When I walked through the exhibition that claimed to celebrate the “vitality and spirit of urban life” in an immigrant era, I was floored by the lack of diversity. The 1900s New York City-focused exhibit, “Reflections of Modern America,” tackled a broad range of themes. Featured artists included Maurice Prendergast, an extraordinary American watercolorist, and Childe Hassam, whose post-impressionist style demonstrates the vibrancy of 20th-century urbanization. Speaking from a technical perspective, the collection showcased a variety of bold, comprehensive skill sets.
However, as a representation of America’s rich cultural history, the collection and its accompanying texts were extremely limited in depth. The art depicted everything from boxing — there was one African-American in one piece of this section — to yachting. The exhibit clearly highlights various aspects of growth in American athletics, industrialization and art. Unfortunately, the pictured population is largely faceless and Caucasian. White people sitting barefooted on grassy knolls, picturesque as can be. White people walking in the streets, white people in Venice, white people in clown makeup, white people on leisurely picnics, poor white people, rich white people, white people on boats, white people dancing, white people singing, white people in old rags alongside those in hoop skirts and, most alarmingly, white people in yellowface.
Although I didn’t spot any actual Asian-Americans portrayed in any of the pieces, a white actress with yellowface makeup was featured in the largest piece of the entire exhibit. Yellowface, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “makeup used by a non-East Asian performer playing the role of an East Asian person.” It occasionally involves prosthetics as well to achieve stereotypical facial structures. The Modern America exhibit featured artist Robert Henri’s painting titled “Fay Bainter as the Image in ‘The Willow Tree’” in 1918. White actress Bainter achieved stardom by depicting Asian women in harmful and stereotypical ways. She performed as a lead in plays including “Chinese Lullaby,” “The Willow Tree,” and “East is West.” In “East is West,” Bainter plays Ming Toy, a woman of ambiguous Asian origin who is married off to a “Yankee beau” and later sold. “The Willow Tree” features Bainter as a Japanese woman — docile, demure and ever so pure — who is objectified in the name of a paper marriage to solidify wealthy connections.
Right next to Bainter’s portrait is another entitled “An Actress in Costume for ‘The Mikado,’” painted by Charles Sprague Pearce. “The Mikado” — a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera — also reinforced stereotypes of Asian submissiveness. Also notable are the farfetched and caricatured character names, which include Ko-ko, Pish-Tush, Peep-Bo, Nanki Poo, Yum Yum and Pooh-bah. “The Mikado” was debuted in England in 1885 to an adoring European audience, feeding off domestic paranoia of a growing political crisis. According to a theater review published in the Atlantic, reprisals of the play have continued up to recent years, including a two weekend run in Seattle.
Yellowface in American culture can be linked to the paranoia perpetuated by anti-Asian policies, including the Chinese Exclusion Acts and later the Japanese internment camps. The first 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act along with subsequent amendments held for nearly 60 years. Derogatory and one-dimensional depictions of Asianness in art certainly did little to combat this historical example of politicized racism and neglected to tell the stories of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Americans that managed to stay in the country, albeit under duress and social exclusion. The Fay Bainter and Mikado pieces reveal much about American history, but the paintings are accompanied by nothing but a standard plaque with title, artist and date.
This is all to say that the Yale University Art Gallery has done a great injustice by failing to elaborate upon the painful history behind those two portraits. The exhibit tells the story the way it would be told in the 1900s: A new nation is growing, teeming with innovation and becoming a cross-section of development in multiple sectors. What it fails to include are minorities, who made up a significant portion of the population. According to the U.S. National Census, at the turn of the 20th century, approximately 12 percent of the United States self-identified as people of color.
Perhaps one could argue that diverse depiction was a curatorial oversight due to a smaller population of pieces to choose from. I do think the pieces in the exhibit have value, and are reflective of societal attitudes at the time. In that context, their inclusion is vital to explain an accurate history. However, the YUAG American curator — as an influential disseminator and organizer of information — has the responsibility to be transparent about the history of pieces with particularly problematic content.
The exhibit “It Was a New Century: Reflections on Modern America” runs from Dec. 23, 2016 to June 4, 2017 at the Yale University Art Gallery.