from layers of coloured lacquer, while Mayor Gallery presents the cloudy abstract paintings of Chinese artist Jiang Dahai.
The contemporary work on display emphasises the enduring significance of historic Asian art. At Rossi & Rossi, Nepalese artist Tsherin Sherpa’s exuberant paintings on cotton – sometimes incorporating gold or platinum leaf – hang alongside such beautiful Tibetan works as Shâkyamuni’s Miracles, a 14th-century distemper on cotton.
Mayfair dealer Prahlad Bubbar offers South Asian treasures such as a Mughal painting of Emperor Akbar receiving the keys to Mankot fort from Sikandar Shah Suri. The leaf, from the third Akbarnama of around 1590, represents a high point of manuscript illustration in India. There is also an exceptional folio from the ‘Palam’ Bhagavata Purana of 1520 here, and a group of Bhuta bronzes from a private collection that draws attention to the less familiar field of tribal Indian art.
Miniature painting is well represented at Francesca Galloway, which offers an exhibition of Pahari paintings from the renowned Eva and Konrad Seitz collection. At Sam Fogg you can see a whole library of manuscripts from India, including a 10m-long, 19th-century scroll illustrating the story of Bhavana Rishi. Originating in the Deccan, it would have been used to support a live performance. Jonathan Tucker and Antonia Tozer have gathered sculptures and other works of art from Gandhara, India and Southeast Asia in stone, bronze, stucco, wood and gold, including a striking Gandharan bronze buddha from the 5th century and a large schist figure of Atlas (2nd–3rd century). Specialising in Indian and Islamic art, Simon Ray fields beautiful Iznik and Iranian pottery, but also a magnificent Khmer carved grey sandstone sculpture of a male deity, probably Shiva, from the 11th century. Elsewhere, Sydney L. Moss shows rare Japanese stag-antler carvings alongside intricate netsuke, inrō and pipe cases by the late 19th-century master, Ozaki Kokusai.
Chinese ceramics can be found at Berwald Oriental Art, Marchant, Priestley & Ferraro and Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art – as well as in the special exhibition ‘Four Hundred Years of Japanese Porcelain’, mounted by Italian dealership Genrokuart. David Baker Oriental Art offers a rare Japanese Kakiemon vase from the Arita kilns of around 1660, decorated in polychrome enamels with a pair of exotic birds in fruiting branches, alongside other early Japanese porcelains. Meanwhile, Chinese objects appealing to the traditional scholar’s taste feature in exhibitions at Ben Janssens Oriental Art, Roger Keverne and Marcus Flacks – with Ben Janssens offering expertly carved miniature furniture and a highly decorative Ming bronze incense burner in the form of an elephant from the 16th or 17th century.
Finally, Jorge Welsh is celebrating 30 years in business with an exhibition of objects made in China for the export market. These fascinating pieces are decorated with illustrations of famous European buildings and landscapes and date from the late 17th century. Items range from individual plates, dinner services, tea sets, punch bowls, mugs, snuff boxes, urns, cisterns, vases and plaques made in porcelain, to folding fans and painted ivory plaques. Welsh describes them rather fittingly as ‘hybrid objects, which are both Chinese and European, becoming historical testimonies of artistic interactions between the two cultures’.
From the November issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
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When outsider art entered the mainstream