Among the 160 Han artifacts on display at the Asian Art Museum’s dazzling new exhibit “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty,” many of objects in wood, bronze, and jade representing animals and mythical beings tap into powerful primal impulses and mythological associations we carry from many cultures, not just Chinese. In the Asian’s Osher Gallery, a bronze oil lamp in the naturalistic form of a crouching deer with its head raised to the heavens (2nd century BCE) seems deeply familiar. With its front mane extending almost all the way to ground and curved tail, this splendid creature evokes earlier heavily stylized Scythian deer except for the absence of looped antlers. We are left to ponder the influences of art created by early Eastern Eurasian nomadic tribes on Chinese art and what exactly is uniquely Chinese in this creature. The deer is an important motif for the Chinese, symbolizing longevity and wealth and this lamp is one of many examples of oil lamps with animal-like motifs from the Han era found in Han tombs. These exquisite lamps also played an important role in court life. Aside from their decorative allure, they provided illumination and, with better light in the evenings, people were able to extend their period of activity and entertainment began to thrive.
China’s Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), like the Roman Empire, forged one of the most powerful, advanced civilizations of the ancient world. Ruled by 29 emperors for over 400 years, the Han dynasty represents the first “golden era” of development in Chinese history, a time when China’s diverse ethnic groups experienced relative stability, social development and harmony. Tomb excavations are ongoing in China and, every so often, they unearth a major find. In 2014, Chinese archaeologists in Jiangsu province, Eastern China (somewhat near Shanghai), unearthed more than 10,000 objects from a cluster of more than 100 Han tombs, untouched for some 2,000 years. Jiangsu was the birthplace of Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu, reigned 202-195 BCE), the founding emperor of the Han dynasty and Jiangsu was a center of concentrated wealth and culture. There, Han royalty lived extravagantly. They perceived of the afterlife as a form of existence much like their earthly one, requiring that basic subsistence needs be fulfilled as well those for spiritual enlightenment and entertainment. Many of the most fascinating possessions from this rich find and earlier Han excavations are on display at the AAM.
Co-curated by Jay Xu, director and CEO of the AAM, and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the Asian has outdone itself again offering three galleries of tomb treasures, many of which have never traveled outside of China. The show’s opulent lay-out, though, has people buzzing about its sheer design beauty. Marco Centin, Director of Exhibition Design, has placed these many of these precious objects in cases which afford 360 degree viewing and against rich Chinese red backdrops, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.
The exhibition is organized into three areas themed according to popular Han-era adages found on various artifacts:
- Everlasting happiness without end (長樂未央): Luxurious life and palatial entertainment. Daily life, banquets and pastimes of the Han elites are accompanied by the music and dance of the court.
- Eternal life without limit (長生無極): Worship of jade and search for immortality. A tomb-like atmosphere allows visitors to explore ancient ideas about the afterlife.
- Enduring remembrance without fail (長毋相忘): Private life and intimacy at the court. Affairs of the heart expose secrets from the innermost chambers of men and women fascinated by pleasure.
There seems no limit to the Chinese mastery of jade and Han royalty took ancient China’s fascination to extreme belief that jade, a kind of amour for the afterlife, could protect human flesh from decomposition. The Hambrecht Gallery has transformed into a tutorial on Chinese Han burial culture and front and center is an an extremely rare jade burial suit fashioned for a ruler from over 2,000 linked rectangular jade tiles joined together with gold thread and affixed to a silk backing, a project that would have taken the most skilled jade smith over a decade to create. The suits are so rare because tomb looters would burn the suits to retrieve the gold.
Also on display is a huge coffin, thought to be the largest jade coffin the world, that was excavated recently at Dayun Mountain and reconstructed. This coffin has a patterned jade lining on its inside to protect the deceased. This stands in contrast to a similar coffin that was discovered some 20 years ago in the Jiangsu region’s Chu mausoleums which had elaborate patterned jade on its exterior. An “inside or outside” debate has raged among scholars as to whether the use of jade was consistent or different due to regional variations in coffin construction. In the same gallery, there are also evocative smaller jade dragon pendants which would have adorned the coffins of elite rulers.
In the Lee Gallery, the exhibit explores the interior spaces of the Han court and its plush amenities for personal hygiene including a toilet found in the Tuolan Mountain mausoleum and intriguing strap on bronze phalluses.
Free Performances: Music for the Afterlife
In celebration of Tomb Treasures, local instrument inventor group Pet the Tiger will team up with Gamelan Encinal, a musical ensemble, for a presentation featuring three centuries of instrument building. Custom-built instruments by musician Bart Hopkin, designed with the same tuning as the Han dynasty Bianzhong bronze bells, create a contemporary “orchestra” (or “gamelan”).
Each performance features percussion and wind instruments in rearrangements of traditional gamelan melodies, the graphic score of “Yantra Meditation” by local composer David Samas, and new compositions for special guest artists.
On March 19, at 12 noon and 2 PM, in the North Court, local instrument inventor Peter Whitehead performs haunting melodies for voice and overtone flute.
On April 16, Pet the Tiger and Gamelan Encinal perform new works for pipa (Chinese flute) and the Han bronze bells by Sophia Shen and Stephen Parris, with Ms. Shen as pipa soloist.
On May 7, the two ensembles will join forces with the Cornelius Cardew Choir to perform composer Brenda Hutchinson’s work “Last Words,” an inquiry and meditation that asks what we want to take with us to the afterlife — and what we want to leave behind. Guests of all ages are invited come early to so that they can join the orchestra by building their own instruments from everyday objects in the Education Studios: You can construct a soda straw oboe or boba straw pan pipes that can be tuned to the ancient scales of the bronze bells.
Details: Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty closes May 28, 2017. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: General admission $20 weekday, $25weekend; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekday, $20 weekend; 12 & under are free. 1st Sundays are free thanks to Target. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
A palm-sized white ceramic cup with two fine blue lines encircling its rim depicts colorful chickens tending their chicks and proud roosters amidst groups of rocks and flowers. At first glance, the cup appears to be a run-of-the-mill item that someone who liked chickens might pick up at a charity thrift shop and place in their kitchen window. But this is the renowned “chicken cup,” the most extraordinary type of early Ming multicolor porcelain in existence, which for centuries has been coveted by emperors, literati collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese art. It bears an imperial seal in a cobalt blue underglaze on its bottom indicating it was created during the reign of Ming Emperor Chenghua. Of course, it’s impossible to put a price on the priceless, but the 500 year-old Meiyantang Chenghua chicken cup, very similar, sold at auction in 2014 for $36.3 million. For the untrained eye, such are the surprises that await in the 150 objects on display at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in their summer show, Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum (June 17-Sept 18). Those more grounded in Chinese art will revel in the nuances of the crème de le crème of Chinese Imperial art selected by Jay Xu (AAM director) and Li He (AAM associate curator), co-curators of this show.
Considered the world’s top collection of Chinese art, the National Palace Museum was founded in 1965 and contains hundreds of thousands of the Imperial family’s extensive collections of artworks, artifacts and palatial treasures. In order to protect them from the ravages of war, these treasures were relocated to Taiwan from the National Palace Museum, in the Forbidden City, Beijing, in 1947 and from other hiding places in China at other dates. The collection rarely travels outside Asia and roughly 100 of the paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades, bronzes and textiles have never before been seen in the United States. The other 50 were shown at the Metropolitan Museum in the spring of 1996 when Jay Xu was a young curator there.
