March 2, 2018

A Last Look

{“Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern,” Brooklyn Museum}

So…I think I owe you an explanation. As you might have noticed, I’ve stopped blogging for a while now. In summer 2017, I left my job at the Brooklyn Museum and moved to London to get my MSc in art and archaeological conservation. That’s right– I’m no longer a curator, but a conservator! A scientist who spends much of her time in a lab, looking at things under a microscope, trying to understand what the objects from our past are trying to tell us if only we listen hard enough to the signs they show.

This was always my favourite part. It’s the reason why I believe I’ll always be, in my heart of hearts, an art historian before a curator or a conservator, and a writer before anything else.

Having said that, I always knew that this blog would only remain active insofar as I remained active in the field of curation (hence the name of this blog.) And now that chapter of my life as “a museum girl in New York” has ended in favour of this new life in Europe, filled with archaeological excavations, chemical analyses, and treatments of objects from all over the world.

Maybe I’ll come back to New York one day as a different kind of “museum girl.” But until then, I’m going to focus my recreational writing on on more fictional pursuits. If I ever come out with a book, I promise to let you be the first to know!

Thank you for coming along with me for these past two years.



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July 12, 2017

Milan, Lyon & London

**Click the following links to see my art historical posts on London, Milan, and Lyon


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June 17, 2017

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 4/4)

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


Sadō, or ‘the way of tea’ is a nationally revered art form in Japan. Often translated as the Japanese ‘tea ceremony,’ many practitioners of sadō resent this interpretation because it implies a restrictive ritual of rules, which erodes one’s idea of the enjoyment that it provides. For the purposes of this post, however, such a translation does not undermine the pleasure of Japanese tea culture. Rather, it highlights the complex refinement inherent in sadō that makes it worthy of its status as an art in the first place. Warlords in medieval Japan understood this fact. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when imperial authority was weak and warriors wielded great governmental power, they sought to emulate such refinement by becoming practitioners and collectors of tea wares. In doing so, they added a cultured dimension to their personas as military conquerors, which lent an authority to their power that otherwise lacked in comparison to the royal rulers that preceded them. Seen on a macro scale, their desire to possess fine tea wares paralleled their desire for power. Such was the case during Japan’s Muromachi period, when warlords vied in battle as well as in wealth and culture.

Tea appreciation in Japan began in the ninth century, when the monk Eichū (743-816) returned to Japan with tea leaves from China, where he had been studying Buddhism for thirty years. He served them to Emperor Saga (786-842), who emulated certain aspects of China’s Tang culture at his court, including the practice of courtiers reciting poetry while drinking tea. However, at this point tea appreciation did not catch on. It was only during the twelfth century when tea culture truly began, brought into being by Eisai (1141-1215), a monk who established the Rinzai school of Zen/Chan Buddhism. Like Eichū, Eisai also brought tea back with him from China. The difference, however, is that Eisai extolled its medicinal value, and on this basis he served tea to the ruling military elite while also integrating it into the daily practices of his Zen teachings. Long before we had an understanding of caffeine, Eisai recommended that monks drink it to revive themselves when fatigued. A set of rules for handling tea, called sarei, was soon established, and the tea ceremony was born. These protocols blended well with the other practices of Zen Buddhism, which placed an emphasis on daily discipline, rigorous training, and the harmony of mind, body, and spirit. And because this attitude resonated deeply with the military class, who cherished the same orderly virtues, the tea ceremony also became treasured by the samurai elite.

To understand how these warlords used the tea ceremony and its wares for their political aims, we must follow a timeline of their conquests and domination. After the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the country was thrown into a series of civil wars between various fiefdoms. This lasted until 1392 when the first Muromachi shōgun, Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), assumed power over the country. He and his descendants continued to have an affinity for the tea ceremony and its service by monks, and during this period, Japanese architecture became influenced by this predilection. The formal palace style of the Heian period gradually gave way to the shoin (study room) style, which incorporated elements of temple architecture such as tea ceremony rooms. Once an activity only fit to be held within temple walls, the tea ceremony came to be performed in these study rooms by menservants dressed as monks, who were called dōbōshū.

