Treasures Of The Orient Walters' Asian Art Collection Finds A Suitable Setting In The Hackerman House John Dorsey

May 05, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,JOHN DORSEY is the art critic for The Sun

THE WALTERS ART GALLERY'S COLLECTION OF ASIAN ART HAS BEEN CALLED "A very personal collection," and in Hackerman House, opening to the public at 1:30 p.m. today, it has found a home that fits it well.

Assembled between about 1870 and 1920 by William T. Walters and his son Henry, the collection was first shown to the public at the Walters house, 5 W. Mount Vernon Place, in 1873 and later in a gallery William Walters built behind the house in the 1880s. How appropriate, then, that today the collection has come to rest just two doors away at 1 West, in one of the great town houses of the 19th century.

Moreover, Hackerman House provides more than just a series of galleries for the objects. The Chinese porcelains and Japanese 19th-century art that form the majority of the collection have been given semi-domestic settings in the first floor's grand rooms, while upstairs other aspects of the collection receive more neutral, gallery-like treatment.

Milo Beach, director of the Freer and Sackler galleries of Asian art in Washington, recently said the installation "looks phenomenal" and praised the idea behind it for just this kind of collection. Instead of the more usual practice of mounting art "to evoke the kinds of cultures out of which the objects were taken," he said, putting the collection into the Hackerman House gives it a context that reflects "the important development of American interest in Asia" in the 19th century.

William Walters was at the forefront of that development. He amassed the "first major American collection of Oriental art," says Walters associate director William R. Johnston (at work on a book about William and Henry), and adds that it was recognized as such at the time. "In the 19th-century press that I read, they see him as the pioneer."

He saw collections of Oriental art in London and Paris as early as 1862. In the next 22 years he amassed 4,100 objects, buying significantly at international expositions in Vienna, Philadelphia and Paris.

What was offered at such exhibitions consisted largely of either contemporary work or the work of recent centuries, so that was )) what William, like other collectors of his time, bought. It was Henry who, after his father's death, expanded the collection into older works; but that was in the 20th century when, as Mr. Johnston notes, there was "a much more comprehensive knowledge of Oriental art."

Because what was assembled by William and Henry has remained intact, and because the Chinese and Japanese portions have been little enlarged, this is very much "a particular collection formed by two men," says Rose Kerr, curator of the Far Eastern collections at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. "It's a very personal collection, and in certain areas among the best in the world."

It is, says Walters curator of Asian art Hiram W. Woodward Jr., particularly strong in Chinese porcelains of the Ching Dynasty (mid-17th through 19th centuries) and Japanese objects of the 19th century.

A few figures may help put that in perspective. (All are approximate.) Of 7,000 objects, 6,200 are Chinese and Japanese (the rest from other parts of Asia). Of those, 3,800 are Japanese and 2,400 Chinese. Of the Japanese, 3,500 are 19th century. Of the Chinese, 1,600 are Ching porcelains.

Although there are significant works in other areas, including what Mr. Woodward calls "a small number of major Buddhist sculptures" and a strong holding of Chinese bronzes of 1200 to 200 B.C., in general the works of earlier periods are less well represented.

One reason the collection's "hills and valleys never got smoothed out," Mr. Woodward says, is that there was never a curator of Asian art at the Walters until he was appointed five years ago. But to complain about what the collection doesn't have would be a little like complaining that the Cone sisters didn't like cubism, or Mozart didn't live another 35 years: It won't do any good.

Mr. Beach pronounces a definite "Yes" when asked if the Walters' is among the major American collections of Asian art. And, happily, recent years have seen an increased interest in those areas in which the Walters is strongest.

Lee Bruschke-Johnson, formerly of the Walters and now at the Freer/Sackler, has written an essay about part of the Japanese collection. She notes that the Walterses "chose extremely good pieces." Japanese 19th-century work made after the opening to the West in the 1850s used to be looked down on when compared with older work. But, Ms. Bruschke-Johnson says, "That's an idea that was brought about by scholars around the turn of the century who wanted to promote very traditional Japanese art and depreciated the value of anything that had any scent of Western influence." More recently, she says, "people are coming to realize that these pieces have a lot of value, and they're interesting from the historical perspective of the influence that Japanese knowledge of the Western market has on their traditional art."

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