The exhibit spans 800 years of Chinese history, covering Han Chinese, Mongol and Manchu periods from the early 12th century Song dynasty though the Yuan, Ming and early 20th century Qing dynasties. The structure is chronological, following the reigns of nine monarchs, eight male and one female, each of whom heavily influenced the artworks of their respective eras. The team at the Asian, in close collaboration with Taipei, has done a wonderful job presenting the many aesthetic currents that ran through Chinese imperial art as Chinese emperors expressed their personal tastes and embraced various foreign innovations and influences. Wall placards provide rich context and full Chinese translations, while the audio-guide and catalog provide even more information.
“This is not a typical blockbuster art show in its scale,” says Dr. Richard Vinograd, Christensen Professor in Asian Art, Stanford, “but it’s very rich in terms of objects and art forms that are included over a very broad span of time. The value of these objects can be distinguished between their pure artistic value and connoisseurs’ or collectors’ values, which are attached to Imperial patronage, transmission, and technical innovations embodied in the works.” Indeed, some of these artworks are like people you meet who, initially, may not seem very interesting but once you get to know them, become thoroughly engrossing.
Emperors’ Treasures opens with an exploration of Emperor Huizong (r.1101-1125 AD), who sought escape from the affairs of state through the arts and letters. His connoisseurship had a formidable impact on the study of antiquities in China and he collected over 6,000 paintings, thousands of antiquities and bronzes, many of which were lost when the Jin army, which he was once in alliance with, invaded in 1127. A brilliant and dedicated calligrapher, Huizong invented the “Slender Gold” style of calligraphy, unlike anything that preceded it, which had such unique energetic brushstrokes that they are often described as the legs of dancing cranes. Huizong was enamored by anthropomorphic rocks and stocked his imperial garden with them, giving them names which were engraved on them. A Daoist poem he composed, which is in the show, praises the form of a particularly unique rock. Equally fascinating is Huizong’s back story: he sired over 65 children.
The well-known but quiet Southern Song dynasty painting “Walking on a Path in Spring,” illustrates important unresolved issues that apply to many paintings of the Song period and beyond. This ink drawing on silk is by Ma Yuan, one of the more famous court-affiliated artists of the fourth Southern Song dynasty emperor, Ningzong (r. 1195-1224). It depicts someone strolling and twisting his beard, his view extending into a misty void. A smaller figure (lower left) seems to be following him and carrying something. A bird sits on a branch and another is in flight, directing the viewer’s eye to the imperial couplet in the upper right, for which there are a variety of translations.
“The most interesting question is: what is the relationship between the poem and the painting and which came first?,” says Richard Vinograd. Even for the painter Ma Yuan, whose work is well known, very little is known about his life or about the status of court-affiliated artists during this period, explains Vinograd. “We do know that Ma Yuan had a big impact with his own work and was part of a multi-generational family of artists that were active in the Song Dynasty. Their stylistic mode was important for centuries thereafter as a model for later artists to refer to or imitate.” Vinograd will speak about the exhibit at the Asian Art Museum on Saturday, August 25, and will further explore the relationship between painting and calligraphy appearing in early paintings.
Emperors’ Treasures gives ample evidence of the great diversity of Chinese culture, highlighting non-Chinese rulers who were exceptional leaders and introduced new practices. The Mongol, Kublai Khan, grandson of Gengis Khan, become China’s first non-Chinese emperor in the late 13th century and founded the Yuan dynasty. The history is fascinating: the Mongols came in from the northwestern steppes around 1237 and finally overtook China in 1276, toppling the Song dynasty in the South. They also invaded what was then Iran, so the world’s two oldest cultures were under one rule. This expansion and unification of China led to a massive influx of artisans and craftsmen from all over the vast Mongol empire and great cross-pollination which had reverberations even in Italian art of the fourteenth century. Unlike other emperors in the exhibit who created art, Kublai expressed his taste through administrative acts that supported the arts. His unsigned bust portrait, likely produced by a court painter, is executed in the style of most all Imperial portraits: it depicts a flat two-dimensional, forward facing, remote leader. In plain Mongol dress and headdress, with a hairstyle of three braided loops hanging from behind the ear, Kublai is presented unambiguously as the emperor of China but as something foreign at the same time.
Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) porcelain reflected the craze for fine cobalt blue pigment which came from Iran and was used prevalently in Islamic art. Another quite ordinary looking treasure, important not for its style but for its exquisite deep blue color, this rare wine cup and saucer set came from the porcelain center in Jingdezhen. There, artisans mastered the use of cobalt for monochrome glaze and underglaze decoration and developed a new decorative element which involved applying gold over the vivid blue. Originally, the cup and saucer were decorated with gold motifs which have long since fallen away. Residue reveals that plum branches surrounded the exterior of the cup; these were a symbol of faith and self-esteem and were an important motif in Yuan art.
The use of cobalt would reach new heights during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as would the fineness of porcelain explaining the enduring craze for Ming. Innovation in clay recipes allowed for vessels to become thinner and thus lighter. New body and glaze recipes produced a purer, more translucent white and a glossier finish which were even softer to the touch. The variation of shapes expanded too and Islamic influences crept into bottles, flasks, jugs, candleholders and boxes. Aside from the palm-sized chicken cup, several exquisite examples are in the exhibit, including a very large celestial globe vase with an imposing three-clawed, heavily-scaled flying dragon encircling the vase’s body. The vase’s neck and background are of delightful array of lotus flowers and leaves.
The richest art collection in Chinese history
Of the nine Imperial rulers covered in the exhibition, a stand-out is the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong (r.1736-1795), a contemporary of George Washington. He reined for 60 years and together with his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, and his father, Emperor Yongzheng, created the last and most prosperous of Chinese feudal dynasties. Even though Emperor Qianlong was thoroughly versed in Chinese and composed some 40,000 poems and enjoyed calligraphy, he was not Chinese but was a Manchu, like his father and grandfather. All were masters at deploying culture through patronage but Qianlong became the greatest art collector in Chinese history, amassing a collection of art and jewels that had been acquired by China’s leaders since the first century BC. There is no agreement by scholars about the exact size of his collection but the catalog (p.16) gives one estimate of 490,000 by Tsai Mei-Fen, the chief curator of the Object Division of the National Palace Museum.
“If you look over the broad span of this exhibit,” says Richard Vinograd, “the later examples of porcelains or objects from the 18th century Qing dynasty are often tour de force examples of structure or interesting enamel decoration. Their innovative shapes begin to reference other kinds of objects and are quite interesting historically.”
During Qianlong’s reign, revolving vases appear to have been introduced under the supervision of Tang Ying, the gifted director of the imperial factory. The yellow reticulated vase with revolving core and eight-trigram design in Emperors’ Treasures is one of the most complicated pieces of porcelain produced in Jingdezhen, a feat of artisanship and technical virtuosity. Each component was fired individually to create an inner vase of exquisite design which rotates when the neck of the exterior vase is turned.
Interestingly, Quianlong’s seals and poetry appear on a number of objects from different eras in the exhibition. A short poem dated fall 1776 and his Imperial seals “be virtuous” and “eloquent and fluid” are carved on the base of a deep blue Song dynasty ceramic pillow, called a “ruyi,” (wish-granting wand) referencing its graceful mushroom-shape and the magical powers of mushrooms. There’s no easy re-write when it comes to composing on a ceramic pillow but Qianlong made an error that has become permanent─he misidentified the pillow as coming from the Ru kiln and it did not, proving that he was misinformed. He also carved an eight-line poem on the base of a particularly gorgeous celadon glazed ru-ware vase from the Northern Song dynasty praising its “fresh blue” glaze, its tiny “nail like” spur marks, its “radiating fragrance even with no flowers present,” and its ceremonial function of the Hall of Ancestral Worship. One of his beloved personal objects, a stacking, multi-storied red-lacquered box of treasures, with special compartments for 44 of his prized objects, is a design feat. It is small enough to be carried and yet contains an ingenious series of compartments and drawers, nineteen of which housed special pieces of jade dating from ancient times as well as a compartment for its own small catalogue recording the contents and their location within.
