Chinoiserie and George lV

Thirteen Australian artists explore the appropriation of Asian aesthetics through the life of Britain’s King George lV, one of its most famous fans, culminating in the extraordinary interior and exterior of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.


Andrew Nicholls in Cherish Marrington’s Den at A Gentle Misinterpretation: Australian Artists and Chinoiserie at Fremantle Arts Centre. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Seven years in the making, A Gentle Misinterpretation: Australian Artists and Chinoiserie at Fremantle Arts Centre is a lavish contemporary interpretation of Chinoiserie – the Western appropriation of Asian aesthetics. It’s a rather shameful tale of cultural thievery, representing Britain’s strange relationship with foreign countries at a time when the British Empire exerted dominance over the world.  
Conceived and curated by Andrew Nicholls, the exhibition of thirteen artists circumnavigates the outrageous King George lV (1762-1830). Nicholls says he was an effective figure to build the show around. “He provided a useful way for the non-Asian, Asian and Eurasian artists in the show to talk about our collective aesthetic heritage we might feel a bit awkward about.”
George lV championed Chinoiserie, building the extraordinary pleasure palace, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the world’s most spectacular remaining example of the genre. Opulent beyond imagination with its faux-Indian exterior and mock-Chinese interior, the Pavilion represented George lV’s voracious excesses, not only in the arts, but in life. The despised and mocked playboy prince, and then king, indulged his insatiable appetite for food, alcohol and women to the point that at the time of his death he had ballooned to 130kg, was so unable to breathe he slept sitting up in a chair to avoid suffocation, had excess fluid drained from his abdomen regularly, and had such severe gout in his arm he could no longer sign documents. His heart was enlarged and calcified, surrounded by fat deposits, and added to this he was addicted to opioid laudanum, which he took for pain, but which also left him drugged and in an impaired state of mind.
Nicholls says George lV was a very complicated, strange and privileged person, but an incredible patron of the arts. “He’s a pretty fascinating character – so committed to a life of excess and indulgence, but he did also create some pretty amazing things, like the Royal Pavilion. It’s my favourite building on the face of the earth, even though it taps into that imperialist obsession of treating foreign cultures as free game.” 
He says one of the very early starting points of the show was a book he purchased during a residency at the Spode factory at Stoke-on-Trent in 2004, written by a descendant of one of its founders. “In the introduction of the book,” says Nicholls, “which was about blue and white English bone china, he described the Willow pattern and faux Asian designs as ‘gentle misinterpretations of Asian culture.’ Knowing what I know about the foundations of the ceramics industry in England there was nothing gentle about it. It was an aggressive, very deliberate attempt to try and steal the market away from China who had dominated that industry for 1500 years.” 
The culmination of years of research and development, including residencies at the Brighton Royal Pavilion, a number of the exhibiting group also visited The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen in China. “It meant we could collaborate with these amazingly talented Chinese artists,” says Nicholls. Indeed Thai-Australian artist Nathan Beard worked with Jingdezhen artisans to produce a series of vases hand painted by cobalt master Yu Xuan, and Sandra Black, who visited Jingdezhen many times, has produced delicate teapots and vessels with Chinese decals. 
He says one of the highlights of the show is Chinoiserie Group by Tanija and Graham Carr, an astounding suite of Asian inspired forms created from leather. “The work is quite painstaking and obviously technically amazing,” he says. “They have been creating this type of work for decades, but very seldom show their work in WA because they pretty much sell all of their work in the US.”
Nicholls says the project was interrupted over the past eight years by him working full time, his solo at the Art Gallery of WA ,and of course COVID. His own work in the show includes a video shot in the lavish Music Room of the Royal Pavilion, appropriated vintage Willow pattern plates, and works on paper and ceramics. “Part of the reason I have so much work in the show is for long periods over the past eight years I was probably the only person convinced the project was still going to happen! I’m just very grateful to all the artists for hanging in there.”
A Gentle Misinterpretation: Australian Artists and Chinoiserie is on show at Fremantle Arts Centre until 23 October.

Chinoiserie Group, 2017-2022, leather, stained finish, 170 x 60 x 70cm by Tanija and Graham Carr. Photo Victor France. Image courtesy the artists.


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