January 28, 2006:
[achtung! kunst] *exhibitions* : New Yort, MET: "Secular and Sacred"
I can't remember the last time I saw such a crowd in the Metropolitan Museum's Chinese painting galleries, where views of all-but-empty landscapes are the norm. I'm not talking Times Square at New Year's Eve. But still, it's a full house.
Office clerks and society swells rub shoulders with scholars lost in worlds of their own. Actors and priests add spice to the mix, along with wild-eyed types who seem to be straight from the New York streets. And then there are the real oddballs, folks with halos and banners and snappish pet dragons. How did they ever get by the guards?
They live at the Met, that's how. And they're earning their keep in a populous exhibition called "Secular and Sacred: Scholars, Deities, and Immortals in Chinese Art." Drawn entirely from the permanent collection, it's a show with a big theme, namely, all three of China's major religions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Little wonder it takes some 90 objects to tell its tale.
The story is one of overlappings and intertwinings, from a culture in which one life could be many lives. The great Song artist, Huang Tingjian, whose spectacularly zany calligraphy opens the show, started out as a Confucian scholar, then later turned to Taoism and Chan (Zen) Buddhism. And had you been his urbane 11th-century contemporary, you, too, might have subscribed to all three.
In your public and domestic life, you would have observed the behavioral protocols set down by Confucius in the fifth century B.C. The bottom line is that if you revere your ruler, defer to your superiors and play "Father Knows Best" at home, you will have done your bit to bring peace to the cosmos.
However gratifying the idea, in private you may have yearned for harmony less prescriptive and more personal. That's what Taoism offers, with its vision of the eternally embracing energy of the natural world. And if you were anxious to have that eternity take concrete form, you might have added Buddhism, with its promise of a bliss-filled paradise, to your spiritual repertory.
Although often seamless in practice, in art these belief systems are often, at least at first glance, distinct. The famous 11th-century hand scroll called "The Classic of Filial Piety," illustrated by the painter Li Gonglin, uses expressively painted narrative scenes to define a patriarchal universe of power relationships: father to son, social superior to inferior, husband to wife, emperor to subject.
With a little looking, it becomes clear that Li approaches these hierarchies with ambivalence: even legitimate power, he suggests, can be misused. More important, by giving an eloquent aesthetic face to the mechanics of morality, he caused a revolution. Suddenly, in art, people were more than mere puppets playing out roles. Instead, they acted from complex, sometime conflicted feelings. The message was that political ethics and personal emotions were interrelated.
This sort of felt, introspective response to the world is the essence of that most rarefied of Taoist pictorial forms, landscape painting. The show has superb examples, each a cross between a mirror and a mood ring. At the same time, Taoist art could be raucously extroverted. That's certainly one way to describe the 13th-century scroll titled "The Demon-Queller Zhong Kui Giving His Sister Away in Marriage," with its parade of plug-ugly nature spirits pumping iron and preening.
These creatures may have had origins in Buddhist art, which arrived in China with a developed pantheon of celestial and hellish beings. These ranged from the ethereal savior-deity Guanyin, to the burly, glowering Kings of Hell - depicted in five extraordinary, high-colored hanging scrolls at the Met - who processed the damned in the Buddhist underworld with the cool dispatch of Confucian court judges.
Although for centuries at a time, the three religions coexisted and even blended, sometimes they did not. There were factional wars and persecutions. Lives were lost; art was destroyed. (Of more than 100 recorded works by Li Gonglin, 3 are thought to survive.) In the 20th century, of course, the entire picture changed. In the 21st century, with religious revivalism and market capitalism wrestling for souls around the world, it may change again.
Meanwhile, art creates its own picture, a reflection of reality, but also an alternative to it. In a 13th-century hand scroll titled "Scholars of the Liuli Hall" at the Met, several gentlemen have gathered for a party. Most of them are Confucian officials; you can tell from their look-alike caps. One is bareheaded; he is a Buddhist monk. The party is set in a landscaped garden, the Taoist emblem of harmony in complexity, an ideal that the show itself, organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, successfully emulates.
Though all these men have presumably come together for the same reason, they are all doing different things. The monk is deep in conversation with his ebullient host. A man in vermilion sits alone at a table, reading. Two other men examine a scroll and seem to be bickering. A third leans meditatively against a tree.
And two men in the group, spaced far apart, look upward, as if their attentions were caught by a sound. What might it be? Chanting in a distant temple? The murmur of more guests arriving? Midnight cheers for a brand new year? The Met's Chinese galleries are so resonant with so many voices that you can almost hear all three sounds. And they will continue to hang in the air through Jan. 8, when this show ends its run.
"Secular and Sacred: Scholars, Deities and Immortals in Chinese Art" remains at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, (212) 879-5500, through Jan. 8.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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