After closing in San Francisco, the exhibition will travel to Houston Fine Arts Museum, with a slightly different set of treasures.
Richard Vinograd lecture, August 27, 10:30 – noon: “Emperors as Patrons, Participants, and Producers of Paintings” Richard Vinograd, Christensen Fund Professor of Asian Art, Dept. of Art and Art History, Stanford University and an advisor to the AAM’s Society for Asian Art will explore Emperor’s Treasures by examining the relationship between painting and calligraphy in early paintings, examining ways that painting can be said to have poetic qualities or to be illustrating poetry, an unresolved issue which has led scholars to propose many answers. Through case studies of several of the rulers and works represented in the exhibition, he will explore the sponsorship, design and fashioning of paintings from the 11th through 18th centuries. Dr. Vinograd completed his dissertation at U.C. Berkeley in 1979 on the Yuan dynasty artist Wang Meng (1308-85) whose scroll “Thatched House on the East Mountain” (1343), is part of the exhibition. He spent two years in Taipei (1972-74) studying Chinese and combing the archives of the National Palace Museum. $20 general public; $15 Society members (after Museum admission). Register online here to be guaranteed a place, or pay when you arrive.
Exhibition catalogue: A 272 page catalog, edited by Jay Hu and He Li accompanies the exhibition. Each of the essays by leading scholars in Chinese art and history stands on its own. Extensive object descriptions by AAM associate curator He Li constitute an easily understood and enjoyable journey into Chinese dynastic and visual culture.
Details: Emperors Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Tapei closes September 18, 2016. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: General admission $20 weekday, $25weekend; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekday, $20 weekend; 12 & under are free. 1st Sundays are free thanks to Target. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
Review: “Looking East,” tracing Japan’s impact on 19th century Western artists─at the Asian Art Museum through February 7, 2016
When US Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japan’s Edo Bay in 1853 and forced Japan to sign trade agreements with Europe and North America, the island nation opened up to the West after been virtually isolated for two centuries. This set off a frenzy for all things Japanese, particularly art. European and North American collectors and artists went crazy for the sophisticated woodblock prints of artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai and Japanese aesthetics had a profound impact on Western artists who were hungry for inspiration. Meanwhile, the French coined the term “Japonisme” to describe works made in Europe and the U.S. that incorporated motifs and aesthetic principles from this new imagery from Japan.
Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists, which opened at the Asian Art Museum (AAM) on October 30, is a fascinating travelling exhibition organized by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFAB). It was just in Tokyo and makes the final stop of its international tour at the Asian. It features over 170 artworks and decorative objects from the MFAB’s exquisite collection of Japanese art─the finest in the world outside of Japan─as well as its Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces from painters Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Mary Cassat, Edgar Degas, Paul Gaugin and others.
The novel thing about this exhibition is that the curators have placed Japanese and American and French artworks side by side so that viewers can evaluate how Western artists assimilated these new thematic and formal approaches, making it very engaging for all ages and experience levels, which the Asian excels at. The exhibition is organized into four thematic areas─ women, city life, nature and landscape─ which explore the hallmarks of Japanese art around the turn of the century. Dr. Helen Burnham, the MFAB Pamela and Peter Voss Curator of Prints and Drawings, is the head curator, while Dr. Laura Allen, curator of Japanese art, and Dr. Yuki Morishima, assistant curator of Japanese art, are the AAM curators responsible for its installation here in San Francisco.
“This is the first major exhibition from our collections to examine the profound impact Japanese art and culture had on Western artists around 1900,” said Helen Burnham . “This was a seminal moment in Western and European art─both artists and collectors came to Japanese art with fresh eyes and a readiness to move past conventions.”
“What we’re doing at the Asian is exploring Asia’s global reference and Looking East is a perfect example,” said AAM director Jay Xu, who has made it his mission to rebrand the Asian, shifting the emphasis away from museum and more towards an exciting environment where people can discover their own personal connections to Asian art and culture.
Xu pointed out that many people love Claude Monet’s familiar 1900 painting “The Water Lily Pond” and are even aware that Monet had an actual Japanese style arched bridge in Giverny but they’ll be surprised to see that the bridge in the Monet is “almost a copy” of the bridge in Utagawa Hiroshige I’s “Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge,” from his 1857 series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.” With the artworks next to each other, such comparisons are possible. In the landscape section of the exhibition, you’ll also see how Monet was inspired by a wind-blown tree from a Hiroshige print and used it in his “Seacoast at Trouvelle,” (1881). Monet moves away from the Western established tools of perspective and shading and uses the tree to block out the composition’s vanishing point and bands of vibrant color to activate the painting’s surface.
Vincent van Gogh too was heavily inspired by Japanese art, particularly the small unpretentious woodblocks, snapshots of everyday life in Japan, that arrived in droves in France in the 1860’s often as wrapping for porcelain products that were exported to Europe. These prints depicted kabuki actors, geisha and famous landscape scenes, like Mt Fuji. When Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886, the Impressionist revolution was in full swing and he realized how important the Japanese influence was on the experimental Impressionists who rejected the rules of the French art academy. Van Gogh built a collection of some two-hundred woodblocks prints and began to copy these compositions on with oil on canvas.
At the Asian, you’ll see van Gogh’s “Postman Joseph Roulin” from 1888 hanging with an Edo period woodblock from Utagawa Kunisada I of a Kabuki actor. The influences here are subtle but the inspiration is clear, according to Asian curator Laura Allen who pointed out that Van Gogh and other Impressionists were increasingly interested in scenes of everyday life and that the physical surface of the woodblocks were fascinating to these artists. “These woodblocks prints were produced quickly with layers of color─it would have taken too much time to use too many colors or patterns─so the compositions lacked depth, had large areas of flat space and relied on strong lines,” said Allen. Van Gogh’s composition has a very flat background, an angularity in the arms and is a portrait of a common working man in society, just like the Kabuki actors.
American born Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) left the U.S. at age 22 to study art in Paris where she developed an interest in the techniques of the Impressionists who were painting everyday scenes that stressed the importance of natural light and shadow in clear color. She too was an avid collector of woodblock prints by Harunobi, Utamaro and Hisoshige. In the 1890’s, she created a series of ten color etchings that permitted her to imitate the simplicity found in Japanese composition and color techniques. At the Asian, her, “Maternal Caress” (circa 1902), an informal portrait of a child clinging to its mother’s neck as she brushes its cheek with a kiss, employs a high vantage point and the intimacy and affection between mother and child. Both of these were common in Japanese art according to Helen Burnham. Hanging close to the Cassatt is Kikugawa Eizan’s woodblock of a mother and child in a similar pose and we can feel the tender bond between them.
Tis the Season─the catalogue is gift worthy: At 127 pages, the exhibition’s stylish and informative catalogue Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan (about $26, 2015) is full of large photographs with chapters authored by curator/editor Helen Burnham, Sarah E. Thompson and Jane E. Braun, all from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that reflect on the phenomena of Japonisme and its rich contributions to the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Details: Looking East closes February 7, 2016. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: AAM Members: free. Adults: general admission w/Looking East $20 weekdays, $25 weekends; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekdays, $20 weekends; child (12 and under) free. Reserve your tickets online here.
