• The Field Museum, John Weinstein
  • Chinese, Qing Dynasty (1644—1911), Mask Designs for Court Opera Characters, ca. 1746—95, Album leaves, ink, and color on paper

In the U.S. we tend to think of pop culture as our thing: a recent, Western phenomenon based in rock music, hip-hop, Hollywood film, and maybe the occasional YA novel. The Smart Museum’s exhibit “Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture” demonstrates just how parochial that view is.

The show features a dazzling array of materials, from the 1700s to the present, that surround the stories and pageantry of the widely popular form. This includes production artifacts, such as costumes and instruments, as well as a series of jaw-dropping paintings, some of which served as reference for stage makeup, in which snakes, crabs, scorpions, and birds dramatically drawn on an actor’s face obliterate the person’s features.

In addition to items integral to the stage spectacle, the exhibit also includes a collection of marketing tchotchkes—fans, books, bowls, drums, pillow embroidery—decorated with opera iconography. Pieces such as a carved rhinoceros-horn cup are decidedly upscale; others, such as small dioramas of opera scenes, are clearly downmarket memorabilia or toys. Still others are contemporary films, photos, and videos showing how modern-day Chinese artists continue to be influenced by the opera and its images.

Pop culture is often derided for its proliferation and repetition. (Consider a Top 40 earworm you can’t escape.) But here opera’s ubiquity seems less like cheap commodification than omnipresent inspiration, a common melody on which to run endless variations.

Through 6/15: Tue-Wed 10 AM-5 PM, Thu 10 AM-8 PM, Fri-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood, 773-702-0200, smart-museum@uchicago.edu. Free.