Illuminate an Ancient Civilization - reviewed by Randi Hoffman

"Illuminate an Ancient Civilization"Asia Society and Metropolitan Museum of Art through Feb. 9, 2003

Review by Randi Hoffman

Two current museum shows in New York City feature ancient Chinese artwork, from landscapes where mountains and waterfalls render human beings inconsequential to playful clay sculptures of animals. "From Court to Caravan: Chinese Tomb Sculptures from the Collection of Anthony M. Solomon," is an unusually fanciful exhibit running until Feb. 9, 2003, at the Asia Society. Chinese landscapes created over a span of a thousand years are on display at "Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Paintings from the Collection of Marie-Helene and Guy Weil," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also through Feb. 9, 2003. The 40 ceramic tomb sculptures on view at the Asia Society were created from 206 B.C. through 908 A.D., during a period that begins with the biblical and Roman eras in the West, and runs through the beginning of the European Middle Ages. The sculptures include imaginary monsters, livestock such as cows, dogs and sheep, and men and women from many walks of life. The objects have the homey feel of folk art. They are not as monumental in scale or mood as the sculptures found in and around ancient Egyptian tombs. Most of the Chinese pieces are not more than a few feet high. The tomb sculptures never depict the usually elite deceased person, but represent people who exemplify different aspects of the lives of the interred. The sculptures where placed in the tombs to protect and serve the spirit of the person. The tombs were either sunk deep into the earth or cut into the sides of hills. Standing, Helmeted, Mustachioed Guardian Warrior," is an example of a tomb sculpture from the 6th century. This wide-eyed, stiffly standing little man has a long beard fanning out like a flower. He is one of the figures with Central Asian rather than Chinese features. Along with the presence of several figures of camels in the exhibit, these sculptures reflect the influence of the trade of the Silk Road on Chinese society.

The exhibit includes a pair of fantasy creatures that look like lions with spiked spines, also from the 6th century, placed to guard the tomb. "Kneeling Female Figure Beating a Circular Drum on a Stand in the Form of a Kneeling Human with a Bird's Beak," is a much earlier piece, dating from the first century. The drum is red, and, as described in the title, it sits on the head of a female figure. A "Benevolent Warrior" has a peaceful expression, and has the aspect of a standing Buddha.

Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Paintings," at the Metropolitan Museum, begins where the Asia Society Show leaves off. It covers the past thousand years of landscape painting in China, moving though many ancient dynasties into the 20th century. Made up of 75 works chosen from the Met's permanent collection as well as newly acquired work, this exhibit possibly contains too much to be able to properly appreciate everything.

The landscapes are sophisticated, stylized and academic compared with the playful earthenware sculptures. The subject matter and style of painting change over the centuries to reflect evolving political situations. Painting styles change from highly symbolic and sedate to socially realistic landscapes completed under Communism.

The earliest landscapes in the exhibit are from the Northern Song dynasty, which ruled from 907 A.D. to 1127 A.D., a period of centralization and the ascension of scholarly officials over hereditary aristocrats. In this section, a long horizontal scroll tells the story of the seasons. Titled "Odes to the State of Bin: On the Seventh Month," it depicts scenes of agricultural life, including picking mulberry leaves for silkworms and peasants cultivating fields.

In "Palace Banquet," a vertical hanging scroll, people are shown dining in a pavilion in a beautiful garden. With the mannered garden, and everyone happy and prosperous, the garden can be seen as a metaphor for the well-ordered state.

During the Southern Song dynasty, from 1122 to 1279, more colors were used, and the paintings focused more on aesthetics. "Narcissus," is an almost abstract, Matisse-like hand scroll of flowers, drawn by Zhoa Meng.

The Mongols conquered China and ruled during the Yuan Dynasty, from 1279 to 1368. During this period of living under foreign conquerors, many Chinese were barred from public service, and many artists and scholars retreated from public life to work under the Buddhists and Daoists. An especially beautiful representation of painting during this period is "Spring Clouds Over a Pine Studio," completed in 1366 by Zhang Yu. The scroll shows a pavilion high in the mountains, almost in the clouds. Wilderness hermitages were often painted as a form of political isolation or protest, or more subtly, as an expression of sanctuary from a disintegrating social order.

Native Chinese rule returned during the 300-year Ming Dynasty, which governed from 1368 to 1644. An especially exquisite scroll is "Living Aloft: Master Liu's Retreat," by Wen Zhenming, drawn around 1543. It has a little house nestled high in the mountains, and is impressionistic and not quite realistic.

During the Qing Dynasty, from 1644 to 1911, Chinese artists adopted a realistic painting style introduced by Jesuit missionaries who came from Europe. Outside the court, individualistic painting styles thrived. "View of a Garden Villa," from the 18th century, is a handscroll of ink and color on silk that gives a realistic depiction of an estate. Rocks were a favorite subject during this period. "Vertical Rock with Numerous Perforations," is an off-white limestone sculpture of a rock, and "Red Friend," painted in the 17th century by Lan Ying, is a huge scroll painting of a rock. This rock stands alone, it has no surroundings.

The last section of the exhibit contains work done from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century. During the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, China's rural life was deemed patriotic and politically correct, and the color red symbolized the new China. The 1972 hanging scroll, "Sunset Over the Plateaux Shaanxi," by Shi Lu, has a mule train riding over a mountain path of red grasses. In 1960 the same artist painted "Mountain Rain is Coming," of women in bright jackets carrying water. These country scenes of happily working simple people fall in with the official idealization of all that is pastoral.

Together, these two exhibits capture the playful, ancient side of Chinese culture in the Asia Society show, while the landscapes at the Metropolitan reflect the more mannered and symbolic aspects of art through different political regimes. At the Metropolitan, a few beautiful pieces would have been more effective than the entire collection.

2002 Randi Hoffman