Asian Art Museum’s “First Look” showcases its own growing collection of contemporary Asian artworks─ through October 11, 2015
Under director Jay Xu, things have been shifting at the Asian Art Museum (AAM); there’s a heartfelt effort to exhibit and collect more Asian contemporary art and thereby engage with today’s issues. Its current show, First Look, which closes on October 11, emphasizes the museum’s recent acquisitions, some as new as 2015, and presents highlights of its contemporary collection acquired over the past 15 years. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AAM’s collection includes over 18,000 artworks but only 1,100 (rough estimate) were created within the past 50 years. Organized by curator Allison Harding, who co-curated the smashing 2014 show, Gorgeous, this show presents 57 of those intriguing artworks. It’s a thoughtful response to the questions─“What is Asian contemporary art? “What is its status and relationship to more traditional modes of Asian art?“ How is it understood by native viewers versus those outside the region?” On the heels of its summer show 28 Chinese (June 5–Aug. 16, 2015), which featured some of China’s most exciting artists from its vast contemporary art scene, First Look features works from artists from all over Asia and a bit beyond, like Ahmed Mater from Saudi Arabia. This is a show that grows on you with each successive visit. Allow adequate time: some of First Look’s mesmerizing videos are so seductive, you’ll find that you can’t tear yourself away.
Details: First Look closes October 11, 2105. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center. Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: $15 General admission; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $10; 12 & under are free. You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.
CAAMFest—Asian American film, food, music and comradery kicks off Thursday, March 12, and runs for 11 days in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland
The Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMfest turns 33 this year and continues its morph from a pure film festival into a series of festive happenings that fuse cutting edge independent film with music and food—all with an Asian American twist. CAAMFest takes place over the next 11 days in venues all around the Bay Area including the Asian Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California, which add their enticing exhibits to the mix. Formerly the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), CAAMFest 2015 offers more than 100 movies and videos focused on the discovery of new talents, voices and visions. It’s by far the largest festival of Asian American movies in North America. Under the leadership of Masashi Niwano, now in his fifth year as festival & exhibitions director, the event has become one of the country’s major platforms for conveying the richness and diversity of the Asian American multicultural experience. ARThound loves this festival because it’s so excellently curated, delivering rich and unusual stories from around the globe that stay with you for years.
This year, you’ll see Asian American broadly defined too. Iranian director Rakshan Banietemad’s new film, Tales, which picked up the award for Best Screenplay at Venice, caught the CAAMFest programmers’ eyes, not just because it’s a great film but because the director, working under dior conditions in Iran, creatively stitched together a series of shorts, stories from her previous films, to create a full length film. In so doing, she managed to navigate the bureaucracy of the Iranian cultural ministry which requires a license for a feature but not for shorts. Bravo! There are also stories involving the Asian diaspora. Juan Martín Hsu’s La Salada is set in Argentina’s bustling discount market, La Salada, just outside of Buenos Aires, and involves an ensemble cast of Korean, Taiwanese, and Bolivian immigrants whose experiences all converge at the market. It’s thus no surprise that “travel” is this year’s theme. Opportunities for armchair travel abound and over 200 guests will be flying in CAAMFest.
Opening Night: The festival kicks off at the historic Castro Theatre on Thursday evening (March 12), with Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching (2015), his new feature film which garnered quite a buzz when it premiered at Sundance in January. A tribute to the 1980’s teen movies of John Hughes, but infused with a Korean sensibility and Lee’s own experiences, this dramedy is set in a state run summer camp in Korea that brings together Korean teens from all over the globe for the purpose of teaching them about their culture. Lee uses the teen’s stories, and their unexpected twists, to explore the Korean diaspora. Lee’s Planet B-Boy, about break-dancers in an international competition, won best documentary and the audience award at CAAMfest in 2008. Lee and several cast members will attend.
Opening Gala: After the screening, there’s an opening night gala at the Asian Art Museum, with a 1980’s dance party with cocktails and fine food amidst the Seduction exhibit of Edo-period Japan. The exhibition has over 60 works of art and features Japanese artist Hishikawa Moronobu’s (1618-1694) spectacular 58 foot long painted silk handscroll, A Visit to the Yoshiwara, which is shown completely unfurled for the first time. The masterpiece, on loan from the John C. Weber, depicts daily life in the entertainment district in the 17th century.
CAAMfest’s Centerpiece movie: Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw (2014) screens at Castro on Sunday, March 15th and represents the powerful storytelling and moments of palpable intimacy that CAAMFest is famous for. Kalki Koechlin plays Laila, a young woman from Delhi who is determined not to let her cerebral palsy interfere with her life —she writes lyrics for a rock band, flirts wildly with her classmates and dreams of going to New York to participate in NYU’s prestigious creative writing program to which she’s been admitted. Set in Delhi and New York, the film is a brave and glorious homage to that old adage—“follow your heart.”
Closing Night: The festival’s closes with Bruce Seidel’s Lucky Chow, a six-part PBS series which will be showcased over the course of two days—Saturday and Sunday, March 21 and 22—at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater. The series features Danielle Chang (LUCKYRICE culinary festival founder) as she travel across America, taking in the Asian food landscape. Accompanying the film will be an Asian-inspired curated menu from the New Parkway kitchen. Other food-related films are Grace Lee’s Off the Menu: Asian America and Edmond Wong’s Supper Club exploring Bay Area restaurants.
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge: Lest we not forget the tragic moments that also define cultures, CAAMfest is presenting a collection of powerful stories of survival and resiliency from Cambodia’s tragic Khmer Rouge period. As part of the Spotlight feature on acclaimed filmmaker Arthur Dong, his new documentary, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, chronicles the years encapsulating the Khmer Rouge’s tyranny through the eyes of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who escaped to America and recreated his experience in the film The Killing Fields, for which he won an Academy Award in 1984. Dong will be in conversation with film critic and author B. Ruby Rich on Friday, March 20 at New People Cinema.
Perfectly Peachy: The festival is also honoring the Masumoto Family, fourth generation peach California peach farmers, with a CAAMFeast Award and a special evening of storytelling at the OMCA (Oakland Museum of California) on Friday, March 20, where the CAAM-produced documentary, Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm, will have its world premiere. The entire family— Mas, Marcy, Nikiko and Korio Masumoto—will be in attendance. The Masumotos, who have an 80 acre farm south of Fresno, are famous for their highly-prized heirloom Sun Crest peaches and tenacious adherence to sustainable practices as well as their lyrical writing on farming and food. When was the last time you visited the Oakland Museum? CAAMFest provides a perfect opportunity to combine film with art. Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California (ends April 12) is an exciting collaboration between SFMOMA and OMCA that explores California artists, many of them Bay Area artists. Marion Gray: Within the Light (ends June 21) is a riveting exploration of San Francisco-based photographer Marion Gray’s work over the past 40 years documenting Bay Area artists and art happenings. Bees: Tiny Insects, Big Impact (ends September 20) will educate and entertain the entire family.
Music: In addition to the movies, Korean musicians have a strong presence at CAAMFest with performances from Awkwafina (Chinese Korean American rapper Nora Lum from Queens) and Suboi, the Vietnamese “Queen of Hip Hop” and a host of other party rockers who will keep things lively before and after the movies.
Stay tuned to ARThound for an interview with the Masumotos about all things peachy.
When/Where: CAAMfest 2015 runs March 12-22, 2014 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland and as well as select museums, bars and music halls.
