Weight of History and Flight of Spirits
Rising Dragon: Ancient Treasures From China
For three decades after it was gifted to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, an exquisite lacquered brush holder that was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor of China about 250 years ago has rested in storage. Bronson Trevor's gift in 1976 was one addition to the now more than 7,500 works of high quality Chinese art that have earned The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art its reputation for preserving and displaying one of the world's finest Chinese collections. Being an international leader in the collection of Chinese art since its inception in the 1930s, when former museum director Laurence Sickman had traveled to China to purchase what was then more widely available, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has mounted an exhibition in its new Bloch Building that finally brings the finest of these treasures to the public.
Rising Dragon: Ancient Treasures From China opened October 6, 2007 and continues through February 10, 2008. If you did not see it then, you have missed it.
The Imperial Cylindrical Brush Holder with Scenes of Refined Pastimes dates from the Qianlong Reign of the Qing Dynasty. It came to Kansas City's museum shortly before Sickman retired from directing the museum (1953-1977) — and after he had secured Marc F. Wilson as Associate and then Chief Curator of Oriental Art there. Today, Wilson is the Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell Director/CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Chief Curator of Oriental Art. Under his direction and with the contribution of Assistant Curator of Early Chinese Art Ling-en Lu, the latest special exhibit at the museum presents a selection of objects united by their expression of "humankind's quest to understand ourselves and our world."
Each piece is a testament to what artists achieve when trying to express deep, cultural meanings as fundamental as life and death.
Wilson described the carved cinnabar brush holder as a conceptual tour de force, and like all the objects in Rising Dragon, it represents, as he says, the tip-top of its form. The unknown artist achieved levels of fluidity and precision difficult to execute through carving techniques, so much so that a match has never been found.
Layers of lacquer, all applied over weeks and weeks of time, are carved back down to various levels, where the yellow and green layers lie beneath the primary red.
The piece is given thorough attention in the gallery space, with five, enlarged details posted on the wall behind the glass case where the 18th century object is finally on display again after 31 years.
Wilson hopes that viewers will take the time to move back and forth from the brush holder itself to the panels that talk about what the low-relief images carved into the numerous layers of lacquer signify.
The scenes and activities depict scholars in Tang Dynasty dress, an anachronism hailing the time when the Hanlin Academy was established about 1,000 years before the piece was created. The reference to the time when sage emperors who chose to fill his court with Confucian literati helped legitimize the power of the Qianlong Emperor who commissioned it. He wanted to be seen as a part of the great tradition of the morally- and artistically-cultivated statesman. "The Perfect Mandarin" should know how to judge antiquities, write poetry for any occasion, excel at calligraphy, play music, weiqi chess (go), understand rare books and do so all with the point of serving society with this knowledge. Enforcing social norms is one of the three main concerns of humanity, past and present, uniting the objects in Rising Dragon.
The two other themes Wilson highlights are people's concerns about the mystery of existence and the fear of oblivion at death:
"Why are we here, and must we perish?" are certainly dealt with in European art through its Christian religion, but the artists who were inspired to such well-crafted expressions of these fears and beliefs as offered in Rising Dragon reflect centuries of religious change.
Much of that change is traced through the exhibit with the show's namesake, the mythological and powerful dragon.
The first piece visitors encounter is Celestial Dragon as the Life Energy of the Universe, a Tang Dynasty sculpture about nine inches long of chased, engraved and gilded bronze. It came to the museum as an Asian Art Acquisition Fund purchase in memory of Sickman in 1998, a decade after he had passed away.
A post and attachment structure extend from this 7th century dragon's belly, but Wilson cautions that the point of any of the objects in Rising Dragon is not at all so much what it was used for – in fact there is a pair of mysterious, mixed-animal fittings (called zun) in the exhibit whose exact functionality scholars have never determined – it is how expertly the artist has used form to convey the intensity of the object's meaning.
For ancient Chinese, the dragon was the most powerful divine force in the nature, the visible and invisible realms of life and afterlife, where creatures we would categorize as "real" and "imaginary" were not disconnected from each other scientifically, but were all part of a continuum of existence.
"The Perfect Dragon" is really a perfect example of what the creature signified. The gold-plated bronze looks literally frozen in time, and it's only through continued observation that the viewer determines that the thing is not going to jump to life and start flying through the air. Its four legs are in a perpetual extension, pulling the dragon's body into action, as the beast that gives life, growth and regeneration extends its claws powerfully, the actual breath of life puffing out from its snarling mouth in carved plumes of divine energy. The positive life force is called yang.
The zun dragons mentioned above that twine themselves around the hoof-ends of a pair of ox legs are balanced with the yin of griffin-headed birds and topped with monkeys perched on the dragons' tails. While these gilt bronze fittings inlaid with round, Egyptian-style glass pieces must have had some decorative or even useful purpose, their beauty is their true purpose, which is different from any practical use.
"The real purpose," Wilson told a previewing group, "is spiritual, the artistic aura communicated to you. That's what the show is about."
The spiritual world, especially that of the deceased, is featured in many of the other objects in Rising Dragon.
A bronze door-pull, a large circle knocker held in the teeth of a swirling-shaped dragon's head, once graced the door of an important tomb. Now the scales, claws and arching eyebrows that once served to convey power of regeneration to people from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) still display their warning aspect.
A late 1st century mirror designed to light the way for the deceased in the afterlife rests on a celestial dragon stand and is only one of two known complete representations of work with both pieces intact.
A number of funerary objects appear in Rising Dragon, a rare fragment of embroidered silk coffin shroud, a Neolithic (8,000-2,000 B.C.E.) pot, the largest known of its kind, and even what looks to modern eyes like a decorative sculpture instead of something to go into the tomb, an 8th century Turkic Caravan Woman Rousing her Camel While Nursing figure.
Fifty centuries of work from a vast country of numerous ethnic and religious traditions is a large order, but in trying to make art more intellectually and emotionally accessible, Wilson and the curators, conservators and other staff at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art have included tools for interpretation throughout the exhibit.
An explanation of how lacquer is created, drawings of objects showing different aspects or original placements, photographs and other materials are included, along with a new inter-gallery "Collections Connections" guide that seeks to draw museum visitors to other pieces in the collection that reflect similar themes in other cultures' work, help to solidify how art is what gives objects in Rising Dragon their power.