In her New York Times Magazine article, “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?”, Parul Sehgal recounts how, as an accompaniment to a 2015 lecture called “Claude Monet: Flirting With the Exotic”, visitors were invited to pose next to Monet’s “La Japonaise” while wearing a matching kimono. Young Asian-Americans protested against the host, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In response, the Museum made kimonos available for visitors to touch, but not to try on.
From 1757 the royal grounds at Kew, Surrey, were transformed with a fabulous scheme of ornamental buildings and pleasure gardens. Eventually, the southern end of the gardens became the site for a Pagoda framed by an “Alhambra” and a Mosque. Nehabat Avcioglu has argued that the erection of these structures as Britain achieved important victories in the Seven Years’ War means that “the vision of a global British empire was first staged” at Kew.
The Chinoiserie style which was so fashionable in the 1750s was seen as highly decorative and was often deemed frivolous, suitable for less serious spaces such as gardens or women’s private apartments. Sir William Chambers, the Scottish-Swedish architect, completed the Great Pagoda in 1762. I passed it on my way to the exit at the Lion Gate of Kew Gardens: after a two year programme of restoration, it will be open to the public from the end of May. The theme continued as I boarded the 65 bus at the Pagoda Avenue stop in Kew Road.
Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs”, currently showing in cinemas, is an animated film featuring a 12 year old boy hero, Atari, on a quest to find his dog. In one scene, he insists on pausing in the hunt to take a ride on an abandoned pagoda slide. He is briefly distracted from his single mindedness by his desire to play. The setting is a fictional Japanese city of the future, and the film has drawn accusations from some quarters of cultural appropriation.
Anderson, interviewed on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, speaks of “when I start a new project and think: “Is this too much like something we did before? Am I stealing from myself here and somebody’s going to notice?” ”
Guoying Stacy Zhang concludes her article, “The Secularization of Pagoda Imagery in 18th Century Europe and China” with the thought: “Nevertheless, it is intriguing to see how pagoda imagery enriched material culture in both Europe and China in a rather harmless way.” The opening line of Parul Sehgal’s piece was: “It’s a truth only selectively acknowledged that all cultures are mongrel.”