The public art collection of Wynn Palace represents a vital visual conversation between East and West that spans centuries.
A rare, early 19th century Cantonese eight-panel black and gold lacquer screen depicts courtly life, and sits on a stand designed by Roger Thomas in the lobby of the business center.
In 1684, a Belgian Jesuit missionary, Père Couplet, traveled to France from his mission in China, bringing with him a young Chinese convert—and attracting so much attention that the exotic travelers gained an audience with Louis XIV at Versailles. Two years later, a delegation of representatives from Siam (now Thailand) arrived at the court, bringing with them lacquer, ceramics, porcelain, and silks, in a visit that Charissa Bremer-David, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, describes as a significant ambassadorial voyage that took them to the Beauvais manufactory, an enterprise roughly 40 miles north of Paris that produced intricate woven tapestries for the wealthy bourgeoisie and French nobility.
“You can imagine that East-West contact was challenged by distances and travel and how to communicate,” Bremer-David says. “But there were these pivotal encounters that captured their imagination.
It is likely these pivotal in-person meetings at the court of Versailles partly inspired the production of a series of Beauvais tapestries called The Story of the Emperor of China, based on nine stories thought to be about the Chinese Emperor K’ang Hsi, who reigned from 1661 to 1722. Enter The Chairman’s Club at Wynn Palace, and you will see one of these scenes, The Audience of the Emperor, an 11-foot-high tapestry hung on a golden wall that is a fanciful depiction of the emperor under a festooned pavilion. Another, The Harvesting of Pineapples, anchors a corridor in Wing Lei Palace restaurant, in which workers gather pineapples under a tall banana tree as a woman (possibly the empress) gestures to viewers to look beyond the fan she holds toward pagodas in the distance.
Many details about these tapestries will never be known. “What were the critical points of contact? Who gave these books to the Beauvais manufactory? Who advised the artist that the emperor should be wearing this very cap? It doesn’t look like the Ming equivalent precisely, because the poor artist never went to China,” notes Bremer-David. The series’ great importance lies in the fact that the tapestries are considered some of the earliest expressions of chinoiserie in France. The Western evocation of Chinese motifs later turned playful, given purely decorative, rococo twists. Travel and trade made artistic exchange possible during the 18th century, and lacquerware—such as items that early Siamese delegation brought to France—became a significant import to Europe from China. One rare example of this export is an antique lacquer screen that anchors the lobby of the business center in Wynn Palace. The single Cantonese eight-panel screen is an exceptional example of Chinese export art, circa 1820. Many layers of lacquer were applied onto wood to create the glossy black surface on which hand-painted, gilded scenes depict the exotic pagodas, pleasure gardens, and boats of courtly life.
In fact, much of the basis for the design of Wynn Palace, as well as the fine art collection it holds, is the tradition of chinoiserie, says Executive Vice President of Design for Wynn Design & Development Roger Thomas. “When the tradition of chinoiserie first began, there was very little understanding—other than limited physical contact—between East and West,” he says. “But we now have extraordinary access, which allows us to reinterpret the idea of chinoiserie.” From earnest 17th- and 18th-century depictions by French artisans of a place they had only read about in books to a contemporary Chinese sculptor playing with the global obsession with Chinese and American counterfeiting through monumental “super-fake” stainless-steel stilettos, the conversation between East and West that takes place in art all over Wynn Palace might be described as postmodern chinoiserie: vivid, floral (sometimes florid), often provocative, and in total, exuberant.
Jeff Koons’s Tulips (1995–2004) glows in the east atrium of Wynn Palace.
Undoubtedly the most famous new residents of Wynn Palace are the four Buccleuch vases, which now greet guests on the West Esplanade. Formerly flanking another Beauvais tapestry, The Emperor on a Journey, in the lobby of Wynn Macau, they made their final journey on a twocentury voyage that took them from China to various residences of the dukes of Buccleuch (still the largest landowners in the United Kingdom), and finally repatriated to Macau by Steve Wynn in 2011.
Robert Copley, Christie’s Deputy Chairman and International Head of the Exceptional Sale of Decorative Arts, points to the rarity of this quite literal fusion of Chinese art (in the porcelain) with European (in their gilt ormolu mounts made by Parisian bronziers). Purchased during a period when socalled “foreign curiosities” from China were wildly popular, most of the French artisans who crafted the mounts pierced the porcelain to attach them. Understanding the phenomenal quality of the porcelain on the vases purchased by the Buccleuch family, however, “The French respected the porcelain enough to leave it intact,” Copley says. Their only known equivalents were an 1814 commission for the Prince Regent (George, Prince of Wales, later George IV) that still reside in Buckingham Palace.
Fake High Heel Channel X (2010) by Liao Yibai.
Although there is, of course, ample security in Wynn Palace, Steve Wynn’s philosophy about art has always been that it is meant to be shared with everybody; in fact, his credo occupies the frontis page of a book about the art in Wynn Las Vegas. “You never own any of this stuff; you just have custody. And frankly, that’s enough,” it reads. One of Wynn’s most publicly enjoyed pieces has been Tulips, the seven-foot-high rainbow of translucent, shimmering balloon flowers by Jeff Koons, which debuted at the Wynn Theater Rotunda in Wynn Las Vegas in 2012 and now seemingly floats from the east atrium of Wynn Palace (despite its weight of more than three tons of cast stainless steel). An expression of pure joy, Koons calls the sculpture—one in a series of five unique pieces, of which one version can be seen at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—“a symbol of hope and the strength of life’s energy.” Is the sentiment so different from the fantastic, swooping bats on the Buccleuch vases’ celadon surface—a homophone in Chinese for a word meaning “happiness”?
Tulips moved from Las Vegas at roughly the same time as Amphora III, a monumental vessel by ceramicist Viola Frey that once occupied the Esplanades at Wynn Las Vegas, and now holds court in the Palace. “There is an essence that we all agree to call beauty,” Thomas says. “An object may not be historically important, or it may not be the size to fit a room. The most important question I ask is, Is its beauty memorable?”
Which is not to say that Thomas steers away from gentle, witty provocation. Contemporary Chinese artist Liao Yibai, internationally renowned for his hand-welded, large-scale stainless-steel Pop art sculptures that explore the global obsession with luxury brands (and the glut of counterfeits) in both American and Chinese culture, is represented in nine pieces around the resort. For instance, look for his Fake High Heel Channel X on the main Promenade near the North Atrium—a perfectly rendered stiletto that also spotlights the real artistry of both “real” and “fake” luxury goods.
As you wander the resort, take special note of Yibai’s stainless-steel vases, also from his Fake Antiques series. Borrowing liberally from cultural treasures of the Ming, Qing, and Yuan Dynasties, he combines traditional lotus and dragon motifs with playful characters wearing slippers or boxing gloves, in a series of irresistible “fakes” that are themselves valuable original pieces—and, one could even say, bring the East-West conversation full circle. “If you base a collection on joy and beauty, it transcends ethnicity, time, and cultural and economic factors,” Thomas says. “The art is all a beautiful celebration of life’s moments, and we hope it produces the same kind of experience that the guests are having.”