The Ashikaga family collected valuable tea wares as a result of this affinity, and when Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) seized control of their lands, as well as their possessions, he inherited an impressive collection. By this time, trade with Europe was well established through Japan’s commercial relationship with Portugal, and it was in Nobunaga’s best interests to cultivate close ties with wealthy merchants from the trading port of Sakai, who controlled the import of military firearms from Portugal. To that end, he invited these townsmen to tea gatherings where he flaunted the tea utensils once owned by the Ashikaga clan. This was his tactful way of showing that their authority was now vested in him. Oftentimes, he would also give these utensils to generals who pleased him, thereby drawing a comparison between his high regard of them and the esteem with which he prized his tea wares.

Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) perpetuated this political practice. After his ascent to power in 1582, he held three large tea gatherings within the first seven months as a way to secure political allegiances, at which he displayed Nobunaga’s collection of tea articles to remind his guests of who now had control of the country. When Hideyoshi was appointed regent in 1585 he travelled to court to thank the royal family, and as a token of his gratitude he served them tea himself. This was the first time that the tea ceremony was performed at court by a daimyō .

These conveyances of taste and enlightenment by warlords to the public poignantly illustrate the usefulness of sadō as a political tool. And while this appropriation constitutes only a minor point in the expansive breadth of manipulative tactics employed by Japanese military rulers to justify power in the minds of their subjects, it aptly explains how charmingly they could do it.



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May 27, 2017

Recap: Japan

**Click the following links to see my art historical recaps of Kyoto, Ise, and Tokyo!


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March 22, 2017

Recap: Rajasthan

**Click the following links to see my art historical recaps of Udaipur, Ranakpur, and Jodhpur!

{Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur}

{Ranakpur Jain Temple}

{Ahar Cenotaphs, Udaipur}

{Jodhpur City}

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March 14, 2017

Recap: Delhi and Agra

**To see my art historical recap of Delhi and Agra for the Brooklyn Museum, click here!

{The ultimate expression of eternal love. Commissioned by Shah Jahan (1592-1666) as a mausoleum for his late wife, the Taj Mahal was built over 22 years and required over 20,000 artisans to decorate the white marble structure with intricate carving and inlaid semi-precious stones.}

{The Darwaza-e-rauza (Great Gate) directly faces the Taj Mahal and is architecturally reminiscent of the Mughal architecture of earlier rulers. Its archways mirror the Taj Mahal’s archways.}

{These marble inlay artisans have been using the same techniques as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago when they decorated the Taj Mahal. The formula for their secret glue is handed down only from son to son, making their craft rare even today. Although I couldn’t get ahold of their recipe, I managed to get a small tutorial on making inlay pieces!}

{This inlaid marble panel on the façade of the Taj Mahal exemplifies the floral motif style that is typical of Mughal decoration during the time of Shah Jahan. Such flowers are stemmed and characterised by their delicate lines and colourful petals or intricate carving.}

{Goodbye, Taj Mahal! Next stop: Rajasthan!}



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December 30, 2016

colour study: marine colours x vermillion

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November 23, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 3/4)

titunamaScene from Tutinama (Tales of the Parrot), ca.1560

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


The Mughal Empire, a dynasty that presided over 4 million square kilometers of the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan at the height of its power, was comprised of a Turco-Mongol lineage whose rulers insisted on a Persianate culture. This choice was based on their belief that the Persian heritage was more sophisticated. Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the empire, spoke Chagatai Turkic as his native language. Yet he so admired the Persian language and culture that he sought to emulate all aspects of it in the establishment of his new court. Such an adoption, along with its continuation by his successors, indicates the way in which Mughal emperors tried to rescue their nomadic, cross-cultural heritage from the barbaric label that was implied in their reputation as military conquerors.

To Babur’s credit, his occupation as a warlord had no effect on his introspective tendency and sensitivity toward the natural world. His interest in the native flora and fauna of northern India, for instance, is given great focus in his writings, the most famous of which is his epic autobiography, the Baburnama. While these memoirs chiefly chronicle the advancement of Babur’s military career, they also reveal his thoughtful nature, erudition, and worldliness as someone who organized his Chagatai Turkic prose into Persian sentence structures, interspersed with Persian poems and phrases. Indeed, Babur, devoted naturalist and poetry enthusiast, was no barbarian. Unfortunately, however, his short reign of only four years disabled him from making further strides in the cultural realm.

