“Man Riding a Horse” (1296), a Yuan dynasty handscroll by Zhao Mengfu, in “The World of Khubilai Khan,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
ART REVIEW “The World of Khubilai Khan,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
By HOLLAND COTTER
Source: New York Times, September 30, 2010
Art history is not a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled. It’s more like a smashed sheet of reflective glass, continually reshattering, with splinters scattered here and there, many lost forever. With luck and work, scholars retrieve a few splinters, put them in a guessed-at order and turn on some lights. The result is an exhibition.
If the pieces are bright and the scholarship sharp, the show can be a subtle stunner, as is the case with “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty,”the latest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s line of benchmark Chinese exhibitions. This one encompasses some 300 objects, from filigreed hairpins to a couple of megaton sculptures, most of them hard-won loans from China.
In its overachieving fashion, the Met is simultaneously presenting a second, substantial show, “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change,” drawn from its own deep holdings. Not content with serving up mere masterpiece displays, the museum has shaped both exhibitions around a specific subject: the Mongol occupation of China, from 1271 to 1368.
Although China was always ethnically mixed, it had never been subject to outside rule before the Mongol armies came pounding down from the north, driving the existing Song dynasty into exile. In 1271, the leader of the charge, Khubilai Khan, grandson of the dreaded Genghis Khan, declared himself emperor of China and head of a new dynasty called the Yuan, meaning “the beginning.”
Khubilai was an ambitiously sophisticated man. He was conversant with Chinese culture, at least up to a point. (He never learned to read the language.) Formally a Buddhist, he was interested in a range of religions. He liked to build big things, and did: a fabulous city in Inner Mongolia called Shangdu, known in the West as Xanadu, and, on the site of present-day Beijing, an imperial capital called Dadu that became an international showcase.
Still, to his dying day he was Mongol through and through, though one with cosmopolitan seasoning. He liked sleeping in the tents favored by his nomadic ancestors, particularly if they were erected within the palace gardens.
The Mongol invasion was, inevitably, traumatic, causing social and economic upheaval in every area, including art. The invaders were respectful of Chinese high art, with its fabled refinements, and undoubtedly hoped that association with it would make their governance more acceptable to their new subjects. At the same time, they retained elements of their own more flamboyant aesthetic, and it is the intertwining of these two strands, Chinese and Central Asian, that “The World of Khubilai Khan” explores in thematic sections devoted to daily life, religion, painting and sculpture, and decorative arts. (The show was organized by James C. Y. Watt, chairman of the Met’s Asian art department.)
You get a vivid hit of Mongol style right at the start, in a much-reproduced painted portrait of Chabi, Khubilai’s moon-faced favorite consort, who appears in a bold red cap topped by a funnel-shaped column from which emerge feathers and pearls. Such hats were called gugus. One visitor to the Yuan court mistook a cluster of women wearing them for a battalion of soldiers with lances.
The show’s first section, “Daily Life,” delivers even more flash (and a strictly aristocratic perspective) with its jumble of high-end objects: jade belt hooks, embroidered slippers, bronze vessels, porcelain jars and gold items. The Mongols loved gold everything: jewelry, dishware, saddle plating. Guests at imperial functions were expected to wear cloth-of-gold outfits, preferably sewn with gems. The massed effect, seen by torchlight or in full sunlight, must have been blinding, and utterly un-Chinese.
The Mongols were no less declamatory in their architecture: they borrowed Chinese structural designs, then piled on ornament. A glazed pottery dragon’s head in the show was created as a roof fixture for a stolid and still standing Yuan Taoist temple, the Yonglegong, in Shanxi Province. Technically, the sculpture was mainly an embellishment. But standing five feet high, painted flame orange and sea-green, and snarling like a ravenous Muppet, it must have commanded all eyes.
Moving from outsized to miniature, displayed in the same gallery is an exquisite porcelain headrest with a surprise tucked away in its hollow base: a tiny theater with gallery actors performing the roles of Taoist immortals having a birthday party. Given the Mongol flair for visual histrionics, it is no surprise to learn than the Yuan era was a golden age for theater, with Dadu a 14th-century Broadway and Off Broadway rolled into one. The city had hundreds of performance spaces, indoors and open air, offering a full menu of theatrical genres from fantasy epics to topical farces and song-and-dance vaudevilles, the forerunners of Chinese opera and kung fu films.
