BY WINNIE WONG
The “Vanished Kingdoms” exhibit takes us on a tour of 1920s Mongolia, Tibet and other parts of northwestern China. And, insofar that our past informs the present, this exhibit is fitting of the Burke Museum’s mission to create a better understanding of the world.
Prints from 39 hand-painted lantern slides of land, buildings and people dressed in traditional attire are on display at the exhibit. But, in order to put this photographic journey in context and to gain an understanding of the creative forces behind the photographs – Janet and Frederick Wulsin – one may also want to read the book, “Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China, and Mongolia 1921-1925” written by Janet’s daughter, Mabel Cabot.
Janet January Elliott came from a wealthy family in New England and served as a Red Cross nurse during World War I. Her father was a railroad executive and her husband, Frederick Wulsin, was a Harvard-trained engineer whose dream was to become an explorer. He became intrigued by China after attending a lecture by the famous explorer Roy Chapman Andrews. Consequently, in 1921, both he and Janet set out for Shanxi for the first time. Then, in 1923, propelled by a grant from the National Geographic Society, the Wulsins went on a nine-month expedition to China, and it was during this trip that the exhibit photographs were taken.
China in the 1920s was a place of warlords and simmering civil unrest, but the Wulsins dove into their expedition with the unfettered enthusiasm of early explorers. Armed with only their Graflex and Kodak 4×5 cameras, supplies and a few guns, they traveled hundreds of miles along the Yellow River, through the Alashan Desert, into Gansu and Qinghai. Along the way, the Wulsins took photographs of predominantly ethnic minorities going about their everyday lives.
Unlike Walker Evans’ black-and-whites, the Wulsin photographs draw the viewers in with their often bold palette and modulation of color. Their images of the more intimate settings work best, and “Rural Tibetan Kitchen” and “Merchant’s Family and Young Bride” are two of the most engaging pictures. The “Rural Tibetan Kitchen,” with its interplay of colors between the utensils and the bluish-grey wall, is lovely. The picture of a young bride and her white-painted face, which stand in stark contrast with her family and her surroundings, make “Merchant’s Family and Young Bride” at once exotic and incredibly modern.
The Wulsins’ penchant for adventure is amply reflected in “Vanished Kingdoms,” but visitors may desire more information on the “what,” “why” and “where” to make it a truly educational outing.
“Vanished Kingdoms” is on view through Feb. 4, 2007 at the Burke Museum. Learn about the lantern slide technology featured in this exhibit at Burke’s holiday event, “Magic Lanterns and the Birth of Photography,” Sat., Dec. 30, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m..