His son, Humayun (1508-1556), inherited his father’s artistic inclination and showed it to a more significant degree. While his reign was not without its own problems—most notably, his fifteen-year exile—the fact that he found refuge at the court of the Persian Shah Tahmasp proved to be a blessing in disguise. There he saw the running of the Shah’s renowned painting atelier firsthand and was able to replicate it to great success once power was restored to him. When Humayun returned to his court in Kabul in 1549, he brought with him two of the Shah’s finest painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad. As their patron he was attentive to their production processes, and he kept them so close by that he even had them accompany his military campaign when he retook Delhi in 1555. Despite Humayun’s ability to foster artistic talent within his court, however, the distinctive style that would begin to constitute Mughal art only came to light during the reign of his son, Akbar the Great (1556-1605).

Under Akbar’s rule, the Mughal Empire came into a golden age that tripled in both size and wealth. After creating a centralized system of government administration, which unified the state, the empire experienced one of its greatest periods of peace and prosperity. And, as with all golden ages, it also flourished culturally. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Akbar’s art patronage was how it was used as tool of governance. While the diverse ethnic landscape that Akbar’s territory encapsulated initially made it difficult for him to instill a sense of solidarity and loyalty in his subjects, by building an atelier that consisted of over a hundred Indian and Persian artists, who collaborated with one another to create a style of art that combined Indian and Persian visual elements, Akbar successfully fostered a new visual culture that his subjects could find pride in.

Popular subjects in this new mode included Persian fables depicted in Indian landscapes, as well as Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata that were rendered in the fine lines and realistic manner for which Persian painting was known. By this time, maritime trade with Europe had also allowed Akbar’s court to become familiar with the Western perspective in art, and as such, pictorial depth gradually became an element of the Mughal style as well. The range of visual material that Akbar’s atelier produced was a testament to the diversity of the Mughal Empire and the inclusiveness with which many of its emperors sought to rule.

Next (part 4/4): Samurai and the Tea Ceremony as a Political Instrument



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November 3, 2016

colour study: cobalt x yellow




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October 16, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 2/4)

medicivs.sforza Francesco II Sforza (1495-1535); Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492)

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


As discussed in the previous post of this series, the success of the Medici family in securing their position as tastemakers of the Renaissance was an impressive feat, given their low-born status among the feudal elites. But how did they achieve this recognition, over every other prominent family?

Not only was their competition with the established nobility difficult, but their task to turn Florence into a cultural centre proved challenging as well. Far from the picturesque attraction that it is today, Florence in the late 14th century was an unlikely location for such an explosion of artistic genius. Like Giovanni de’ Medici, it was born disadvantaged and poor. Landlocked, it was bereft of any ports, which cut off trade prospects. And, unlike Milan, which was known for its military might, Florence was vulnerable to its occasionally bellicose neighbours because of its weak army. Other city-states seemed to have higher chances of turning out more talent, either because they boasted larger populations, like Venice, or because they had more respected universities, like Bologna and Rome. And yet it was still in Florence that the greatest Renaissance masters were discovered. Why?

Because they were found by a family that truly understood what good patronage meant. During a time when artists were still considered ‘hands,’ the Medici respected their artists individually and cultivated a civic pride that treasured them. Not only did they have an eye for talent, but they also had the managerial skills to nurture it properly: while they demanded innovation and were scrupulous supervisors on the one hand, they were also generous with their artists and gave them enough freedom to fully express themselves on the other.

But all these praiseworthy practices could not be taken seriously if viewed in isolation. Thus, to gain a deeper understanding of how superior the Medici were in fostering artistic growth, we must compare them to at least another leading family that famously patronised the arts: the Sforzas.

