Slayton: Asian Art At The Fleming

Apr 25, 2017

The Fleming Museum’s new Asian Art gallery invites the viewer to explore not one Far Eastern culture, but several. Wandering among ancient Chinese funerary sculptures, 18th century Japanese samurai armor, Thai and Burmese Buddhist statuary, Indian paintings and more, the incredible richness of Asian art is powerfully evident. And one realizes that Asian art is no more monolithic than western art.

Curator Andrea Rosen points out that Asia is home to many different cultures, each with its own traditions and iconography. Yet, she adds, the various eastern cultures met, traded, and exchanged ideas with one another, and, at times, with the west.

For example, in a relief from the ancient central Asian region of Gandhara, the figure of Vajrapani, an early companion of the Buddha’s, strikes a pose very similar to Greek sculptures of Heracles — with which Gandharan artists of that time would have been quite familiar.

And while this exhibit is thoroughly researched and annotated, it’s definitely not a dry, scholarly exercise. These historical items are strikingly beautiful — alive with color and detail.

Among the many items to appreciate and wonder at, are a bright red ceremonial robe from 18th century Tibet, glittering with fanciful dragons embroidered in gold and silver; masks of the mythic Hindu bird-God, Garuda, grinning menacingly down from a nearby wall; and a contemporary Chinese scroll painting that mixes mountains, mist, and tiny human figures to create an air of quiet mystery.

How did UVM’s Fleming, a relatively small museum by metropolitan standards, come to have such a rich and varied collection? Basically because of the generosity of its alumni and friends.

Especially in the 19th century, westerners became intensely interested in Asian art, an interest that continues today. Janie Cohen, executive director of the Fleming, notes that in the past twenty years, the museum’s Asian holdings have grown more rapidly than any of its other collections.

Consequently, in this new and exciting gallery of Asian Art, we Vermonters are the beneficiaries of more than a century of collecting and generosity, and hundreds of years of brilliant artistic endeavor.

Art is universal — it speaks across cultures and across centuries. And especially at this particular historical moment, when art and cross-cultural communication are threatened on several fronts, this new gallery at the Fleming is yet another reminder that we need to treasure, nurture and support art, wherever and however it flourishes.