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.
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.
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.
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.
“Out of Character,” the Asian Art Museum’s thoughtful exploration of Chinese calligraphy as art and writing closes on January 13, 2012; you can see it for free this Sunday
Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, an exhibition of collector and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang’s calligraphy collection and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is a show that goes right to heart of Chinese culture and artistic practice. The exhibition of roughly 40 significant works from Yang’s collection of roughly 250 pieces of calligraphy represents the first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy in the U.S. since 1999. Curated by Dr. Michael Knight, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, and Dr. Joseph Chang, senior research fellow at the museum’s research Institute for Asian Art, the exhibition fills three full galleries and moves through six centuries including 15 featured works which are shown in their entirety. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on decoding the mysteries and conventions behind calligraphy and its purpose and mastery. The ancient practice has always been intriguing to Western audiences but has remained mysterious. Importantly, this exhibition provides exciting and compelling evidence of calligraphy’s rich contribution to Chinese culture, something that has not been explored comprehensively and accessibly for Western audiences. These works are on display for just two more weekends in San Francisco before the exhibition moves on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will be on display in 2014.
The four major formats of Chinese calligraphy— albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls and fans—are covered amply. Many works are on exhibition for the first time and visitors have the rare chance to see such masterpieces as the earliest dated calligraphy outside China by Dong Qichang (1555-1636). Also on display is “Lotus Sutra,” a late 13th-to-early-14th century handscroll by the esteemed calligrapher and painter Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). Mengfu’s calligraphy was so influential that his standard script was chosen as the model for books printed by the early Ming court. This scroll raises a number of interesting questions. Executed in small standard script (xiaokaishu), with a total of more than 10,000 characters, the handscroll is 10 7/8 inches high and a whopping 180 ½ inches long. A testament to the absolute control, concentration, and endurance of the calligrapher, it is displayed and lit beautifully in a long rectangular glass cabinet in the exhibition’s fist gallery.
Mengfu’s work becomes all the more impressive when we consider that calligraphers as a general rule did not re-do or erase their work. Each character, even hundreds in succession resulted from an energetic burst, something almost unimaginable in our era, where most of us have become so keyboard dependent that the act of handwriting has become laborious, resulting in almost illegible scrawls. Megfu’s scroll is one of what were originally seven scrolls presenting the text of the Lotus Sutra. Why did the calligrapher choose to reproduce one of the most influential texts in Chinese Buddhism? Was it an exercise in devotion? contemplation? Who was it intended for? Such are the mysteries surrounding this ancient art.
While calligraphy is aptly described as poetry in motion, it is much more than attractive writing. Throughout Chinese history it has been a judge of character and intelligence. A good calligrapher was associated with scholarship (so highly esteemed in Chinese culture), sensibility, discipline and good taste. The study of important works of the past is a fundamental element of Chinese calligraphy. Rote immersion and repetition are key in the early learning phases while mastery, never fully attained, is a lifelong practice. Curator Dr. Michael Knight related the story of the famous calligrapher Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) who apparently sat for an important annual examination and was ranked third by his master due his characters. This prompted him to copy out the Thousand Character Classic ten times every day for a total of 10,000 characters daily. The effort was not in vain as Wen emerged among the very best calligraphers of the Ming dynasty.
One of the dramatic aspects of this exhibition is the extent to which the curators went to give it a modern sensibility. In the second gallery, devoted to 15 featured works that exemplify importance and visual impact, an entire curved wall has been used to display all 85 pages of a single album. Each page is displayed separately and eloquently, forming a dynamic wall of letters with a crisp and contemporary graphic appeal. It’s almost impossible to stand before this and not be dazzled by the power of the ink and these dancing letters.
Many of the calligraphers represented have not only produced aesthetically beautiful and impressive scripts, the content itself is often eloquent poetry, well-known masterpieces from the past or those composed by the calligrapher, some of whom were famous as poets. There are many wall boards with moving translations such as Huang Daozhou’s (1585-1646) poem dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng, which captures a timeless sense of longing—
It’s not that I am not satisfied pounding other people’s grain; I just can’t stop pitying the unraveled weft. My far-reaching aspirations sink with the white clouds; my person, at leisure, draws close to birds that soar. I’ve stolen my bit of shade, and feel my life secure; Just based on this, I smell a solitary fragrance. Who really remembers the time of metal-shift. Message all empty—I pray to old Heaven above. (Huang Daozhou, 明朝 黃道周 行草詩軸 絹本, Poems dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng in semicursive/cursive script, hanging scroll; ink on silk)
While a large portion of the exhibition is devoted to exploring the complex set of conventions and rules of calligraphy, it also attempts to show linkages with contemporary art, something that intrigued Abstract Expressionists, who essentially created adaptations of the calligraphic gesture. A number of modern works borrowed from SFMOMA by artists Mark Tobay, Franz Kline and Brice Marden are displayed. And while this is a small section, it successfully links calligraphy as a highly expressive form of writing form with abstraction as the expression of the self through brush and ink.
Finally, the show closes with a bow to the contemporary—acclaimed Chinese artist and 1999 MacArthur Fellow, Xu Bing’s “The Character of Characters,” a 20 minute animated response to calligraphy’s long-standing traditions. The film runs continuously in wide-screen, black and white format on three horizontal monitors in the museum’s expansive North Court. Xu Bing’s creative process itself speaks to the discipline so essential in calligraphy. Xu Bing, worked daily for well over a month with13 dedicated assistants—racking up over 5,000 man hours—and roughly 50 drafts and more than 1,000 hand drawn sketches before he was satisfied with the result.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jay Xu, AAM’s director, during the annual press luncheon following Out of Character’s opening. He related that, as a child, he too was made to sit and practice calligraphy and had little interest pursuing it. As an adult though, particularly when he is feeling tense, immersing himself in calligraphy is a “stress-buster” and he now finds it “quite enjoyable.” “Calligraphy has been remote and mysterious to many people,” said Hu. “This is an art, a practice, that encompasses all of Chinese culture and it’s time to decode it.”
Docent tours for Out of Character: 45 minute walk-through, 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, free with museum admission. Meet at information desk, ground floor.
This Sunday: The Asian offers free yoga! How do we use works of art to connect with ourselves and others? Explore this idea as you move with yogi Lorna Reed as she leads a group session in meditation and a Hatha flow practice, using artworks in the museum collection to understand the historical and cultural significance of yoga throughout Asia. Each session will delve into healthy practices that balance energy, align your body, and help you relax. Each class ends with a standing meditation in the galleries. (Part of the Target First Free Sunday Program, Sunday, January 6, 2013, 2-3 p.m., check at information desk for location)
Details: Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy closes Sunday January 13, 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: $8-$12, free first Sunday of each month. 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: begin_of_the_skype_highlighting www.asianart.org.