Emperors' Treasure

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May 31, 2016

Revealed: Hidden Treasures from the Forbidden City

The imperial masterworks of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, originally housed in Beijing’s Forbidden City, logged many miles, were hidden from foreign invaders and survived the civil war between China’s Nationalist and Communist armies before finally being transported to Taiwan for safekeeping.

One hundred and fifty of the collection’s prized pieces—including paintings, ceramics, jades, bronzes, textiles, Ming porcelains, laquerware and fine calligraphy—are on view in “Emperors’ Treasures,” a major summer exhibition opening this month at the Asian Art Museum. The show, which spans 800 years of Chinese history and is divided into dynasties ruled by the Han, Mongols and Manchus, is structured chronologically around the reigns of nine monarchs, each of whom left their own distinct aesthetic stamp on artworks of their respective eras.

Some, like Emperor Xuande (1398-1435), created their own treasures. Regarded as one of the most successful artist-emperors in Chinese history, Xuande wrote poetry and painted landscapes, animals and portraits when he wasn’t tending to administrative matters. His people likened him to the revered Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty who, nearly 900 years ago, led a renaissance in Chinese court art and set a standard of artistic accomplishment for the emperors who followed him. An innovator, poet and landscape painter of ancient mythological subjects and contemporaneous figures in classical scenarios, Huizong was also an influential calligrapher who devised a signature “slender gold” style seen in a pair of paper album leaves on view here.

“You can observe [Huizong’s] legacy across all dynasties and across all periods,” says Li He, exhibition co-curator and the museum’s associate curator of Chinese art. “This show lets us frame artistic influence not only in China, but also across space and time, in Asia and even between East and West. No other American museum has done something on this scale.”

To Chinese emperors, their treasures weren’t just signifiers of wealth and status, but also exemplars of discriminating taste and technical brilliance that conferred cultural sophistication on their owners. “Cultural sophistication was emblematic of rulership throughout Chinese history,” explains Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. “It was a political tool as well.”

The artworks were primarily intended for personal pleasure, which may be one of the reasons they’re not monumental statements; instead, the emphasis is on exquisite quality and craftsmanship. A small cup that has a chicken-themed design with subtle polychrome decoration, for instance, is an extraordinary example of world-renowned Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain, considered the apex of ceramic art produced in China. The piece depicts cocks strutting and hens tending their chicks, a scene that suggested nobility, wealth and fortune to the Chinese whose word for chicken is a pun for luck. A blue cloisonné flower vase with a sculptural gilt metal relief of a mythical kui dragon, which wraps around the exterior, was also fabricated during the Ming period.

Europeans played a surprisingly important role in East-West cultural exchanges in China. Chief among them was Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit who collaborated on portraits and other paintings during the decades he spent in the Qing court, serving three emperors including Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722). Kangxi’s appreciation of beauty was exemplified by the sublime, multi-tiered gold and pearl finial that adorned the top of his formal court hat; pearls signified regal supremacy and this particular tree-like accoutrement has 16. Under Kangxi’s protection, Castiglione brought Western linear perspective and realism to the expressive motifs of Chinese painting, a combination that yielded unique works like the artist’s “The White Falcon,” a portrait of a gift from a Mongol prince to another royal, Emperor Qianlong (1736-95). The sand-toned, silk hanging scroll shows the white bird of prey, a symbol of courage, sensuality and power, at rest on a gnarled pine tree branch while a waterfall rushes over a cliff in the near distance.

The learned Qianlong (1711-99), an erudite art collector and connoisseur educated by scholars, was perhaps China’s most prolific poet-monarch—he composed over 40,000 works and oversaw a large volume of art production while amassing a vast quantity of antiquities. After requesting that more than 500 scholars compile the 3,000-volume Complete Books of the Four Libraries, he anointed himself “Old Man of Ten Perfections,” a self-glorifying title that affirmed his legitimate mandate to rule.

The story of the sole female ruler represented in the show, the Machiavellian social climber and master manipulator Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), is possibly the exhibition’s most intriguing. She began her ascent to power as a low-status Manchu concubine to Emperor Xianfeng in the final years of the Qing dynasty and rose to the rank of Empress Dowager after his death. A controversial and dictatorial figure who lived extravagantly and was partial to elaborate porcelains, she exerted a strong influence on the aesthetic taste of the court. Despite having little schooling in the arts, she initiated the recruitment of female artists to the Wish-granting studio, an established art workshop. She has been blamed for the downfall of the dynasty, which collapsed two years after her death, though recently historians have begun to reassess her contributions. “Plum blossoms,” a delicate ink painting on paper that’s one of the few surviving works by the Empress, hints at her talent.

But the Qing dynasty’s lasting legacy—and the exhibition’s central attraction—may be “Meat-shaped stone,” which makes its U.S. debut here. It’s a jasper carving of a freshly cooked slab of pork belly—a Chinese delicacy—resting on an elaborately decorative gold stand of the kind usually reserved for religious statuary. “It’s wonderfully realistic and enticing,” notes Xu. “It’s interesting to see such technical virtuosity applied to something so familiar.”

While the exhibition offers a unique opportunity to view the diversity and stylistic changes of Chinese art over the centuries and a museum collection that rarely travels outside its home country, also compelling are the narratives of long-ago leaders who were as idiosyncratic, exceptional and flawed as leaders today.

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