Artists have a long tradition of travelling to far flung lands in search of revelation and artistic breakthrough. What happens when there is such a place right in your midst, yet completely foreign? The unique cultural customs, fascinating architecture, and rich aesthetic of the Chinese communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles inspired many 19th and 20th century artists.
Featuring paintings spanning over several decades, The Lure of Chinatown: Painting California's Chinese Communities provides a captivating narrative of how the image of Chinatown transformed in reaction to changing social, political, and artistic developments. The exhibition includes forty works by twenty-three artists, who depicted the community in diverse ways, reflecting the artists' individual interests and the age in which they painted.
For some, Chinatown's allure was very strong and provided the defining inspiration for their art. Others had a superficial relationship to Chinatown, one of passing through while seeking an exotic image to bring back to "civilization." For the most part, 19th-century artists created picturesque images of worship, celebrations, customs, and daily life in an effort to satisfy a national curiosity for how the Chinese lived. They portrayed dilapidated buildings, tight alleyways, Chinese theatres, and places of worship called joss houses. Their aesthetically pleasing Orientalist themes did little to document what life was really like in Chinatown, especially the harsh anti-Chinese sentiment and legislation suffered by the Chinese.
The Lure of Chinatown provides a glimpse of the communities before they underwent significant changes following the devastating earthquake in San Francisco in 1906, and urban renewal in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Artists of the Depression era, some of whom were Chinese-American, created positive, stylized images of the quarter using watercolor, reflecting the national American Scene movement of the 1930s and early 1940s. Many of the artists of that era in California admired Chinese art and philosophy and incorporated its aesthetics into their watercolor paintings. This exhibition is on view at Bowers from April 12 through August 31, 2014.
The Lure of Chinatown: Painting California's Chinese Communities has been organized by the Bowers Museum with generous support from the Bowers California Arts Council and the Bowers Chinese Cultural Arts Council.