Tickets: This popular festival sells outs, so advance ticket purchase is highly recommended for most films and events. Regular screenings are $14 with $1 to $2 discounts for students, seniors, disabled and current CAAM members. Special screenings, programs and social events are more. Festival 6-pack passes are also available for $75 (6 screenings for price of 5). All access passes are $450 for CAAM members and $500 for general. Click here for ticket purchases online. Tickets may also be purchased in person and various venue box offices open one hour before the first festival screening of the day. Rush Tickets: If a screening or event has sold all of its available tickets, there is still a chance to get in by waiting in the Rush line. The Rush line will form outside of the venue around 45 minutes before the screening is set to begin. Cash only and one rush ticket per person and there are no guarantees.
“Arts of the Islamic World”―engrossing lectures by the world’s experts, Friday mornings at the Asian Art Museum, through December 5, 2014
Last Friday morning, you could have heard a pin drop in the Asian Art Museum’s Samsung Hall as Freer & Sackler chief curator of Islamic Art, Massumeh Farhad, gave an overview of the rare treasures from Saudi Arabia that await us in the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition opening October 24, 2014. Farhad gave an insider’s profile of recent archaeological discoveries in Saudi Arabia, including news of an inscription in Nabatean Arabic, the very first stage of Arabic writing, unearthed by a French epigrapher near Narjan (near the Yemeni border) that is an important link in tracing the origins of the Arabic language. She also talked of exquisite artifacts found along the ancient incense roads that originated in southern Arabia and were caravan routes for the transport of precious frankincense and myrrh throughout Eqypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Mediterranean world.
A week earlier, on August 29th, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley gave an engrossing survey of the art and architecture of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia. One of the world’s leading experts on ancient Iran, he told of the excavations he had participated in and illustrated his talk with stunning aerial photographs of sites and monuments taken by Swiss photographer Georg Gerster. He speculated about ancient Persian garden design and entertained us with an anecdote about Agatha Christie whom he met at an estate in Iran in the 1970’s when he was the Director of the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran.
These distinguished speakers are part of a wonderful new 15-part fall lecture series, “Arts of the Islamic World,” organized by the AAM’s Society for Ancient Art, every Friday at 10:30 a.m. though December 5, 2014. The series is designed to provide a broad overview of both pre-Islamic and Islamic art and includes a roster of renowned scholars and curators, several of whom hail from Oxford and the British Museum. Their talks are substantial and run roughly two hours. The series sold-out almost immediately but a number of seats―$20 each―are made available each Friday morning for walk-ins. I have attended the last two lectures, arriving when the museum opens at 10 a.m. and have gotten a seat. Coffee, tea and assorted pastries are offered for sale before the lecture and at intermission. Here are descriptions of the remaining lectures―
September 12: Assimilation and Conquest: Byzantine Sources for Islamic Art (Study Guide), Helen Evans, Metropolitan Museum
September 19: Is there an Image Problem in Islam? Materials for the History of an Idea (Study Guide), Finbarr Barry Flood, NYU
September 26: Persian Painting: The First Golden Age (1300-1500), Robert Hillenbrand, University of Edinburgh
October 3: Seeing and Being Seen in Isfahan: Expanding Gaze for an Early Modern Capital, Renata Holod, University of Pennsylvania
October 10: Chinese Influence on Islamic Glazed Ceramics, Oliver Watson, University of Oxford
October 17: Building Types in Islamic Architecture, Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, San Francisco State University
October 24: The Visual Culture of Islam in India, Alka Patel, UC Irvine
October 31: “Ex Oriente Lux: Luxury Textiles and Oriental Carpets, Carol Bier, Textile Museum, Washington D.C.
November 7: The Art of Islamic Calligraphy: A Journey through Time, Maryam Ekhtiar, Metropolitan Museum
November 14: Seek Knowledge Even as Far as China: East-West Cultural Transmissions in Post Mongol Iran, Ladan Akbarnia, British Museum
November 21: Modernism and Islamic Art, Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University
November 28: No Class, Thanksgiving break
December 5: Imagining Europe at the Persian Court in the Seventeenth Century (1590-1720), Amy Landau, Walters Art Museum
Details: The September 12 lecture, delivered by Dr. Helen Evans of the Metropolitan Museum, will be the fourth in the series. There is a two-hour “Arts of the Islamic World” lecture every Friday at 10:30 a.m. in Samsung Hall through December 5, 2014. (There is no lecture on November 28, 2014). Fee: $20 per lecture drop-in (purchase at the door, after Museum general admission, subject to availability). The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission: $15 adults; $10 seniors over 65, students and youth 13-17; Thursday nights $5. For more information, visit http://www.asianart.org
“Gorgeous”—gritty, edgy, beyond beautiful—SFMOMA and Asian Art Museum’s exhibition asks you to figure out what “gorgeous” means, just three viewing weekends left
An evocative Mark Rothko painting shares a gallery with a richly-colored 17th century Tibetan mandala and an immovably calm bronze Buddha; a voluptuous 16 to 17th century stone torso is placed next to a hot pink neon sign that reads “Fantastic to feel beautiful again”; an ornately embossed and gilded 19th century elephant seat, a symbol of status, is near Marcel’s Duchamp’s iconic factory made urinal; John Currin’s confounding portrait of a meticulously-painted nude that combines the physique of a Northern Renaissance master with the grinning head of a corn-fed mid-Western girl shares space with a number of other portraits that provoke discomfort. They’re all part of Gorgeous, the inventive collaboration between SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum (AAM), a mash-up of 72 artworks (39 from SFMOMA and 43 from the Asian), spanning 2,000 years, that asks the viewer to decide what ‘gorgeous” means. Artwise, it’s one of the summer’s highpoints that grows on you with each successive visit. There are just three viewing weekends left as it closes on Sunday, September 14, 2014.
“ ‘Gorgeous’ just clicked right away, hitting all the marks in terms of an exhibition that really had the potential to offer something fresh and provocative and to approach a mash-up of two very different collections,” said Janet Bishop, SFMOMA’s curator of painting and sculpture. Bishop oversees SFMOMA’s “On the Go Program,” in place at various sites all around the Bay Area while the building is closed for reconstruction and expansion through early 2016. (The excellent “Photography in Mexico” exhibition hosted by the Sonoma County Museum in September 2013 and about to open at the Bakersfield Museum of Art was one of SFMOMA’s first of the On the Go shows. The next On the Go project is Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California (Sept. 20, 2014 – April 12, 2015) in partnership with OMCA (Oakland Museum of California). In the works since the fall 2011, Gorgeous is co-curated by Allison Harding, AAM assistant curator of contemporary art, Forrest McGill, AAM Wattis senior curator of South and Southeast Asian art and director of AAM’s Research Institute for Asian Art, Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture and Janet Bishop.
“A lot of our shows fall into art history where we attempt to clarify things for the viewer” said the AAM’s Allison Harding, one of the lead curators. “This is more art appreciation, where we want the viewer to enjoy themselves as they try to figure out what they think about this subject. It’s meant to be very fluid and engaging.” And fluid it is—the show extends over four galleries and into the expansive North Court. The artworks aren’t easily categorized but embracing their resistance to classification is the essence of the project.
It almost seems as if Harding and McGill free-associated about their perspectives on gorgeous to come up with the categories they’ve grouped the artworks into—Seduction , Dress Up, Pose, Reiteration, Beyond Imperfection, Fantasy, Danger, In Bounds, Evocation, On Reflection. Interesting wall texts elucidate their personal perspectives and possible juxtapositions amongst the artworks.
