Seventeenth Century Chinese Artists Expressed Subtle Dissent

20 December, 2011 at 11:22 | Posted in Chinese culture | Leave a comment
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Interesting exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City,
until January 2, 2012.

Ming-loyalist art at the Met: grace under fire

By Betsy Kim

NEW YORK—If you are curious about the art of people protesting against the government in China during the 1600s, the paintings, calligraphies, poems, and carved objects, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City may surprise you.

Walking through the exhibit The Art of Dissent in 17th-Century China, subtitled Masterpieces of Ming Loyalist Art from the Chi Lo Lou Collection, offers a subdued, peaceful, and contemplative experience.

Under siege by peasant rebellion and the invasion of the Manchus, the 300-year-old Ming Dynasty collapsed with its last emperor hanging himself in the gardens outside of the Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace) in Beijing in 1644.

Ming loyalists—government officials, scholars, and members of the imperial house—resisted the new Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, leaving their legacy in historically and artistically significant masterpieces.

In contrast with flamboyant, graphic depictions of violence that capture cataclysmic upheaval in Western art, these artists expressed dissent with subtlety. In muted palettes, tones of gold, brown, ivory, black, gray, and blue, the exhibit displays a beauty of orderly, artistic discipline and restraint. The works symbolize refuge in nature, moral virtues, and defiance through idiosyncratic styles.

Paintings and Carvings

Bada Shanren (1626–1705), born into Ming royal lineage, escaped persecution by becoming a Buddhist monk and later a painter. The Met’s gallery label notes his painting “Fish” expressed defiance with the animal’s menacing stare and bloated belly.

“Its upturned eye creates an image that is almost human. Seemingly suspended in midair with its tail half cropped, the fish may symbolize the displacement and bereavement of all native Chinese,” the label states.

Shitao (1642–1707), also of the Ming royal family, painted bamboo and orchids in a traditional manner of the imperial court. Created together with artist Wang Hui, Shitao’s “Orchids, Bamboo, and Rocks” hangs beside his ink on paper scroll, “Bamboo and Rock.”

The gallery label explains that bamboo represents integrity, and orchids symbolize purity. Thus, the paintings pay homage to transcendent ideals. In his second painting, Shitao creates depth, using leaves in varying shades of black, with grays receding to the background. The blowing leaves resemble dark birds in incessant flight.

To maximize the intellectual and emotional impact, set aside a minimum of two hours to view the art at an unhurried pace. Take the time to read the historical information in the galleries. Visually absorb and compare the different works of art. Distinctive styles of the calligraphies and landscapes will emerge with clarity.

Amelia Bryne and Peter Norrman, both filmmakers, came from Brooklyn, specifically to see this exhibit. With a background in cultural anthropology, Bryne gravitated toward the brush holders, brushes, water bowls, seals, and ink tablets. She enjoyed “thinking about the actual physical objects people used to make something.”

The ivory and bamboo brush holders showcase intricate, deeply chiseled engravings that cradle the delicacy of a miniature theater.

Gu Jue (late 17th century) carved a brush holder that depicts the famous poem “Ode to the Pavilion of the Inebriated Old Man.” The meticulously detailed scene shows pine trees, clouds, and the sky partially covering the thatched roof of a pavilion that shelters people. An almost 3-D, small diorama circles around the container.

Read more: Seventeenth Century Chinese Artists Expressed Subtle Dissent | Literary & Visual Arts | Arts & Entertainment | Epoch Times

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