Exhibition: Objects of Addiction – Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade (Harvard Art Museums)

Title: Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade
Duration: 15 September 2023 to 14 January 2024
Institution: Special Exhibitions Gallery, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, USA

Objects of Addiction explores the entwined histories of the opium trade and the Chinese art market between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Opium and Chinese art, acquired through both legal and illicit means, had profound effects on the global economy, cultural landscape, and education—and in the case of opium, on public health and immigration—that still reverberate today.

The first section of the exhibition examines the origins of the opium trade, the participation of Massachusetts traders, and opium’s devastating impact on the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and the Chinese people. Works presented here include smoking paraphernalia, an opium account book, and photographs, along with mass media illustrations critiquing the use and sale of opium.

The second section highlights the history of imperial art collecting in China and demonstrates the growing appetite for Chinese art in Europe and the United States after the Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60). Artworks from Massachusetts-based private and public collections show the shift in taste at this time from export ceramics and paintings to palace treasures and archaeological materials, including ancient bronzes and jades unearthed from tombs and Buddhist sculptures chiseled from cave temple walls. Through the histories of museum directors, professors, and donors, this section looks critically at the sources of Harvard’s Chinese art collection.

This exhibition features works from the collections of the Harvard Art Museums. In addition, loans have been generously provided by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Fine Arts Library, Harvard-Yenching Library, Economic Botany Library of Oakes Ames, Houghton Library, and Baker Library (all at Harvard), as well as by the Forbes House Museum, the Ipswich Museum, and Mr. and Mrs. James E. Breece III.

Curated by Sarah Laursen, Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art, Harvard Art Museums; with contributions from Harvard students Emily Axelsen (Class of 2023), Allison Chang (Class of 2023), and Madison Stein (Class of 2024), who were instrumental in the early development and planning of this exhibition. We are also grateful to the community members, students, and scholars who lent their time and expertise.

For more information, please visit the website here.

Image: Opium pipe, China, Qing dynasty to Republican period, inscribed with cyclical date corresponding to 1868 or 1928. Water buffalo horn, metal, and ceramic. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.55.6.