We’ll begin with Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476), who, when not tormenting his subjects with tyrannical cruelty, supported several Lombard artists, such as Bonafacio Bembo, Cristoforo Moretti, and Vincenzo Foppa. While he was certainly not the most tasteful or interested of the Sforza patrons, Galeazzo’s patronage style is worthy of examination because his account is perhaps the most reliable one. He left behind a long and extant paper trail that provides us with the necessary evidence to properly assess his management abilities. The surviving correspondences between him and the aides who acted as his artist liasons, as well as the exchanges between those aides and the artists themselves, are plentiful and altogether paint a picture of a man who rarely interacted with his artists.

In many ways, he could afford to distance himself and do without the personal selection and supervision of talent because his tastes were so predictable. His surviving commissions, such as the illuminated New Testament in Turin, as well as his stated preferences, show that he consistently preferred the decorative luxury, realistic portraiture, and heavy use of gold that was typical of Lombard painting and sculpture at the time. He was not fond of innovation, as shown by his support of the traditional styles of Bembo and Moretti, and only he used the more creative Foppa in conjunction with the former two. Even the subjects of his commissions were predictable: although two different groups of artists were employed to paint the ground floor chapel in the Castello di Porta Giovia in Milan and that in Pavia, the style and subject matter of the frescoes are virtually identical, depicting the Annunciation, Resurrection, and God the Father against a starry blue background. Still, despite his prescribed preferences that championed the Lombard style, Galeazzo was not entirely unaffected by the Renaissance that was blooming in Florence by this time and liked the Medicean baptistery so much that he intended to copy it for his own memorial church. This plan in itself can be read as an acknowledgment of the status that the Medici had attained as the supreme arbiters of taste.

All of these actions point to an attitude that directly contrasts the Medici style of patronage. Far from predictable, they craved new representational strategies calibrated to the changing times and their personal visions for them. An example of this can be found in a commission by Galeazzo’s contemporary, Piero de’ Medici (1416-1469). When Piero asked Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 to paint the Adoration in the small, private chapel of the Medici palace, he closely supervised the painting’s day-to-day progress and, together with Gozzoli, tailored the religious subject matter to suit his family’s dynastic ambitions under the guise of his spiritual ones. While at first glance the painting seems to mimic any other depiction of the Magi paying tribute to Christ, closer inspections and comparisons with surviving Medici portraits have revealed that certain male figures in the scene were modeled after Piero, his male family members, and their affiliates—some of whom would turn against him in the wake of the painting’s completion. Even Galeazzo, an important ally, is shown riding a white horse next to Cosimo de’ Medici.

Piero’s insertion of himself and his support network into the formula of a well-known biblical scene is both indicative of his own artistic creativity as well as his close involvement in production, which at times verged on micromanagement. And, read in the greater context of his family’s patronage history, these two characteristics demonstrate how personally invested the Medici were in their artwork. Piero’s son, Lorenzo (1449-1492), perhaps most exhibited this quality in his discovery and supervision of many Florentine artists, including Michelangelo, who he handpicked at the age of fourteen.

Even Galeazzo’s brother and successor, Ludovico (1452-1508), who commissioned the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and was far more interested in art than his brother, recognized how skilled the Medici were in managing their art commissions. When searching for artists to paint the great monastery of Certosa in Pavia, he asked his agent in Florence to only consider the artists who had been employed by Lorenzo to decorate his villa at Spedaletto. This request, coupled with Ludovico’s hiring of Leonardo for various projects around Milan, attests to the reliance that aristocratic families like the Sforzas eventually had on Medici discernment.

Although the four examples above only concentrate on the management styles of two members from each family, they sufficiently highlight the characteristic personal involvement of the Medici in their commissions, as juxtaposed with another leading family’s style of patronage. Such devotion to their artists indicates from where the Renaissance artists in Florence drew their strength. Yet it is any wonder still that other patrons did not seek to replicate this management scheme for themselves. Instead, they preferred to hire artists who had already been discovered by the Medici rather than finding and nurturing their own local talents. Above all, the nobility’s gradual dependence upon Medicean taste was symptomatic of their overall deference to that family once the clan had garnered so much influence they could no longer be ignored by high society.

Next (part 3/4): Mughal Art as a Governance Method



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