Friday, May 23, 2008

Finding C.T. Loo

On our way to Friday night services at the only trilingual liberal shul in France (about which see more in another post), we walked from Boulevard Haussmann northward along the rue de Courcelles. Halfway up a gentle slope we saw this remarkable piece of architecture rising among the Parisian apartment buildings:


Quite by accident, we had stumbled on the famous art gallery of C.T. Loo, who introduced Chinese art to Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. We went in -- it was almost closing time -- and had a look. The house is an ordinary Parisian townhouse that was totally renovated and adapted by Loo in a Chinese style. The interior is a Parisian vision of chinoiserie, all red lacquer cabinets and ornament. I had not realized that the firm was still in operation, but the gentlemen who run it now are C.T. Loo's grandsons, and very kindly allowed me to have a look around. We also met a recent Ph.D. graduate from an American university, who wrote her dissertation on Loo and his amazing position in the history of European connoisseurship of Chinese art.

One of the famous features of the Loo gallery, which I had heard about many years ago, is the two long sides of a Northern Qi funerary couch (guanchuang) mortared in on either side of the shallow steps inside the door, almost as if they were railings. Sure enough, there they are, worn thunder gods serving as caryatid legs, and mythical birds and animals dancing through the decorative Persian scrolls on their sides. When I heard about this piece it seemed amazing to me that Loo would have had it installed permanently in this way. Funerary couches of this type are today thought to be very important, as they are often decorated with fantastical Silk Road imagery and have a lot to teach us about the multiculturalism of the sixth century in China. But when Loo was dealing in Chinese art, this was not the kind of object he would have been likely to sell. His clients wanted Ming furniture, Tang horses and palace ladies, medieval Buddhas and so on. At the time the function of the piece (which once served as a coffin platform) was probably not well understood. So it probably seemed best to him to use it as part of the fantastical setting in which he exhibited the pieces he did intend to sell.

Now that a number of these objects have been excavated from Chinese tombs of the sixth and seventh centuries, they are much better understood and have been the subject of quite a lot of writing lately, especially since some of the recent finds have wonderful carved and painted imagery, and one or two are notable for the Sogdian imagery and Zoroastrian themes of their decoration. Thanks to the owners of the gallery, I was kindly granted permission to come back next Tuesday and sketch the piece.

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