Driving into Princeton had always brought back a lot of memories for me. I grew up only thirty minutes away amongst the farmlands of central New Jersey, so in my younger years I came to know, for better or worse, children that attended the Princeton Day School, had family members that had gone to Princeton University, or, as I got older, that frequently visited the small local theater in town. I visited the area myself on occasion, and my fondest memories of my paternal grandparents consisted of semi-regular visits to Conte’s Bar for pepperoni and onion pizzas followed by an ice cream afterwards. The University and the town itself were indelibly (and I think understandably) linked in my young brain, so when I think of one today, I automatically think of the other. As the only University I’d personally ever seen, my idealized image of Princeton became what I thought all colleges and their surrounding towns should be like throughout my grade school and high school years. While my thoughts on the subject have certainly matured and become more realistic, in some ways that image of Princeton remains a paragon in my mind today. This makes my most recent memory of the area seem somewhat fortuitous – it was in Princeton that I first met my M.A. advising professor from Florida State University, who was spending a year their working on his own research. I’d already been accepted to the program by that time, but I remember nervously arranging to meet with the person I’d be working closely with for the next several years of my life, far away from my familiar places and friends and family. I remember getting lost looking for parking, and then hoofing it to the Indian restaurant where he suggested we meet for a buffet lunch. I was anxious about making a good impression and saying the right things, but in the end I had little to worry about. To my personal delight, we managed to hold a conversation all through lunch, then continued over drinks at a nearby coffee shop, and then ended with a home-made gelato from The Bent Spoon. After three hours, I imagined I couldn’t have made too much of a fool out of myself if he was willing to talk with me for so long, and I felt fairly confident my soon-to-be professor was a good match for me and what I wanted to do. I certainly wasn’t wrong in this regard, and I am forever grateful for everything I came to learn from him in the ensuing years of class work, translation, and personal research.
And so, while having nothing to do with the trip itself, it was with all of this weighted, fond, and sometimes bittersweet nostalgia that I visited the Princeton University Art Museum on Thursday (August 4, 2011) in order to see what was on display and what new things I could learn so close to my own hometown.
The Princeton University Art Museum
First off, the entrance of the Museum may be a bit difficult to find for anyone planning to visit who is unfamiliar with the layout of Princeton’s campus. Google Maps (and I assume other mapping sites as well) will actually lead you to the back of the building, not the front, but if you make that mistake its easy enough to follow the walking path up and around until you see a pair of banners that mark the entrance. Distance-wise, if walking from the intersection of Witherspoon and Nassau Street, the Museum is about two to three city blocks into Princeton Campus. Parking, depending on when you go, could be difficult as well since there is no parking allocated to the Museum on campus. I was lucky enough to snag a metered place along Nassau Street (two-hour stay maximum), but there are also public parking garages off Palmer’s Square along Chambers, Hulfish, and Spring streets. Admission to the Museum itself is free, so paying a little for parking seems like a fair trade-off to even a poor post-graduate like me. The immediate entrance leads into the gift shop (which is small but nicely appointed), and then the next set of doors leads into the Museum proper and to the docent’s desk, where you can snag yourself a map. The Museum isn’t huge – its only two floors and shares the building of McCormick Hall with the University’s Department of Art and Archaeology and the Marquand Library – but its maze-like layout of small rooms allows for one to pretend like they are “discovering” something when they come into a room they hadn’t noticed at first, giving the place a much larger feel than how it first appears. This is added to by the fact that, due to its size, the Museum rotates out its pieces in order to showcase different aspects of its larger collection. Knowing how long I take looking at any given exhibit, I took my map and headed downstairs in order to confront the Museum’s current displays of Asian art.
I. Far Eastern Gallery
As I have noted previously, my own specialized knowledge and interests lie primarily in Central and South Asian artifacts and history, Tibetan in particular, so I knew going into this visit that I would be a little bit out of depth due to the Museum’s focus on East Asian art. Any political commentary as to whether Tibet is or is not a part of China aside, academically these areas are often considered quite distinct artistically and culturally and are each part of their own separate yet overlapping scholarly traditions. Therefore, my knowledge of Chinese art is not as expansive as I would like, and my knowledge of Japanese and Korean art – also in the Lower Galleries – is even more limited. That being said, there are still a number of things I can mention regarding the exhibits at hand and how they are presented to the general audience.
