Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures From the National Palace Museum, Taipei

at the Art Institute, through August 25

By Fred Camper

In the same Art Institute galleries that recently catered to popular taste with the blockbuster Monet show you can now see Chicago’s true exhibit of the decade. Most of the nearly 400 works in “Splendors of Imperial China”–a traveling exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, drawn from the millennium-old collection of the Palace Museum in Taiwan–present a way of thinking about the world and its materials very different from that found in the West; viewing it can be deeply transformative. But the loudest bleaters on the multicultural trumpet will not be likely to tout this exhibit, which extends from the 13th century BC to the 18th century AD: this is primarily elitist, hieratic art. Many objects were commissioned by emperors, and there are plenty of portraits of emperors. But even the simplest nature paintings here are far more complex than, say, your average Mao painting, whether by Warhol or, to judge from reproductions, by one of the many artisans forced to paint the Chairman during the Cultural Revolution. The works in this exhibit require concentration; their extreme delicacy and frequent complexity tell us they were meant for connoisseurs.

Western art at its best proudly announces its presence, filling space with its forms and imposing itself on its environment. A Renaissance sculpture incises the space surrounding it; an illusionistic European painting cuts a virtual hole in the wall, creating a window onto another world. But the best works here are profoundly self-effacing. While Chinese artists often spoke of finding a personal style, they also spoke of losing themselves in their subject. The 11th-century poet-painter Su Shih wrote of a colleague whose paintings he admired: “When Yu-k’o painted bamboos he was conscious only of the bamboos, and not of himself as a man.” Many Chinese writers speak of pictures as unified wholes expressing a spirit that inheres in all things, and often the works in this exhibit cannot be “parsed” in the way a Western painting can, as being built of related parts. Though these pieces are incredibly detailed at times, they are not built on inner tensions or conflicts. Rather, the longer one looks at separate lines and tones and shapes, the more they seem manifestations of some hidden unity. The writer Huang T’ing-chien, a friend of Su Shih’s, wrote that he didn’t understand painting until meditation helped him realize “the state of no-vexation….Then I entered into the mysterious.”

While the exhibit’s first room begins with bronzes from the 13th century BC, many centuries are not represented; the historical evolution of Chinese art is traced continuously beginning in the second room with works from the Sung dynasty, the first phase of which began in 960 AD and is called Northern Sung. (At the insistence of the Taiwanese lenders, the show uses an older system of transliterating Chinese names than the one now in general use; thus “Song” is here called “Sung.”) Under the Sung, government officials were selected on their merit rather than for their aristocratic ties; older art began to be studied, inventoried with wood-block prints, and even copied; and Sung landscape painting reached such heights that centuries later it was still emulated.

In the first of two rooms of Sung works are two small bronze tripod vessels made some 2,000 years apart. The first, crafted sometime between the 13th and 11th centuries BC, has a bottom of three discrete curves marked by crevices where they meet; each ends in a foot. The vessel is decorated with ornate geometrical patterns, some suggesting animals or plants or the dragon shape common in ancient Chinese art; this mixture of gentle curves, straight lines, and acute angles creates dramatic visual contrasts. The work as a whole feels a bit off center, with just a hint of the fierceness of ancient ritual objects. The Sung vessel inspired by it offers a dramatic contrast. The decorative pattern is less ornate; the curves seem gentler; the acute angles are more carefully integrated into the design. But the greatest difference is in the base: the three legs grow out of a single gently curved surface. The piece as a whole has an amazing balance beyond simple unity. Where the older work, like Western sculpture, asserts itself as shape, the Sung vessel flows so smoothly that after a time it seems, well, almost like it’s not there. Of course, by this time Buddhism and Taoism had spread their influence throughout Chinese culture.

Those who suspect I’m resorting to mystification should examine the white porcelain vase in the same room. Its gentle form rises from a small, flat base in a single curve swerving in at the top and interrupted only by the lip of the tiny opening. It’s not an accretion of parts but a single entity. Incised on the surface are tiny lines forming a barely visible pattern of lotus leaves, their shapes pointing upward and delicately echoing the flowers within. The white glaze is neither matte (it has no noticeable texture) nor luminous (brightly reflective and light-filled). The “look” of the glaze is hardly a look at all, and the longer I viewed the object the more it seemed to vanish.

