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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."


The World of Khubilai Khan

As the apotheosis of the East Side, I give you the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which at this time of year is particularly scintillating with its monster Christmas tree, adorned with its hundreds of 18th century Neapolitan creche figures. Currently, the Met’s biggest show is “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty,” which displays over 200 works of art, ranging from painting and sculpture to decorative arts in gold and silver, textiles, ceramics and lacquer, with work drawn principally from Chinese museums, but also from Taiwan, Japan, Europe, Russia, the UK, Canada and the U.S. All the work was made during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when the Mongols ruled China. The show was organized by James C. Y. Wyatt, chairman of the Met’s department of Asian art, and will be on view through January 2 (including Monday, January 27, although normally the museum is closed on Mondays). I was fortunate enough to be able to go through this exhibition with David Evison, the sculptor, who was visiting from Berlin.

Evison has spent a good deal of time in China, speaks Chinese and knows a hell of a lot more than I do about Chinese art. His appreciation for it extends throughout all periods of it, and he contends that only Westerners prefer the earlier periods. Okay, so put me down as an inveterate Westerner, for my favorite period in Chinese history is the Han Dynasty, which flourished around the time of Christ. I can also go for the Tang and Sung Dynasties, which existed during the six centuries immediately preceding the Yuan, but the Ming and Manchu Dynasties, which succeeded it, don’t do nearly as much for me. I could go on about my reasons why, but since Evison was my cicerone for this exhibition, I shall give you his logic instead. Chinese connoisseurs, he explains, are far more attuned to the subtle differences that have evolved over the centuries than Westerners are, and he has often heard it said that they also look at our Western art history and wonder why we go on about the extraordinary changes in style we are always talking about, because they do not see it (except for the modernist revolution). In some ways, he continues, these subtle changes over the centuries feel like what we are experiencing with abstraction, new and original work which comes over gently because it doesn’t shock as Matisse/Picasso did. Be all that as it may, even I could see that there was an enormous amount of truly beautiful work in this show.

At the entrance to the show stand two huge statues, one of a civil official and one of a military official (both on loan from China). After admiring them, Evison plunged ahead and we worked our way quite rapidly through the galleries devoted to decorative arts and architectural elements. He really wanted to see the paintings. They began to appear in the next two galleries, devoted respectively to “Buddhism” and “Daoism,” but here they were combined with sculpture, and most of the paintings were hanging scrolls with figures on them, principally portraits. Evison explained to me that portraits, especially of civic officials, were made by journeymen artists, not the highly-educated literati who were responsible for the landscapes and calligraphy, and who enjoyed the highest status in the imperial courts. Finally, we came to a large space devoted to “Painting and Calligraphy” as well as the decorative arts, and here he settled down to admiring the many lovely works on display—most of them hand scrolls, laid out in horizontal glass cases, but also with a goodly selection of hanging scrolls. One of the first to ravish my eye was of trees and mountains, called “Traveling Among Streams and Mountains, “ by Taigu Yimin. The precipitous mountains and hanging trees, as Evison reminded me, are faithful renditions of the way that the Chinese landscape really looks (I knew this already, because he‘d sent me picture postcards with photographs of actual Chinese scenery.

All the scrolls had small blocks of writing on them, in areas not covered with images. Evison explained to me that some of the writing was by the artist who had made the picture, but some was also commentary by later scholars who’d admired it; they’d signed their commentaries with little red block-shaped seals with the ideogram that was their name. He also pointed out to me some wonderful little topiary-like trees in a scroll entitled “The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyo,” by Zhao Mengfu. Zhao, he said, was one of the most famous artists of the period. Another famous artist was Ni Zan, represented in particularly fine form with “Nine Gentleman,” a hanging scroll that depicts nine trees, each of which has a distinct personality. Not all of the images are landscapes, however. Some depict animals (Ren Renfa was especially good with horses), and there are also a few genre scenes. But what Evison admired especially, in addition to the landscapes, was the scrolls simply covered with calligraphy. Personally, I have trouble with writing of any kind in a painting. Even if I can’t read it, as long as I know that it conveys words instead of images, I find it difficult to respond to it, but abstract artists, I have noticed, do not suffer from this malady of mine, and Evison was no exception to this rule. With “Song of the Stone Drums,” by Xianyu Shu, he pointed out how some of the ideograms had been run together, as the artist hadn’t lifted his brush from one to the next. This is called “running script.” He also pointed out how in some places, the brush had been full of ink, so the marks were very dark, then gradually became lighter as the brush became dryer. These ideograms are very graceful & elegant & well worth returning to study.

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