October 17, 2010

Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty

Kubilai Khan as the First Yuan Emperor, Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), ink and color on silk, 23 1/4 x 18 3/4

The Metropolitan Museum of Art mounts some fantastic, sweeping exhibitions, which I try not to miss; currently on view until January 2nd is an exciting show of Chinese art titled The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty. I had so much fun looking at the wide range of beautiful objects, from paintings and sculpture to ceramics and textiles, paying less attention to the historical context in which a Mongol empire was established in all of China (for the history, see here). Every object in the show is online at the museum website, so if you can't see the show, you can get a secondhand look at it, with excellent enlargements. It was very difficult for me to choose a few images to illustrate this post because there's so much of great interest.

We are greeted at the start of the show by this charming portrait of the Emperor, using simple forms and elegant lines suggesting swelling volumes. What I found most fascinating about this portrait is that it is not a finished work, but a cartoon for a tapestry; all the Imperial portraits of the Yuan dynasty were tapestries woven with silk thread, since Mongols valued textiles "above all other art forms".

Textile with Animals, Birds and Flowers (detail), late 12th-14th century, Eastern Central Asia, silk embroidery on plain-weave silk.

With this lovely embroidery, we can get a sense of how finely sewn the Emperor's portrait would have been; the rich color of the silk thread, its sheen, and the varied directions of the stitching create an almost sculptural effect.

Ren Renfa, Nine Horses (detail), 1324; handscroll, ink and color on silk; Image: 12 5/16 in. x 8 ft

There were many beautiful paintings in the show, and calligraphy of differing styles. I can't resist sharing a detail of one of the horse paintings, since several years ago I used to ride dressage. Horses were very important to Mongol culture, and here, in the Chinese artist Renfa's painting "horses and their grooms served as metaphors for capable officials who were valued by their rulers." (from the Met description here) The animals are painted with great sensitivity and grace.

Scene of a Family Watching a Parade, 1334; Stone, 27 3/8 x 20 7/8 in.

I was surprised to see a series of narrative relief sculptures in the show, since I don't think I've seen this before in Chinese art. They were shown along with several pieces related to the theater, which thrived in China at this time. The work above was to commemorate the awarding of an academic degree. I love relief carving, and this lively piece with its somewhat primitive forms, is very engaging.

,Arhat (Luohan) mid 14th century; Wood with traces of pigment, 38 9/16 x 32 5/16 x 16 5/16 in.

The grace and power of this piece are not well served by the museum's photograph. For me, this was the most compelling religious image in the exhibition; the monk is intensely thoughtful yet very physical and alive; his gaze is inward, his body at rest under a swirl of cloak. The tradition of depicting Luohan is a distinctly Chinese one; I wrote about three earlier pieces in the Met's collection here.

Bottle, Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); Porcelain with underglaze copper red (Jungdezhen ware), 8 7/16 x 4 5/16 in.

This porcelain bottle stood out for me among all the wonderful ceramics because of the stunning irregular red splotches on the white surface, so brave and powerful and free, decorating an elegant form.

Pair of Stem Cups, Mongol period (1206-71); Gold, 5 11/16 x 4 5/16 in.

I admired these cups because of their graceful form and proportions; the flare of the stem is somehow balanced by the outward curving cup. The cup on the left is delicately incised with a pattern, which I believe is a lotus flower.

Cup and Saucer, Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); Glass; Cup: 1 15 1/16 x 3 1/2, Tray: diameter 6 in.

And here, another lotus flower, marvelously transformed into glass of a heavenly color. This is a very refined, lilting work, an homage to floral beauty.

I could have posted 20 images of things I loved in the show, but instead, if you are interested, take a look at the Met's website. I hope I've wetted your appetite.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if you would see this show and share it with us; so I am enjoying your comments. The red and white vase immediately reminded me of red and white Holstein cows; they have that same shape and color splotches. We have a Ming dynasty Lohan (have I mentioned this or posted about it?? Don't remember.) He is a similar size with one leg hanging over the edge of the table and the other propped up, but ours is painted wood. I will see if I have an image and email it to you.