Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Emblems of Empire: Selections From the MacTaggart Art Collection

Since receiving the generous acquisitions of largely decorative silk textiles from Edmonton-based Sandy and Cécile MacTaggart in 2005, the University of Alberta's Museums and Collections has been proudly proclaiming its world-class status as the only museum in North America that houses original Chinese Imperial court dress folios and their corresponding examples of elaborately coded garments.

As the MacTaggart Collection does not have a permanent public display or a curator, last week the U of A released a hefty 300-plus-page full-colour book on selections from the collection. Delving into an ancient civilization of impeccable social order and a history that cannot be contained in one book, Emblems of Empire falls heavily on the tone of the text, setting up the context for the patterns, colours and lusters that the MacTaggarts have spent 40 years collecting. Written as a survey into the history of ancient China, authors John E Vollmer and Jacqueline Simcox span back over 5000 years from the beginning of sericulture (the farming of silk) to understanding the court, palace life and the Imperials' understanding of universal order.

Looking at early Chinese civilization and the importance of silk to the culture, the primary focus of the book lies on the structure of the Imperial court with very little insight into the political development of the country. This is a considerable gap, as the Qing Dynasty (the last imperial dynasty in China) fashioned their styles based on the utilitarian use of the Manchu people, who, after successfully invading and defeating the Ming Empire, enforced dress regulations to differentiate between the variation of ethnicities in China.

Spending most of the book explaining the world of Imperial China is a massive task, yet the authors—much like the courts they describe—appear only interested in projecting and upholding an image of prestige and order, offering insight into the everyday.

While at a glance the robes are certainly luxurious in appearance, every single one was a commissioned work produced by teams of designers, technicians and artisans working for the Imperial factories. The robes served as highly decorative uniforms, following ceremonial dress regulations that focused on the role of the Imperials during festivities like lunar and solar rituals.

While this is all interesting within the book and collection, it goes without saying that we are discussing artifacts and not art, as the two terms are still being used synonymously for each other in regards to this collection. As artifacts, the clothes can educate viewers about the last two dynasties of China's Imperial history, with the Ming Dynasty dating back to the 14th century and the Qing leading right up to 1912. But as China has rapidly modernized over the past several decades and assumed its current position as a global superpower, it would be ethnographically insensitive to classify these robes as art, as they hold very little connection to contemporary Chinese culture.

In many ways, this collection holds onto a past civilization that has been destroyed for the new, putting truth to the notion that one person's trash is another person's treasure. In Cécile MacTaggart's introduction, she fondly remembers her early collecting days in London, where dealers would simply bid on the silk robes for their gold buttons, cutting them off right then and there and discarding the robes themselves. In earnest, she and husband Sandy collected their first 18 robes this way, beginning their love for collecting with these illustrative histories and now sharing their passion in a new era.

Emblems of Empire: Selections from the MacTaggart Art Collection
By John E Vollmer and Jacqueline Simcox
University of Alberta Press 2010

*First published in Vue Weekly

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