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Southeast Asian Ceramics at the Sackler

by Susi, 2 July 2008

© The Smithsonian Institute 2008

Photos ©The Smithsonian Institute 2008

Clay vessels have been part of the everyday lives of the people of Southeast Asia for four millenia. Wherever there have been people, there have been pots, and the diversity of styles reflects the complexity of this region’s cultural heritage over time and across great distances.

Taking Shape,” an exhibition of some 200 examples dating from prehistory to the present is on now at the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC. And there’s a spiffy online gallery, too, with images of every piece in the show. The collection was given to the Smithsonian over a period of years by brothers Victor and Osborne Hauge and their wives. What the Sackler site doesn’t say is that the Hauges’ history as collectors was an interesting one.

They were both in the US foreign service and with their wives, travelled widely throughout Asia. Time magazine published an article about the Hauge brothers in 1957, entitled “Yen for Art” which stated: “Of the countless G.I.s who spent a tour of duty in Japan, few failed to load up on souvenirs. But only a handful of Americans realized what a collector’s paradise was within their reach. Among the enthusiastic exceptions are the two Hauge brothers, Victor and Osborne, who with Osborne’s wife Gratia were sent to Tokyo at the end of World War II, promptly fell in love with oriental ways and decided that the key to the mysterious East is its art.”

The collection amassed by the Hauges spanned many cultures and included major treasures of Asian art, everyday objects, and everything in between, in a variety of different media. And all of it was put together out of the salaries and savings of two modestly paid Government officials. According to Time, “The Hauges, who had free Government housing and low living expenses, put in 70% of their salaries to build their collection. Says Gratia: ‘We were always broke . . . We don’t regret a single thing we bought—only the things we didn’t.’

Let that be a lesson to all of us who think our passion for collecting Asian art and artifacts is a disease to be cured. It’s a blessing. Like Gratia Hauge, I regret the things I didn’t buy, and am sad to remember that it was fear of overspending on objects of beauty and quality that restrained me. How foolish.

I find the earthenware and stoneware pieces in the “Taking Shape” exhibition particularly beautiful. The forms are simple yet strong. They feel somehow iconic. Timeless. Elegant essays in the relationship of form and function, and objects of a tremendous yet understated beauty.

Not enough attention and aesthetic appreciation have yet been devoted to the ceramics of Southeast Asia. This exhibition will help to change that.

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