Having visited the show five times now, I see most of the associations as interchangeable—the more time you spend looking, and the more you understand what drives your own attraction and revulsion with various works, the more you get to the heart of your own personal gorgeous.
Certainly central to the exhibition’s immense popularity is that its combination of Asian and Western, ancient and modern, and seeing familiar works in a new context is a fabulous catalyst for spinning out ideas on something as sassy as gorgeous.
In the opening Oscher gallery, a real icon of SFMOMA holdings—Jeff Koons’ “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988)—is right across from a set of twelve 17th century hanging scrolls by Chinese artist Hua Yan who was famous for his strong personality and rejection of orthodox conventions of painting. The expressively painted screens depict a villa ensconced in a sweeping panoramic mountainous landscape on a luxurious golden background. Near-by is a jewel-encrusted alms bowl from Burma (1850-1950) and also close by is Chris Olfili’s “Princess of the Possee” (1990) and Jess’ monumental drawing “Narkissos” (1976-1991). I was revolted by the gaudy excess of Bubbles when I first saw it at SFMOMA’s reveal press opening years ago. Now, 16 years after its creation, I marvel at how it perfectly captures banality of the 1980’s and how its lustrous gold porcelain finish has a magical interplay with Hua Yan’s shimmering scrolls and sweeping hills and with the gilding on the ceremonial alms bowl, a highly-ornate ritual object.
One can’t speak of gold without mentioning Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled” (Golden) (1995), a deeply alluring shimmering gold-beaded curtain—the only interactive work in the show—that seems to produce a smile on the face of everyone who walks through it. Conceptually, it functions as a portal and is installed as a passage between two thematically different galleries; it even grabs the limelight from a nearby Mondrian.
An Indian stone female torso covered with intricate carving, dated 1400-1600, which has been on view at the AAM for over a decade, was easy to skip over. Freshly installed in Asian’s North Court, with a different pedestal that exposes what remains of its legs and beside British artist Tracy Emin’s hot pink neon hand-written sign “Fantastic to feel beautiful again” (1997), the stone work is suddenly re-contextualized. Ermin’s confessional epigram highlights what is absent in the stone work—presumably she was once a complete figure but the centuries have robbed this lush beauty of her of her head, arms, legs—in short, the ability to think or move. “Recovering our awareness of her losses only broadens her allure,” says Allison Harding. “Her acquired cracks and fractures suggest the collision between idea beauty and the world of time and nature.”
“Lawrence Weiner’s ‘Pearls roll Across the Floor’ in the Lee Gallery is a text piece that was installed a number of times in the SFMOMA’s Botta building but is presented here in the Lee Gallery in a new diagonal configuration and a new palette which, for me, really changes its dynamic and the mental images that it evokes,” said SFMOMA’s Janet Bishop who happily admitted “this experience has really changed the way I see objects.”
I imagine like many, I came to Gorgeous with the notion that concepts of gorgeous and beauty were somewhat synonymous. And, as an art writer who’s been at it 25+ years, I was expecting more of a conversation about beauty and where it stands today, a topic that engaged the art world and philosophical discourse in the 1990’s when there was an active rejection of beauty as a creative ideal. As Allison Harding explained, “Gorgeous is meant to be distinct from art historical discourse and precise definitions; it’s more about viewers defining for themselves what gorgeous means. …The works in this show are more than beautiful and they all have aspects about them that push beyond conventional beauty to the max, to the zone where tensions exist beyond what is familiar or comfortable.”
Sally Mann’s “Jessie at 5” (1987), hung in the Hambrecht Galley, is a silver gelatin portrait of the artist’s 5 year-old daughter, nude from the waist up and posed sexily with her hip jutting out. It strikes a number of disconcerting chords. “The power of this image lies in ability to confound boundaries,” says Harding. “The confining square here could be the acceptable borders of childhood, femininity, sexuality; the improvisation is the captured moment and its endless interpretation.” The modern portrait shares wall space with a set of hanging scrolls from the Asian’s collection from another era, Chobunsai Eishi’s “Three Types of Beauties in Edo,” approximately dates 1798-1829. In one screen, a geisha ( erotically?) twists her hair pin with her delicate white hands, her forearm revealed when her sleeve is raised. In Eishi’s time, too, there was a fascination with ranking types of beauties by the coding is fuzzy to our modern eye.
One of the great things about Gorgeous is the feeling that you’re actually meeting the curators, as their wall texts, written in conversational language, are much more personal and engaging than usual. Of a red-lacquered wood chair for the imperial court which is carved with amazing narrative scenes, Forrest McGill writes “Looks uncomfortable and impractical, but who cares when displaying wealth and power is the goal, right?” and “contains narrative scenes that someone with a thorough knowledge of Chinese literature might have been able to identify. But who would have had a change to get close enough to them for long enough to figure them out?”
This regal lacquered chair is comically paired, in the Oscher Gallery, with Shiro Kuramata’s “Miss Blanche chair” (1988), a see-through modernist acrylic chair that has wonderful floating roses and is said to have been inspired by the corsage worn by Vivien Leigh in the role of Blanche Dubois in the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire. These two chairs, neither made for sitting, loudly shout-out to the ornate gilded Indian elephant seat (howdah) in the Asian’s North Court which, in turn, dialogues nicely with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), a touchstone of conceptual art, which has been installed adjacent it. It’s quite unexpected to find a factory made urinal in the AAM’s elegant North Court, perhaps as surprising as it was when the original urinal was first designated as art in the 1917 SIA (Society of Independent Artists) exhibition.
Details— Gorgeous closes on September 14, 2014. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission: Gorgeous is covered by general admission AAM ticket—free for SFMOMA members; $15 adults; $10 seniors over 65, students and youth 13-17; Thursday nights $5; free admission for all on Target Sunday, September 7, 2014 . For more information, visit http://www.asianart.org/.
Rare British Museum Treasure—The Cyrus Cylinder—makes its first visit to the U.S. and is at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2103. Talk this Sunday
At just under 9 inches long and shaped like a barrel, the 2,500 year-old Cyrus Cylinder is a relatively small baked-clay artifact that is one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures. It’s severely cracked and missing bits and pieces, but this humble object bears an account, in Babylonian cuneiform, by Cyrus, the King of Persia of his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. The Cylinder, commonly referred to as the “the first bill of human rights,” is able to stand with the Rosetta Stone and the Magna Carta as one of the great icons of civilization and human rights. Its inscription, in remarkably vivid Babylonian cuneiform, looks like a series of scrawls and scratches to the untrained eye but encouraged freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire, which stretched from present-day Egypt to India in the day of King Cyrus. Long been hailed as an international symbol of tolerance and justice, the Cylinder traveled to Tehran’s National Museum of Iran in 2010 where it was seen firsthand by about half a million people but it has never before been on view in the United States. It is now on display at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum as part of The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning through September 22, 2013.
The exhibition also includes 16 other rare ancient Persian objects in the British Museum’s collection which provide a context for understanding the Cylinder’s cultural and historical significance. Included are a solid gold armlet, in the form of a winged griffin-like mythical creature, and the seal of Darius I, showing the Persian king in his chariot hunting lions. If you visit the exhibition, there are a number of talks (described below) by esteemed Persian scholars on the Cylinder and its context which will maximize your experience at the Asian.