Some paintings had similarly mysterious effects. One sees an elegant design, admires the artist’s skill, and starts to feel something strange–for all its precision, the picture undercuts itself. The fur in Li Ti’s Kitten (1174) is rendered with consummate care: tiny individual lines form the white fur, while the darker fur is created out of many lines painted over others, enhancing the feeling of an almost pettable surface. But other elements counteract this apparent down-to-earth realism. The cat wears an almost sphinxlike expression compounded of opposites: gentle and fierce, thoughtful and in a thoughtless trance, its look is complex enough to suggest a spirit within. The color of the darker fur is close to the tan of the background, hints of which are also contained in the white fur, and the longer one stares, the more the details blend in with the blank background, as if the cat were a chimera, an illusion.

The idea that the visible world is an illusion is Buddhist. Hui-neng, a seventh-century Buddhist master, came across some monks disputing why a pennant flutters: one argued that “the wind…makes it move,” while another thought it couldn’t really be flapping. Finally Hui-neng replied, “It is neither wind nor pennant but your own mind which flaps.” Taoism offers another unifying vision, in which all things are manifestations of the Tao, or “way.”

Landscape paintings here also fuse matter and apparent emptiness. In Yen Tz’u-p’ing’s small Villa Beneath Pines on a Rocky Ledge (c.1160s-1180s), which originally adorned a fan, a large home on a rocky promontory jutting out into a body of water is nestled among irregularly shaped trees. The vast empty space that appears to be water is also visible beneath the tree trunks and the home; interrupted by only a few wispy forms that might be reeds or a misty shoreline, this background color fills the oval. Just as the home sits at water’s edge, so the picture seems poised on a brink, its discrete forms underlain by a void, but a void that’s an extension of the painting’s physical objects, which lead into or bleed into it. Thus the viewer goes through a process akin to that of religious conversion, of looking at physical reality, then sensing and finally being overwhelmed by something deeper, underlying all that is seen.

Centuries before the Sung, Chinese artists regarded painting and calligraphy as intimately connected, which leads to another kind of unity. Chinese ideograms are themselves little pictures, and painted images are often signs, though most viewers today can’t interpret them without help–which the wall labels here frequently provide. In this exhibit, the connection between painting and calligraphy emerges most clearly in works from the Yuan dynasty (1272-1368). Six leaves from Wu Chen’s Manual of Ink Bamboo, which was inspired by an engraving after a Su Shih bamboo painting, show calligraphic writing side by side with depictions of bamboo, revealing the similarities in brushwork. Without being symmetrical, each composition seems almost magically unified: these mixtures of lines and pointed leaves, of stalks of varying degrees of darkness or transparency, possess a harmony based on a few simple repeating forms. This kind of unity was sought by Su Shih, who, in a text Wu Chen copied on some of these leaves, decries the way some painters simply draw “joint after joint and leaf by leaf.” He continues: “In painting bamboo, one must first possess the complete bamboo in one’s heart.” He implies that one must paint quickly, “like the hare’s leaping up when the falcon swoops down.”

In 1368 the Yuan dynasty was replaced by the Ming, which lasted until 1644; the Ming restored native Chinese rule–the Yuans, though they kept many Chinese traditions, were Mongols. Art during the Ming dynasty was conservative: artists often imitated or copied older works. This exhibit has many Ming depictions of great delicacy, such as the exquisite plants and animals of Sun Lung’s Sketches From Life, painted without outlines so that the colors bleed into the surroundings. But in most of the work one senses a return to familiar ground. Pictures become mannered, apparently preoccupied with their own effects; earlier invocations of the invisible are gradually replaced by greater attention to physicality, to sensuality. Ceramics, for example, are often decorated with elaborate bright blue designs that seem to call attention to the objects’ color and shape rather than efface their solidity.

One way to see this shift is by comparing two emperor paintings. In the anonymous Sung dynasty Portrait of Sung T’ai-tsu, the first Sung emperor is seated on a sparse-looking throne; the background is mostly blank, and his white robe is arranged with magisterial symmetry, each fold on the left matching one on the right. Contrasted with the near abstraction of his accoutrements is the complex specificity of his facial expression: wise, authoritative, pregnant with inner life. In the 15th-century Portrait of the Hung-chih Emperor, the ruler is seated on an ornate throne; his robe, almost free of the folds a garment would naturally have, is festooned with decorations; the screens behind him display enormous dragons. Yet his face is flat and expressionless, devoid of mystery. This is the symbol of an emperor whose power is maintained by illusions, not an individual human whose power flows from within. Objects have replaced spirit.

