Tassenmuseum III: brandishing the exotic

One of the strengths of the Tassenmuseum's pithy but business-like presentation is that the visitor can pursue their own threads of interest through the chronological and themed displays. Characteristically, my radar was sweeping the area for adopted exoticisms, purses that functioned as brandishable badges of the prestige of distance, by import or travel.

These little nineteenth century purses (below) were a wholly new thing to me.  You see that there's a partially-veiled woman on the left, an ornamental design centered around a crescent in the middle, and a scene of domes and minarets on the right, with borders that recall Turkish carpet patterns.


The brief caption in the case described these as 'reticules with Turkish patterns which were popular after the Crimean War. 3rd quarter nineteenth century'.  These must have been a European phenomenon, but whether they were produced in France, Britain or Russia (or elsewhere) and intended to invoke alliance with or triumph over the Ottomans, I do not know.  It is hardly possible to tell, but I suspect the overtones are positive.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, Zarafa, a diplomatic gift to Charles X caused a sensation in France after arriving at Marseilles in 1927.  This beaded souvenir purse depicts both the giraffe and one of her attendants, showing that both were viewed as fascinatingly exotic.  The episode is connected to early French imperial expansion into Egypt, so in some ways this miniature souvenir is connected to the later popularity of purse frames carved into Egyptological and Orientalist themes (below).

Far Eastern scene (top) and Egyptological ornament (bottom) in carved celluloid purse frames
Down in the twentieth century room, I was happy to see a whole case full of small embossed and painted/tinted leather souvenir bags of the '20s and '30s decorated with what the captions called 'Eastern decorations'.  The label went on to explain 'these bags were made in the Far East for the European market.  Similar bags were for sale at Liberty in London and in the bazaar of Port Said in Egypt.  Port Said was the seaport where all passengerships [sic] on the way to or from the Far East made a stop' [text (c) Tassenmuseum].  The purses carry a mixture of Egyptian and Far Eastern scenes;  essentially, the shipping routes had created both a market and, though separated by vast distances, an interconnected, souvenir-able zone of the imagination, the East-by-steamship.


My particular favourite in this display of Japanese-manufactured leather clutches is this antiquity-themed example (below).  We have a kind-of Egyptian-style sphinx on the right there. And a plastic camel.  But the rest has been put together from Assyrian iconography.  Perhaps these designers worked from some 'ancient art' guidebooks, or perhaps here they were consciously trying to appeal to the Mesopotamia-bound market too (Iraq was a British protectorate at the time).


Downstairs in the temporary exhibition space there was a supplementary series of displays built around different craft techniques, juxtaposing current designers with the traditions on which they drew.  At the bottom of a cabinet showing beaded and ornamented clutches were a series of the ubiquitous black velvet purses that illustrate the same shipping-line-fed, colonial-driven market.  These mass-produced, embroidered Indian-made purses could be bought either in Delhi or Cairo (and, let's face it, probably in Liberty's too).  They are extremely easy to find online and are generally dated to the 1960s and '70s, although I wouldn't be surprised to find that they were produced for slightly longer than that.


Embedded in the same display were a few earlier clutches that I found tantalizing.  This densely-embroidered example is like concentrated essence of the later Indian purses:


It was labelled simply, 'clutch, Turkey, 1920s', which brings us full circle to the Ottomans, if only to their jumbled, post-imperial fragments being remade into a state during that decade. Here's another imperfect, blurry shot of a really pretty purse with a pseudo-Persian miniature pattern.


It was labeled 'Clutch, England, 1934'; I'm very curious about where such a precise date came from, but it really works in the contemporary London (and transatlantic) trends.  The choice of pattern shows the strong influence of a recent vogue for Persian art triggered in 1931 by an international exhibition at Burlington House.  

I guess these last few examples, though made wonderfully accessible through a temporary exhibit, bring me to one of my slight niggles about the presentation of the collection, as someone who always wants to find out more.  There were no inventory numbers by which to distinguish each object, and no credit lines (the basic purchase/acquisition information).  A publicly-funded museum is probably an unfair comparison, but the V& A online collection shows how a very little information can be usefully organized so that one object offers a reliable reference point for the researcher.  I'm curious about the places these objects were purchased and at what point in the evolution of the collection they were bought.  It is clear that the museum is attracting increasing numbers of donations, and those donors' identities are sometimes made clear on the label, but perhaps not always?  The collection's existence as a fully evolved museum is obviously very recent, and this is clearly a great achievement, but perhaps some of the really strong undertones of personal history (both that of the collectors and of the original owners, where they are recoverable) could be more clearly articulated.  I wanted to store away in my memory so many of these objects as reference points for future thought and comparison - and what a great benefit the age of the camera-phone was to me!  The published partial catalogue provides one resource, but to document all the things I was interested in without a camera, I would have needed the sketching skills and the hours of leisure of a late-nineteenth-century antiquarian.

I'll be back in the cafeteria for a bit more mulling for the next post.

samsara  – (8:54 PM)  

Oh, these are magnificent! I love the rather Assyrian clutch with the plastic camel, and the Persian minature bag as well. The Tassenmuseum looks like a true delight! Yet another reason to get to Amsterdam.

Midge  – (2:02 PM)  

I visited the Tassenmuseum 2 years ago - didn't have quite a much time as I would have liked to have, but I really liked it too, though like you too, I would sometimes have liked to get a little more info on the exhibits. By the way, the beautiful Amsterdam d├ępendance of the Hermitage St. Petersburg is just a short walk away from the Tassenmuseum.

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