Dating to 539 B.C., the Cyrus Cylinder was uncovered in 1879 at Babylon (in modern Iraq) during a British Museum excavation. The original function of the Cylinder was as a foundation deposit—an object buried under an important building to sanctify it. The Cylinder was buried beneath the inner city wall of Esagila, the Temple of Marduk, Babylon’s protector God, during the extensive rebuilding program undertaken by Cyrus the Great after he captured the city in 539 B.C. While the Cylinder itself was never intended to be seen or used again, the its text was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed.
The Cylinder is vital for understanding how Cyrus presented himself and how the Achaemenid dynasty would be carried on. In his defeat of Babylon’s rulers, Nabonidus and his son, Belshazzar, Cyrus proclaimed his continuation of the Neo-Assyrian empire over the muddled Neo-Babylonian empire. The Babylonian empire reached its zenith the great Nebuchadnezzar, but fell into a state of chaos under his immediate successor, Nabonidus, who after ruling for only three years, went to the oasis of Tayma and devoted himself to the worship of the moon god Sin. He declared his son Belshazzar co-regent and left him in charge of Babylon’s defense and, in a story chronicled in the Bible’s book of Daniel, Cyrus was able to enter the city, conquer Belshazzar and assume rule, thus greatly impacting the cultural legacy of the Near East.
The Cylinder’s inscription chronicles how Cyrus, aided by the god Marduk, gained victory without a struggle; restored shrines dedicated to various gods; and allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands. The text does not mention specific religious groups, but it is thought that the Jews were among the people who had been forcibly brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II (the previous ruler of Babylon) and then allowed by Cyrus to return home. The Bible chronicles that the Jews returned from Babylon at this time and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus is revered in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect documented in the Cylinder’s proclamation. Such enlightened acts were rare in antiquity.
The Cyrus Cylinder is an object of world heritage, produced for a Persian king in Iraq and seen and studied for more than 130 years in the British Museum. Today, according to John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum, there are just a handful of experts who are actually fluent in ancient Babylonian cuneiform and able to read the Cylinder. “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East,” said Curtis. “The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not just a change of dynasty but a time of change in the ancient world.”
The values of freedom from captivity and freedom of religious practice proclaimed by Cyrus the Great are enduring ideas underlying ethical governance that have made the Cylinder a universal icon. Today, a copy of the Cylinder is on display in the United Nations building in New York City. The Cylinder appears on postage stamps issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it was seen firsthand by about half a million people at the 2010-2011 exhibition in Tehran.
Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, said, “The San Francisco Bay Area is home to both the signing of the United Nations Charter and the birth of the Free Speech Movement, major pillars supporting human rights and civil liberties. The Asian Art Museum is proud to partner with the British Museum and our U.S. museum partners to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco. This important object provides not only a foundation for understanding the ancient world, but also a touchstone for continued efforts to strive for common human freedoms.”
Sunday, September 8, 2013, 2 PM—Dr. David Stronach—New Light on the Cyrus Cylinder—British archaeologist, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus of Near East Studies at UC Berkeley, speaks about new discoveries related to the Cyrus Cylinder. Stronach, recognized as a pioneer of archaeology in Iran, graduated from Cambridge in 1957, and was made director of the newly founded British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran in 1961, holding that post for some 20 years. During that time, he excavated at Pasargadae (1961-1963) and Nush-i Jan (1967-1968). He is a leading expert on Pasargadae, the capital city of Cyrus, and the gardens and monuments of Cyrus and will talk about the Oxus treasure.
[ARThound’s previous (2011) coverage of Dr. Stronach “Ancient Iran from the Air:” acclaimed archaeologist David Stronach presents Georg Gerster’s forthcoming book on Iran, at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor this Saturday]
Sunday September 22, 2013 at 2 PM—Dr. Jennifer Rose— From Samarkand to San Francisco. Dr. Jennifer Rose, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, provides an introduction to the Zoroastrian religion, one of the world’s oldest surviving belief systems. From its origins in Bronze Age Central Asia to its evolution across three powerful Iranian empires, and its expansion to India, Europe and North America, Zoroastrianism has had a profound impact on surrounding cultures and religions. Advance ticket purchase recommended.
Details: The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is at the Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2013. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9 p.m. Admission (Cyrus Cylinder exhibition is included in general admission): $12 Adults; $8 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced and has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.
America’s Cup on Display at Asian Art Museum Thursday, June 27, 2013, along with “In the Moment,” a Peek into Larry Ellison’s Rarely Seen Japanese Art Collection
The most coveted prize in competitive sailing and the oldest trophy in international sports, The America’s Cup, is on display at the Asian Art Museum though 9 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2013. The display is part of the opening activities for In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection, the museum’s special exhibition from the rarely seen trove of Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO and owner of ORACLE TEAM USA, defender of the 34th America’s Cup.
Made by the Crown Jeweler Robert Garrard from sterling silver in 1848, it became known as the America’s Cup when the owners of America donated it in 1857 as a “perpetual challenger trophy to promote friendly competition amongst nations.” Originally just over 20 in. tall, it was extended in the 1950s and again in the 1990s to allow further engraving of racing results. It now stands approximately 3 ft. tall. Without a doubt, it is one of the most difficult trophies to win and in the more than 150 years since the first race off England, only four nations have been victorious. For some perspective on its history, consider that there had been nine contests for the America’s Cup before the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. The America’s Cup was first contested in 1851—when it was known as the One Hundred Pound Cup—when the yacht America, from the New York Yacht Club, beat 15 British yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England.
You can see the coveted cup at the Asian, along with rare treasures from Ellison’s stunning collection of Japanese art—64 artworks spanning 1,100 years. Included in the exhibition, which opens today, are significant works by noted artists of the Momoyama (1573–1615) and Edo (1615–1868) periods, along with other important examples of religious art, lacquer, woodwork, and metalwork. Highlights include a 13th–14th century wooden sculpture of Shotoku Taishi; six-panel folding screens dating to the 17th century by Kano Sansetsu; and 18th century paintings by acclaimed masters Maruyama Ōkyo and Ito Jakuchu. The collection reflects Ellison’s great love of nature and of animals, particularly cats. The exhibition catalogue cover features one of Ellison’s favorite cats, a tiger, in a hanging scroll by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), Edo Period. This sitting tiger is imbued with personality and a marvelous sense of detail. In the Lee Gallery, just adjacent to the education room where The America’s Cup is displayed, are “Two Puppies at Play”—two delightful, one-of-a-kind 13th century Kamakura period (1185-1333) pups, one atop the other, rolling in play, made of lacquer on wood with crystal inlay.
We’ve come to expect a creative use of technology from the Asian and this show does not disappoint. The Lee Gallery has varying light levels so that viewers can see how painted folding screens and hanging scrolls appeared under fluctuating light conditions before the advent of electricity. A dramatic pair of 17th century folding screens attributed to Hasegawa Togaku depict undulating waves and huge rocks masterfully rendered in ink with a generous application of gold leaf. Benches have been set up in the gallery so that visitors can sit at the same height as the screens, roughly the way a person seated on straw would view them in a Japanese home. A three minute cycle of changing light, adjusted to mimic the passing of a day, illuminates how the gold-leaf softens and modulates, altering the entire mood of the coastal scenery as the day passes.
Public access to this collection has been extremely limited but the AAM made great strides when its former director, Dr. Emily Sano, became Ellison’s private art consultant just after retiring her post at the Asian in 2007. Many of the rare works on display are pieces that Ellison actually lives with and has on rotating display in his palatial Japanese-style home in Woodside which is surrounded by a traditional seasonal garden. Stay-tuned to ARThound for a full review of the show.