A number of Ming landscapes border on the awe inspiring, displaying towering mountains that dwarf the few human forms below. But the wall labels inform us these are either direct copies from or painted in the style of Northern Sung monumental landscapes. The scenery is majestic in T’ang Yin’s Whispering Pines on a Mountain Path, with waterfalls coursing down and impressively vertical rocks, but I experienced the painting as an overall design devoid of mystery. The repeated waterfalls are almost decorative, and the rock surfaces relatively flat, lacking the textural detail of, say, Li Ti’s Kitten.

The frequent references to Northern Sung monumental landscape painting points up the exhibit’s one lack: there’s none of it. That this is a truly monumental flaw is apparent not only from the importance art historians give these works, but from the fact that for many centuries Chinese artists copied and imitated them. Originally seven or eight Northern Sung landscapes were to be included, and they can be seen in reproduction in the exhibit’s splendid, scholarly catalog; but last-minute political protests in Taiwan over the temporary exporting of these rare works–for conservation reasons, many are on view for only 40 days every three years at the Palace Museum–forced the withdrawal of these and other rarities. A few that were included could be shown at only one of the show’s four venues, and only for 40 days.

But I was able to see one of these Northern Sung landscapes, Sitting Alone by a Stream, at the exhibit’s New York installation at the Metropolitan. The mountains and trees of this five-foot-high hanging-scroll ink painting, dwarfing the tiny buildings and figure, are mysteriously shrouded; every millimeter of the surface is unpredictably alive. This picture is as great as any art I’ve seen. It creates the illusion of infinity not at a single vanishing point, as in Western paintings, but at every point, through irregular lines that seem to point inward and outward and to all sides at once; in this vision, every particle of the natural world is equally alive. By comparison Li Ti’s sublime Kitten seems a bit cute.

The evolutionary process whereby a vibrant style, or set of styles, becomes ossified into repetitive patterns that lose their original mystery and meaning is a familiar one. Anyone who’s looked at late Byzantine-style icons or 19th-century Italian Madonnas or sterile imitations of 20th-century abstract-expressionist techniques should have a feeling for the difference between authentic, meaningful compositions and imitative, decorative ones. One of the great lessons of this exhibit is the nuanced complexity with which it presents the long decline in Chinese art. Seeing vibrant ideas reified and then ossified, I gained a deeper insight into patterns of perception that tempt us all: a lingering on the superficial, the physical, the easy pleasures of looking rather than on art as a path to inner understanding. It is a “lie,” William Blake wrote, to see “with” rather than “through” the eye.

Perhaps mercifully, this show ends with the 18th century; in Ch’ien-lung Court Artists (The Fourth Month), ossification is complete. This brightly colored scene–one of 12 depicting the lives of the rich and aristocratic throughout the year–is lovely to look at. A number of buildings rise from water on wooden posts; little clusters of flowers bloom about the compound; the rectilinear architecture recedes according to Western linear perspective. A variety of human activities are depicted. Whereas in older Chinese art a few figures or buildings are dwarfed by the landscape, here the architecture dominates the scene and determines how it will be represented; nature, now tamed, is mere decoration. The water between the buildings and in the background is oddly lifeless; one reason may be the mundane, repetitive pattern with which the surface is rendered. The vision of spirit manifested everywhere in pictures like Sitting Alone by a Stream finally devolves into a pretty picture filled with stuff.

Yet the danger of succumbing to surface effects was known to Chinese artists as early as the tenth century. In one manuscript, a dialogue between an old master and a young painter, the master teaches: “One should not take outward beauty for reality. He who does not understand this mystery will not obtain truth, even though his pictures may contain likeness….Likeness can be obtained by shape without spirit….He who tries to express spirit through ornamental beauty will make dead things.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Portrait of Sung T’ai-Tsu,” “Manual of Ink Bamboo,” by Wu Chen.