Besides its unbeatable lineup of special exhibitions, the BMA has one of the finest permanent collections in the Southeast. With more than 24,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, videos, and decorative arts, the collection spans more than 4000 years and represents cultures from around the globe. Now, discover your Museum with the Spotlight on the Collection series. Experience the spotlight work in the galleries with an ArtBreak or Slow Art Sunday, like us on Facebook to learn more, or join the conversation below to tell us what you think about these artworks!
Jar, Vietnam, 16th century
This large ceramic jar is one of the most spectacular example of painted Vietnamese ware known. At just over two feet tall, it is exceptional not only in size but also in the complexity of its decoration and its near perfect condition. Four mask bosses protrude just below the rim, four unglazed openwork panels depict a crane flying through swirling mists, and four painted mythological creatures – two winged horses and two qilin – appear in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels. The cut-out bisque-fired roundels of cranes, backed with another offset panel of clay, add shadows and an unusual sense of depth. The decorations – all symbolic of luck and prosperity – are deftly rendered and have not been retouched or overpainted. Apollo Magazine, a journal for decorative arts and an important voice in the art world, named this jar one of the Top 10 Museum Acquisitions in the World for 2011.
Over the past 6000 years, Vietnam has created the most sophisticated ceramics tradition in Southeast Asia. Besides borrowing from China, Vietnamese potters explored indigenous tastes and developed their own production techniques. The smooth gray-white clays of the Red River Valley made for ceramics that are light and thin-walled, which artists then painted, engraved, and carved with decorations.
China ruled Vietnam, its close neighbor, for 1000 years – from the beginning of the 1st century AD to the 10th century – thus exposing the Vietnamese directly to its civilization and ceramic tradition. Vietnamese potters, however, did not simply copy Chinese ceramics; rather, they combined their own methods with Chinese ones in original ways. They experimented with new ideas and integrated features from cultures such as Cambodia, India, and Champa. The industry developed distinctly Vietnamese characteristics during the native Ly and Tran dynasties (1009 – 1400). The Vietnamese have traded wares through the centuries from Egypt to Japan, and all over Southeast Asia.
The Vietnamese have always been profoundly aware of nature. Dense tropical forests, lush rice paddies, rushing rivers, and the colorful flowers, animals, birds, and fish that inhabit them have long been part of the vocabulary of daily life. This variety of flora and fauna translates well into art, especially ceramics. The decoration of bowls, plates, cups, jars, figurines, and containers of all sorts offers a glimpse into what the Vietnamese considered important, significant, or amusing through the ages.
A steady stream of gifts and Museum purchases over the years has resulted in a collection that not only provides an overview of Vietnam’s rich ceramics heritage but is also one of the three most important collections of its type in North America.
—Dr. Don Wood, senior curator and curator of Asian art,
with Tyler Pratt, education intern, summer 2013
Chilkat Blanket, Native American, Tlingit people, 19th century
A chilkat blanket is worn draped over the shoulders of chiefs or high-ranking men during important ceremonial occasions. The graphic, bold design elements are derived from family crests and are composed of abstracted animals’ faces, eyes, snouts, fins, beaks, and wings, which fill the design field with perfect bilateral symmetry. Women weave the robes from goat wool and soft cedar bark, working from design boards painted by men. Their looms have a top frame and side supports, but the warp threads hang freely at the bottom.
Historically, chilkat robes were items of great prestige and were treasured gifts when received at a potlatch ceremony. During the 19th century, when Tlingit and other Northwest Coast individuals became wealthy by way of the fur trade, the potlatch reached new extremes of gift-giving and display. According to some accounts, chilkat robes were burned as a demonstration of the host’s wealth and largesse.
Dr. Emily Hanna, curator of the arts of Africa and the Americas
Cup, colonial period Inca culture, 18th century
Some traditions withstand the test of time – through generations, cultural changes, and even centuries of progress and modernization. Yet, these same outside influences often result in new ideas and approaches that supplant old ways and customs.
This Inca qero (ritual drinking cup) represents such conflicting responses to cultural change. Inca artisans created wooden drinking vessels like this one after the Spanish conquest of Inca territory – current day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Inca and other Andean cultures drank chicha, a beer made from maize, from qeros. The Inca always produced qeros in pairs, to represent the dual nature of the cosmos – specifically the male-female dichotomy of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Apu (Father Mountain). During social and religious ceremonies, Incas situated the pair of cups symbolically with the “male” cup on the right and the “female” cup on the left. Families considered qeros an important connection to their religion and also as valued heirlooms that linked the present day with ancestors and history. Although produced in various materials including wood and metal, the qero’s basic shape remained consistent throughout the Andes.
I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28th, 1968, Ernest Withers, 1968 (printed 1994)
After Ernest Withers (1922-2007) received his first camera in high school, he quickly began documenting events and people in his immediate community. A quiet determination to get the best shot continued throughout his life. His ties within Memphis’s Black community afforded him a proximity to central figures of the Civil Rights Movement; he eventually became the movement’s most widely published photographer. He once recalled, “I was trained as a high school student in history. But I didn’t know that I would be recording the high multitude of imagery and history that I did record.”
L’Aurore (Dawn), William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881
Dawn – early morning represented by a female figure reaching back to smell a blooming calla lily – exemplifies William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s standards of beauty and technical skill. His attention to detail and smooth finished surfaces produced human figures that are both lyrical and ideal.
Bouguereau studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and classical art at the Villa Medici in Rome, which gave him a chance to explore the human form in depth. Critics praised his images of nudes particularly for the meticulously detailed yet gentle rendering of skin.
Greco-Roman antiquities and Italian Renaissance sculpture often influenced Bouguereau’s later work. Frequently, he portrayed biblical, mythological, and allegorical figures like Dawn. A passage in Homer’s Odyssey that describes the breaking of day as a “rosy-fingered dawn, the child of the morning” inspired him to paint the figure’s fingers and toes with a pinker hue than the rest of her flesh.
Perfume Fountain, French, about 1710
Porcelain, a ceramic material first made in China, was a staple of trade between Europe and East Asia. Though porcelain was present in Europe since the early 17th century, King Louis XIV’s affinity for the wares made them an important facet of French décor. In the mid-18th century, a royal manufactory was established in France, though trade with East Asia continued since French manufactories could not make porcelain of the same quality and durability as China before the discovery of kaolin deposits in France during the 1760s.