From the New York Review of Books
‘Xanadu in New York’
JANUARY 13, 2011
J.C.Y. Watt, reply by Eliot Weinberger
IN RESPONSE TO:
Xanadu in New York from the December 23, 2010 issue
To the Editors:
Reading Eliot Weinberger’s piece [“Xanadu in New York,” NYR, December 23, 2010] on the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” brings to mind an Englishman a long time ago who, when taken to a fine Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, could not wait to show off his sophisticated knowledge of Chinese cuisine and ordered egg Fuyung and sweet-and-sour pork.
Normally, writing like Mr. Weinberger’s should best be ignored, except that it has appeared in The New York Review, which normally publishes articles that can be taken seriously. I shall comment on only one of the authoritative-sounding and misleading statements that pepper Mr. Weinberger’s piece. He says that (presumably commenting on the Mongol period) “artistic influence mainly moved west, where Chinese forms and techniques were transformative in Persian art.” One of the main themes underlying the exhibition is the pervasive influence of the arts of the Iranian world on Chinese art in the Mongol-Yuan period (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries). Evidence of this stares you in the face everywhere in the exhibition, and should be obvious to someone who makes grand statements on East–West artistic exchange.
One of the first exhibits is a portrait of Empress Chabi, wife of Khubilai, wearing a robe bordered by strips of cloth of gold on which are images of heads of a bird. Next to this portrait is a piece of cloth of gold displaying a pattern incorporating griffins, the heads of which appear on Chabi’s dress. The cloths of gold used for imperial robes in the time of Khubilai and Chabi were woven in China by craftsmen originally from Central Asia. This is a clear case of the transfer of both the patterning and the technique of a particular weave from the Eastern Iranian world. Perhaps Mr. Weinberger would care to provide proof that the griffin is a Chinese animal and that the lampas weave (for the cloth of gold) originated in China. And perhaps Mr. Weinberger can also tell us what Chinese technique was transmitted west that transformed “Persian art.”
May I suggest that The New York Review stay within the sphere of American and European literature and politics, if you would so casually assign someone, anyone, to report on an exhibition organized by a group of curators and scholars who do know something about the subject? You know there are plenty of American scholars who also know the subject in depth and could have done a more responsible job of appraising and reviewing the exhibition.
Chairman, Department of Asian Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City
Eliot Weinberger replies:
If the “influence of the arts of the Iranian world” is “pervasive,” “obvious,” and “everywhere in the exhibition,” it is not apparent in the paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, prints, architectural details, ceramics, metal, lacquer, and jade pieces that fill the galleries. Nor do any of the contributors to the catalog—including Mr. Watt in a thirty-page essay on the decorative arts—mention any Iranian presence in these arts. Indeed, as Mr. Watt himself writes in the introduction, “the new influences coming into China during the Yuan period are relatively slight.” I take him at his (previous) word.
The one exception—and the only example he cites here—is textiles, particularly the cloth of gold, which Mr. Watt, in the catalog, calls “the most innovative art form introduced in China in the Yuan period.” There were so many marvelous things in the exhibition, I did not discuss textiles in my review. But I fail to see how this exception disproves my utterly unoriginal passing remark that artistic influence mainly moved from east to west. In that regard, Mr. Watt’s challenge for me to demonstrate the Chinese influence on Iranian art is puzzling. This was a major theme in an earlier exhibition at the Met, “The Legacy of Genghis Khan,” and the long essay in that catalog by the cocurator, Linda Komaroff, provides scores of examples.
Mr. Watt’s letter raises the question of whether an unrefined nobody, an “anyone”—the type who orders the wrong thing in a restaurant—should be permitted to review an exhibition organized by an expert such as himself. The few paragraphs in my review that evidently uncorked Mr. Watt’s disdain required no specialized knowledge. I noted that “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” was a collection of wonderful objects that had little or nothing to do with Khubilai Khan—as Mr. Watt himself admits in the introduction—and that many of them were not even from the Yuan Dynasty.
As an ordinary reader, I found the catalog unhelpful. In his introduction, as in his letter, Mr. Watt made hyperbolic and sometimes contradictory claims that struck me as untrustworthy because they were neither repeated nor elaborated upon by the other contributors. Some of the other essays were equally confusing; some had a tendency to wander at length into other historical periods where the writer seemed more comfortable. All glossed over the fact that the Mongols were among the worst—perhaps, relative to the population, the worst—mass murderers in history, and that they had only a tangential relation to much of the Chinese art produced under their reign.
The book sorely needed the kind of general historical background that, for example, the great Mongol scholar (and curiously absent) Morris Rossabi provided for the catalog to the earlier Genghis Khan show. To write my review, I fled to sources that seemed more reliable, but perhaps they too were sweet-and-sour pork eaters.