When Men and Mountains Meet: China as Land and People (March 5 – September 18, 2011) is the first exhibit I wandered into, to the immediate left of the staircase. Admittedly, I wasn’t aware that this was what it was at first – I didn’t see the explanatory placard until the end of my circuit due to its placement in relation to where I entered the gallery. As described on this placard and on the official website, Curator of Asian Art Cary Y. Liu aims to use this exhibit to showcase the relationship between the land and the people of China, and how this relationship has changed from the magic- and demon-filled times of the past to the modernization of the present. One side of the room is filled with traditional images of mountains and landscapes, many filled with animal-like creatures with whom people of the past had to negotiate their lives. The other focuses on photographic images of man-made structures displaying how, twentieth century, the people of China have overcome the elements of nature through technological advancement. I, of course, with my interests in early history, ritual, and spirit deities, was far more drawn to the contents of the former. This includes what I found to be my favorite piece on display, a set of dark lacquered wooden panels which I eventually read to be from the sides of a disassembled coffin dating to the Chinese Liao Dynasty (907-1125 C.E.). Each of its long sides depict two fierce greenish-black creatures in fluid lunching poses that resemble an anthropomorphic mix of a leopard, a dragon, and a lion due to their spots, fangs, and flowing manes and tails. I was struck by the detail of these creatures and wished the accompanying placard provided more information on its associated imagery. I was also drawn to another demon-related piece in a center display, this one a hand scroll dating to the middle of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) entitled “Searching for Demons on Mount Gaunkau (Gaunkou sou shan tu).” The scroll appears to be incredibly well-preserved; an ink drawing on silk depicting several scenes of different demons being hunted or captured on a mountainous landscape. I was intrigued by the intricacy in the image, and once again wished there had been more background provided about the piece, such as its purpose, its origin, or even more information about the mountain and the myths it was meant to portray. Other subdivided rooms in the Chinese Art Gallery featured peaceful images, such as the featured statue of Guanyin in royal-ease pose (rajalilasana) dating to the Song Dynasty (1127-1279), tomb-related artifacts, such as a large display of delicate, militaristic tomb figurines dating from 220-589 C.E. and a selection of brightly painted tomb guardians from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), and a selection of pots and other items. The collection of Japanese and Korean objects are located behind the Chinese gallery as well. (For more information on When Men and Mountains Meet, see: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/events/WhenMenandMountainsMeet/)
II. Southeast Asian Gallery
Somewhat amidst these subdivided rooms is a small corner containing the Museum’s collection of currently featured Southeast Asian artifacts. The pieces, rather than tied together thematically, seem to be some of the “jewels” of the collection, and aside from three large Indian stone statues there are also a few objects of Nepalese, Cambodian, Javanese, and Thai origin. In the center, there are even some exceptionally beautiful Pakistani pieces of Gandharan Buddhist art in stucco, dating from the first through fifth centuries.
Guanyin Seated in Royal-Ease Pose, Princeton University Art Museum (photo: Bruce M. White)
While not pertaining to Asian Art, I would be remiss if I did not mention at least two of the current special exhibitions on display through the Fall in the Upper Galleries: Cartographies of Time (June 25 – September 18, 2011) and The Life and Death of Buildings (July 23 – November 6, 2011). The first looks at how time is graphically represented throughout European and American history, focusing on rare books, manuscripts, and other printed media drawn mostly from the University’s own Department of Rare Books. As to second, I found it to be especially poignant and thought-provoking. This rather large, special exhibit features images of buildings at various states of their “life-spans”, and looks at the history of civilization though built environments. All and all, both are incredibly fascinating if you have interests in representations of time or in architecture, respectively.
For more information on the Museum’s current exhibitions, see: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/exhibitions/
As someone unfamiliar with many of the East Asian artifacts and their cultural contexts, I was personally dying for more information on many of the beautiful and interesting pieces within the gallery. Due to the minimalist approach to signage in the Asian art exhibits in particular, I also found it hard to understand why certain pieces were grouped together, and the galleries themselves often seemed to bleed into each other with no clear demarcation. This could be linked to the nature of the galleries, which are rotated on a regular basis to highlight different aspects of the collection, but from an educational standpoint it seemed to pale in comparison to some of the other exhibits featured throughout the Museum in terms of presentation and explanatory information. Ultimately, however, I truly appreciated the beautiful selection of pieces on display at the Museum, and I look forward to future exhibits as they rotate in. I had a pleasant time on my visit, adding a new memory of Princeton to the growing compendium I seem to be collecting, and I ended my day like I have on my previous trips to Princeton – with a crazy-sounding gelato from The Bent Spoon (lavender mascarpone and lemon basil) and a visit to Conte’s for a slice of pizza. If you are able to make it out to the Princeton University Art Museum, I recommend that you do the same and start building up your own memories of this historic and exciting little town.