Larry Ellison is the fifth wealthiest person on the planet. His June, 2103 net worth is $34.9 billion. Notoriously tough in business, he’s been sailing since he was a boy and spends lavishly on what he calls the best team sport on the planet. Of course, in this “winner take all” race, first place is all the matters and we acknowledge that, for years now, the America’s Cup has been more about sailboat design than sport. Ellison famously brought team BMW Oracle, the challenger in the 2010, 33rd America’s Cup, together to race aboard USA-17, the most technologically advanced sailboat ever built. In fact, the catamaran was less of a boat and more of a wind-responsive high-tech machine which moved just above the water. USA-17’s crew was skippered by Australian James “Jimmy” Spithill, the youngest to ever helm an America’s boat, along with a team of expert sailors from all over the world. All of them were united by a single purpose: to win the America’s Cup and bring it back to America.
As victor in the 2010, Ellison earned the right to set the rules for this year’s regatta. He brought the race to San Francisco, a decision most Bay Area residents applaud. Continuing to use the extremely costly 72-foot-long catamarans that fly above the water has been a more controversial call. So far, only four teams have entered the race due to prohibitive costs and Ellison’s AC72 has been plagued with problems. While we all know that money doesn’t necessarily equal merit, it’s a historical fact that investing on the frontiers of technology has spin-offs we’ll all enjoy later. There are few people who could have leveraged nascent digital technology as profitably as Ellison has—he’s earned the right to spend his money as he see fit. His Japanese art collection is nothing short of spectacular.
For an excellent overview on the 2010 race, The Wind Gods (2103), a new documentary film, airs this week on KRCB and is produced by Skydance Productions, a company run by Ellison’s son, David Ellison.
Details: The America’s Cup trophy is on display from June 26 until 9 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2013. In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection runs June 28-Septmeber 2013. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $20 Adults; $16 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.
Marching On—Terra Cotta Warriors exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum closes Monday, May 27, 2013
Of course, ten Terra Cotta figures—eight warriors and two horses—are the stars of the Asian Art Museum’s breathtaking exhibition, China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, which closes on Memorial, Monday, May 27, 2013. All ten—the maximum allowable number to travel outside of China at any time—were hand-picked by the AAM’s director Jay Xu, who negotiated to get the finest for the unforgettable exhibition kicking off the Asian’s 10th year in its present Civic Center location. Some of these warriors are so rare, they have never before travelled out of China but Xu, a Princeton-educated scholar of early Chinese art and archaeology (MA and PhD), has been cultivating relations there for decades. He and his team at the Asian have put together an unforgettable show, utilizing the latest technologies to showcase these ancient figures as well as over 100 artifacts, many of which have never been displayed in the U.S. before.
First unearthed in Central China in 1974 by farmers searching for well water, these remarkable figures are representatives of the army amassed by China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) some 2,200 years ago to guard him in the afterworld. Though Qin Shi Huang lived to be just 49, he is a pivotal figure in Chinese history—responsible for unifying all of China under one powerful leader and creating a legacy of a centralized bureaucratic state that was carried on to successive dynasties over two millennia. Born Zhao Zheng, he became the king of the western State of Qin at age 13. Obsessed with the concept of immortality, he began to make plans for his immense burial complex at a young age while greatly expanding his power base in real terms. By defeating or allying with the seven independent warring principalities that had battled among themselves for generations, he ended China’s brutal Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) and creating a vast kingdom. He then declared himself First Emperor and undertook gigantic projects such as building and unifying sections of the Great Wall of China, building roads throughout China, standardizing Chinese writing, bureaucracy, weights, measurements and currency and building a capital in Xian. It is near Xian, that he built his massive mausoleum guarded by the Terra Cotta warriors. At 250,000 sq. ft., it’s the length of four football fields, and includes a replica of the imperial palace with stables, offices, an armory, an amusement park, a zoo, and an aviary filled with elegant bronze replicas of waterfowl.
At the Asian, the warriors are presented without glass barricades and at eye level in the Osher Gallery and viewers can examine them from multiple viewing angles. What a treat to marvel at their distinct personalities, different uniforms, hairstyles and facial expressions in such an accessible and beautifully-lit environment, which is much more intimate than that in China. The burial complex in China is so vast that visitors are restricted to gazing down upon it from several yards distance, preventing a close-up experience. The few warriors that are available for closer inspection are behind glass. At the Asian, with no barriers, all the rich details emerge and comparisons can be made between the finest examples of warriors of several ranks. Of course, the museum has gone all out to make this as dramatic as possible. The Osher Gallery is darkened and the ten figures are dramatically lit and arranged on two low-level platforms. On the wall behind them a slide-show displays huge images from the vast excavation pit in China creating the impression that you are there amongst the legions of figures who were buried in battle formation. Other displays provide information on the on-going excavations in China, and on how the armor and weapons were used.
One of the figures on display, an armored kneeling archer, retains traces of his original green pigment. He is part of a crossbowman battle formation of both standing and kneeling archers but is the only one found so far with green pigment on his clothing and his face. There are 2 theories—one is that it is camouflage and the other is that he is a necromancer, a person who can divine the outcome of a battle. He is wearing a light coat with outside armor, and is kneeling on his right leg and bending his left leg. He has very functional square-toed shoes with actual tread on the sole of his shoe for traction.
Another, a very rare standing general, one of nine unearthed from the tomb so far, is larger than all the other warriors and his garb reflects his rank. This is the first time he has left China. He wears a uniform adorned with fluid looking ribbons, an indication of his high status. His cap would have had tail feathers from a pheasant, known the bravest bird around. He seems poised for action and his hands once rested on a sword, now missing. All the warriors have elaborate hair-dos but the general sports a moustache and muttonchops, an indication of authority.
The two horses, a chariot horse and a cavalry horse, both standing at about 13 or 14 hands in height, have slightly different expressions on their faces imbuing them with a sense of personality. The horse played an important role in the mythology of early China. Closely associated with the dragon, both were thought capable of flight and of carrying their rider to the home of the immortals. Throughout its history, China’s very survival relied on its equestrian prowess and these muscular horses, with flared nostrils and perked ears are on alert. Separate display cases are devoted to intricate horse fittings, some of these in solid gold.
The entire first floor of the museum is dedicated to the exhibit which also includes 110 other recovered items which explore the themes of Immortality, Innovation, Archaeology and Unification. Particularly stunning are several life size bronze water birds discovered in 2001 from a pit thought to represent a royal park or sacred water garden. All have a rich green patina that has built up over the centuries and the swan and crane are so realistic, they seem capable of bursting into flight at any moment. Were these elegant creatures buried with Qin Shihuang because he loved them in life and wanted them by his side for all eternity?
The custom of producing sculptures as burial objects to substitute for human sacrifices began in the Shang and Zhou periods and flourished in the Qin (221-206 BC), Han and post-Han dynasties, all the way to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The belief was that objects used during one’s life on earth would continue to be used in the afterlife. Now, 40 plus years after its original discovery, excavation is still quite active with new finds being announced on a regular basis. Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb has yet to be opened but, according to Jay Xu, there are no current plans to do that.
We’ve come to rely on excellent scholarship from the Asian, but this exhibition, presented in partnership with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, the Shaanxi Cultural Promotions and the People’s Republic of China, presents the 8th wonder of the ancient world as it’s never been seen before.
Best times to visit: weekday afternoons or Thursday evenings after 5 p.m. when it costs just $10. Worse time—weekend. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $20 Adults; $16 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under. On weekends, admission is $2 more. Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info: www.asianart.org.