San Francisco

“Chinese Art Treasures from the National Palace and the Central Museums of China”

M. H. de Young Memorial Museum

Rich in variety in everything from tapestries to teapots, the Chinese Art Treasures from the National Palace and the Central Museums of China have arrived at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, to make their last public appearance in the United States before returning to Taiwan. Included are sanctified bronze vessels derived from lowly kitchen utensils used in ancient Chinese homes, priceless pottery and art objects, and some of the most famous paintings surviving from the Tang, Five Dynasties, Sung, Yuan and Ming Dynasties (618–1644 A.D.). These are the Chinese ming-chi, or “notable relics.”

From the immensity of the collection, some 35,000 items, of which 253 were selected for the American tour, I expected that all periods and important schools of painting would be well represented. They are not. The vast Palace Museum collection was brought together two centuries ago by an aesthetic emperor, Kao-tsung, who admired the elegant works of Sung court academies and their predecessors, but seemingly had no liking for the spontaneous styles of the Ch’an Buddhist monks in the same period. He collected accordingly. To represent later dynasties he sought the judgement of conservative critics, collected the masters with most prestige, and ignored the lively avant-garde creations of the 17th and 18th Century individualists.

Such discrepancies in the emperor’s taste, while reflected in the traveling exhibition, have little effect on our enjoyment of it. Rather, it is a relief to see another than the Buddhist aspect of Chinese culture.

Of the 112 paintings included, 97 date from the 10th to the 14th Centuries, and landscapes outnumber all other subjects, This is not so surprising, when we remember that landscape has traditionally been the dominant theme in Chinese painting. Their artists stressed it some 1100 years before it became an art form in Western painting, although not to the exclusion of genre painting.

Prior to their emphasis on landscape, the favorite subjects of Chinese artists were individual and group portraits, historical scenes, illustrations to literature, and icons for both Buddhist and Taoist religions. To the group-portrait genre belong such scrolls as Eight Riders in Spring, attributed to the 10th Century master Chao Yen, and A Palace Concert, also 10th Century from the School of Chou Wen-chu.

The human being was not the dominant theme in Chinese painting from the Five Dynasties on, yet his presence was felt in varying degrees. For instance: the impressive landscape in Emperor Ming-Huan’s Journey to Shu, reputedly an 11th Century copy of an 8th Century composition, almost engulfs man and his foibles. In Fan K’uan’s early 11th Century landscape, Traveling among Streams and Mountains, an ink near-monochrome and probably the greatest surviving Chinese landscape, man comes to grips with nature in philosophical coexistence. The intrusion of the human figure here serves to give meaning and measure to the imposing vision of the towering waterfall and huge rock cliffs.

Landscapes of the Sung Dynasty mostly reveal man’s relation to nature as implicit, not in coexistence but as an equal partner. In such late Sung paintings as Ma Lin’s Listening to the Wind in the Pines (1246) we see the scholarly, “attuned” man in a tidy landscape which must have been especially fashioned for this togetherness.

Choosing paintings for the American tour from the following dynasties must have been a chore, for the fall of the Sung Dynasty in the late 13th Century dissolved the imperial academy and different styles of painting aiming at different ends came into existence. Then, as now, scholar-amateurs entered the field, often disregarding skill and vulgarizing taste, while far too often professionals became intellectual to the point of sterility. Peaks of excellence were reached now and then, as in the early part of the Ming Dynasty, but landscape painting nere regained the polish of the Sung Dynasty. A stimulating selection from the later periods was made, however. In fact, the variety of styles and subjects chosen for the entire show reveals the rich lore of Chinese art as no other exhibition has done, reducing the aura of “strangeness” in some areas, increasing it in others.

Elizabeth M. Polley