Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, March 21, 2008

Chinese Art

As I am anticipating shovelling about a foot of snow from the driveway tomorrow morning, I am reading an article sent to me by a friend regarding an art show in the New York Times. If you click on the title of this post you'll be directed to the article. I have included an excerpt below.

The original article includes a slide show that is well worth seeing. Enjoy.

- The Snow Shoveling Daoist

The Art Is in the Detail

From his terrace, the world is blue and green — mountains and trees — or almost green. Spring is on the way; the geese are back. One, then two, alight on the river, with more still invisible but close behind. Pavilion living! The only way. With the city somewhere down there, and nature everywhere up here, he watches mist rise. River meets sky.

The calm watcher is the fourth-century scholar-artist Wang Xizhi, father of classical calligraphy and model for living an active life in retreat. He is depicted by the painter Qian Xuan, another connoisseur of reclusion, in a 13th-century handscroll at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The scroll is in “Anatomy of a Masterpiece: How to Read Chinese Paintings,” a spare, studious show that offers, along with many stimulations, a retreat from worldly tumult — the religious fervor, the courtly pomp, the expressive self-promotion — that fills much of the museum.

This exhibition is also a refuge from the hurly-burly of Asia Week in New York, which is now in session and has mushroomed into three weeks this year. Dealers are in town from abroad with special shows; others arrive next week. Two art fairs are returning. Add a passel of events devoted to contemporary Asian art, along with the auctions, and the situation is clear: a marathon stretch of looking, judging, sorting, tsk-tsking and oh-mying, not to mention wheeling and dealing. Naturally, the urge to get away from it all can be strong.

I mean, isn’t part of the point of our Western passion for Asian art to find a serenity that we can’t seem to cook up on our own, a metabolic slow-down, a less-is-more state of grace? One 15th-century Chinese writer recorded such an ideal in a lifestyle wish list that includes: “A nice cottage. A clean table. A clear sky with a beautiful moon. A vase of flowers. No cares of the world.” He was describing the optimum environment for looking at art, but also for living artfully.

“Anatomy of a Masterpiece” has all the elements on his list, and one more: instruction. The curator, Maxwell K. Hearn of the Met’s Asian art department, has given the museum’s lofty Chinese painting and calligraphy galleries the intimacy of a teaching collection, with a limited number of objects accompanied by short labels and photographic enlargements of details. The labels are thematic and ruminative, approaching paintings through ideas rather than dynasties. The photographs are a revelation.

To many visitors Chinese brush-and-ink painting, with its faint images on time-darkened silk, has a generic look; entire galleries register as a soft brown blur. Close and repeated looking slowly reveals those images and brings them to life in a startling way; partly this is a matter of individual vision evolving, sharpening. But photographs speed the process, cutting through obscuring patinas, clarifying what is otherwise hard to see, and in dramatic ways.

I can easily imagine Mr. Hearn’s photo-supplemented show creating converts to Chinese painting; it is museology as consciousness-raising. (Yale University Press is publishing an accompanying book.)

Mr. Hearn has the immense advantage of working with some of the most famous Chinese paintings in existence, and he opens with one of them, “Night-Shining White,” a picture of a spirited horse by Han Gan, who lived in the ninth century during the Tang dynasty. By that point the criteria for a successful painting had been established, and the first was the ability to convey a subject’s vitality, or life-energy.

Han was a master of this, bringing an animal to life with contour lines and calligraphic strokes that look almost joltingly vibrant. And if that dynamism escapes us, the testimony of generations of connoisseurs is there to confirm it: the horse is hedged in by a halo of seals applied by scholars and artists over the centuries. Each is a stamp of approval; together they are a storm of applause.

During the Tang dynasty, figure painting was the prestige genre, and landscape subsidiary. With time this hierarchy was reversed. Landscape became the big picture, figures mere dots to establish scale. And the scale was tremendous: towering mountains, limitless vistas, sourceless rivers, as befitted an image of nature that was an emblem of creation itself, a vision of matter forever consolidating and evaporating .

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