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Event Details

Thu, October 04, 2018

18:00 – 19:30

Villa La Pietra
Via Bolognese, 120
50139 Firenze, Italia

A talk by Kristin Mahoney, Michigan State University. Followed by refreshments.

While the height of Harold Acton’s fame occurred during the modernist moment, his strongest ties were with the aestheticism and Decadence of the Victorian period, with Oscar Wilde and the sexual dissidence of the 1890s. These influences also inflected his personal life, assisting in his eschewal of conventional forms of domesticity, and he was able to insulate himself further from his biological family and the pressure to marry by removing himself from Europe in the 1930s and resettling in China. In this talk, Kristin Mahoney will focus on Acton’s time in China and consider the manner in which he was able to theorize queer forms of kinship as well as cosmopolitanism by writing in and about China through the lens of aestheticism. In his novel Peonies and Ponies (1941), which satirizes the Orientalism of the British expatriate community in Peking (Beijing), Acton also meditates on the manner in which the practice of global aestheticism facilitates withdrawal from heteronormative forms of affiliation. The novel’s main character, Philip Flower, an expatriate aesthete and Sinophile modeled on Acton himself, reflects on the peculiar hybrid identity engendered by his enthusiastic veneration of China. His Britishness, he acknowledges, “separates [him] from the Chinese,” yet he is “too Chinese for the foreign community.” This leads to a certain degree of loneliness. Flower notes, “I have no family. I am alone in the windy dusty world.” He nevertheless revels in this form of detached freedom. His retreat from England into an aestheticist reverie in China allows him to develop a deterritorialized, queer identity as a man without nation or family. While the novel does think critically about British consumption of Chinese culture, it also insists that Flower’s (and by extension Acton’s) more “authentic” and aestheticist mode of appreciation for the beauty of Chinese culture brings him into closer contact with the city of Peking and extricates him from the sexual and gender ideologies of England.


Harold in China, 1932-1939: Photographs from the Acton Collection (Exhibition open from October 2, 2018 to February 28, 2019)

Also part of the series:

October 2 at 6:00 pm – Villa La Pietra
Harold in China: The Curation Process
Inauguration of the exhibition curated and presented by Feiran Lyu, NYU student, Global Liberal Studies, with Francesca Baldry, Collection Manager and Ellyn Toscano, Director, Villa La Pietra, New York University.

February 4, 2019, all day symposium – Villa La Pietra
Harold Acton in China – A Dialogue Between East and West: Chinese Culture, Collecting, and Chinoiserie at Villa La Pietra
A program of scholarly talkes co-chaired by Professors Perry Klass and Larry Wolff, Co-Directors NYU Florence.

Museum Meetings s a cycle of conversations in art spaces designed for all students. It is dedicated to various aspects of art and museums, including: art history, photography, anthropology, collecting, display, techniques and media, conservation, and the role of museums and archives in society today. The program originates in the Acton Collection and expands to other locations in Florence and Italy. All the meetings are conceived as discussions and envisage an active participation.