The variety of religions was also wide, wider than it would ever be in China again. Chan Buddhism — Zen, in Japan — was just of one of several popular sects when the Mongols arrived with their own Himalayan version of the faith. And the sections of the show devoted to religion are particularly fascinating for their demonstration of how spiritual and aesthetic currents intersect.
The face on a marvelous 14th-century wood carving of an arhat, or luohan, a companion of the historical Buddha, is classically Chinese, while the body bends and twists in ways associated with Indo-Himalayan sculpture. And a painting of two very-Chinese-looking arhats floating in a very-Chinese-looking landscape is inscribed in Tibetan on one side and Newari on the other, leaving its place of origin — Tibet, maybe? — up in the air.
Having taken a Tibetan Buddhist deity as his personal savior, Khubilai Khan was somewhat resistant to Taoism. As a result, little art related to that Chinese indigenous nature religion survives from the Yuan, though what does remain includes some intriguing hybrids.
In a scroll depicting the meeting of two Taoist immortals, one wears the conventional uniform of a scholar; the other is loosely robed, dark-skinned, with a unkempt beard, all of which signaled “barbarian” in Chinese art. And this immortal has one other really distinctive outsider feature: brilliant, laser-beam blue eyes, of a kind found on portraits of monks in Central Asia. There’s a very similar image in a mural at the Yonglegong temple, proof that even in the most Chinese of contexts, the Mongol spirit found a place.
But Yuan culture turns out to be a crazy-quilt of such meetings, and the exhibition, in accounting for them, begins to feel like a succession of random spiritual flickers, with a bit of Hindu-style sculpture followed by a flash of Islamic calligraphy, then a Christian cross or two. One astonishingly code-jammed hanging scroll depicts Jesus in the guise of a Manichean prophet sitting on a Buddhist lotus throne.
And then there’s a whole other kind if art, a radical style of painting that was the dynasty’s single greatest, if somewhat accidental, aesthetic innovation.
After assuming imperial power Khubilai discontinued the Chinese system of state examinations through which scholars had traditionally gained court and civil appointments. By ending the exams — which they, of course, could not have passed — the Mongols effectively disenfranchised an entire intellectual class.
That class included artists, some of whom responded by creating a kind of anti-establishment painting: private, self-expressive and semi-abstract, closely related to writing, and conceived on an intimate scale. For many, this was a form of protest art, one that would have tremendous influence in the centuries ahead. The second Met show, “The Yuan Revolution,” takes the full measure of this art.
Interestingly, the style was more or less invented by a descendant of the Song imperial family, the polymath painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), who scandalized his peers by accepting a government job from Khubilai.
Maybe Zhao thought he could use his position in court for the greater benefit of Chinese art. Maybe he just wanted a settled environment in which to produce his own work. Whatever, produce he did, turning out the naturalistic paintings of horses for which he was renowned, along with copies of revered images from the distant past and calligraphic landscapes that looked to future.
In the hands of certain contemporaries, like the scholar-painter Ni Zan (1306-74), they also looked at the present. In a personal boycott of the Mongol regime, with its prejudicial attitude toward many native-born Chinese scholars, Ni took to living a fugitive’s life on houseboat, always on the move, painting soundless little vistas of river and sky, with thin bare trees standing as symbols of his own rectitudinous isolation.
“The Yuan Revolution,” organized by the Met curator Maxwell K. Hearn, has four Ni paintings. And two more take pride of place in “The World of Khubilai Khan,” which concludes, as it began, with a gathering of fragments: namely, swatches of fabric — cloth of gold, satin damask, tapestry — cut or torn from long-vanished larger textiles and carrying mingled fragrances of China, India, Nepal, Tibet, Turkey and present-day Iran.
Really, the entire loan exhibition is composed of patches, odds and ends: funny old hats, bits of buildings, mixed-up paintings, ambiguous personalities. Its subject is a dynasty that neither fully transformed the culture that it conquered nor was fully transformed by it, and in the end comes across, despite high moments, as indistinct, an image with no center, like a reflection in shivered glass. How do you make a show that catches history as it really is, a process of perpetual breakage and dispersal? This show is one way to do it.
“The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” runs through Jan. 2 and “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change” runs through Jan. 9, both at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.