Cringing in the Cushing

“I’m under Japanese influence and my honor’s at stake!” screeches a deranged David Bowie on 1977’s “Blackout.” How truly weird that this nugget of expatriate songwriting would prove clairvoyant for Ariana Grande in 2019. Earlier this year, the 26 year-old musician had think-piecers busy when she revealed a misspelled tattoo of Japanese kanji. It was meant to say “7 Rings,” the title of her new single, but it actually translated to ‘shichirin,’ a small charcoal grill.

Headlines suggest Grande is a serial appropriator. Putting aside how severe or goofy this particular instance may be, Grande’s behavior is nothing new for a wealthy artist. An ongoing exhibit at the Newport Art Museum might remind us that American artists have been tiptoeing the appreciation-appropriation line for well over a century now.

The Newport Art Museum’s “Howard Gardiner Cushing: The Beautiful Things of Life” runs through October 6, by appointment only. The exhibit was open during regular hours until July 21, but with the Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney exhibit coming down in the adjacent gallery, you’ll have to excuse the mess. The Museum notes, though, that they’re happy to accommodate viewers and “are hoping visitors take us up on it.”

Speaking of Whitney: her sculpture exhibit may be coming down, but she’ll live on in this show, wearing a gleaming white ballet tunic, a fleur du mal in hand. This portrait was a gift within a gift, included as part of a 73-feet-long mural Cushing painted for his friend Whitney’s Westbury, New York, studio. Presented here are two panels (but a small portion of the entire painting) alongside a long oil portrait of dancer Ida Rubinstein, made around 1912. All three pieces have never been shown publicly.

The central canvas is beautiful but also boasts the most opportunity to wince, starting with its title: “Ethel Cushing with Standing Attendants and Fleurs du Mal.” Yes, Cushing reimagined his wife Ethel as Eurasian royalty, fanned by two Asian women as she sits on an ottoman, wearing harem pants.  

Most generously we might realize that this was a private commission, and not a product packaged for mass consumption (a lá Grande…or Bowie, for that matter). Cushing also blends his influences enough that they’re not exact duplicates of specific national or cultural styles. Then again, downsampling entire cultures to ‘motifs’ could be seen as a kind of racist fantasia.

Even the wall text acknowledges that “In these works [Cushing] indulged Western fantasies about an eclectic ‘East.’” 

Cushing’s friend Adams Delano had a more positive spin: the mural “feels [as if] it is the art of the East seen by a Western eye.”

That’s not inaccurate. Cushing practiced Japonisme, an already established trend of Japanese influence in European and American art.He collected Ukiyo-e prints, arguably the art deco equivalent of anime collectibles. He never visited Japan, or anywhere in Asia for that matter, though his grandfather sure did, massing a fortune in smuggled opium and the Old China Trade. And with his friend Gertrude Whitney, Cushing shared fanfare for the Ballets Russes—a Russian troupe whose Orientalist blockbuster “Scheherazade” toured Paris. Its extravagant costumes and sets, designed by Belarusian Léon Bakst, heavily influenced the canvases now on view in Newport.

We may still be able to appreciate the smoothness of Cushing’s brush. It’s a more lively style than his Impressionist work, installed on permanent display in the gallery’s other half. In “Ethel with Attendants,” we see a flowerpot unadorned, a background ibis missing its legs. But all these omissions in an otherwise carefully detailed painting only suggest the original’s size. Who could nitpick details, taking in an expanse 73-feet long? A tiny reproduction of the entire mural accompanies the exhibit, and it yearns to be the real thing. 

The Cushing Gallery is actually celebrating its centennial this year, hence the exhibition of the mural panels. The gallery’s regular fare consists of more paintings of Ethel Cushing, her Scottish heritage clearly visible here. There are also paintings of fantastic ships and peacocks, all dreamt up with French and Chinese flavors.

The 1912 painting of Rubinstein evinces that Cushing could reference other cultures without duplicating or devouring them. A background floral pattern unfurls in simple, striking black. Rubinstein’s dress sparkles, reflective, but her frown suggests more covert emotions. A canvas of contradictions, it (and the rest of Cushing’s paintings) point toward beautiful things under the influence. A geographer of Oriental fantasies, Cushing could’ve been high off the Floating World.


Reprinted from Newport Daily News (July 23, 2019).
Also syndicated on MSN.
PDF version (first page only).
Editor: Janine Weisman