East as Eden

Five thousand years of Chinese wit and sophistication.

“China: 5,000 Years–Innovation and Transformation in the Arts”
Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York City: Feb. 6-May 25, 1998
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City: Feb. 6-June 3, 1998
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain: Summer 1998

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The Guggenheim Museum, which in recent years has earned a reputation for expansionist sprawl, has mounted a surprisingly intimate exhibition in its New York headquarters. The show has a sprawling title, “China: 5,000 Years–Innovation and Transformation in the Arts,” and the temptation must have been great to fill every corner of New York with Chinese things, as the museum did with its Robert Rauschenberg show last year. The China show has two venues, but one is really a footnote to the other. The “traditional” section–what most people mean by Chinese art, and by far the most rewarding of the two parts–is housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s uptown snail, while post-1850 paintings and prints are crammed into the museum’s SoHo branch.

One curator’s taste and concept shaped the “traditional” exhibition. Sherman Lee, longtime director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the foremost American scholar of Chinese art, selected the treasures on view from collections in China. Many of these objects, including those culled from recent archaeological finds, have never been shown in the United States before. Lee tried to choose objects that demonstrated innovation and experimentation; he has a particular interest in the relationship between technological advances–in ceramic and bronze production, for example–and creative ferment.

T he result is a surprisingly old-fashioned exhibition, low on social and historical context and high in the pleasures of simply looking. One feels that Wright, who was passionate about Asian art, would have enjoyed a slow walk up his spiraling ramp, stopping here and there to admire the stunning objects in generously spaced glass cases. The objects are grouped according to material–jade, bronze, low- and high-fired ceramic, lacquer, stone sculpture–rather than period. This means that improvements in glaze quality and metallurgy become clear, but the viewer must grope for what links an austere, octagonal Tang vase to a theatrically rearing, gilded bronze dragon from the same era.

In the absence of an overarching narrative of dynastic progression or decline, one’s attention shifts to small marvels. Several objects in the show reflect a dry sense of humor. The ancient bronzes are covered with metamorphosing animal shapes–an elephant whose trunk has turned into a dragon, and whose legs are incised with tigers (“stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,” as Whitman wrote of himself). Then there’s a little toy cart with moving wheels supporting a treasure chest with swinging doors. A one-legged guardian holds the door in one hand, a crutch in the other. Why one leg? So he can’t run away with the treasure. This ingenious toy dates, incredibly, from circa 1100-771 B.C.

T he Guggenheim show is particularly rich in three-dimensional objects. One turn of the ramp and you can get a pretty good education in the origins of porcelain. The perfection of that translucent and acoustically resonant pottery, a thousand years before the West discovered its secret recipe, gave the name “china” to fine dinnerware in Europe. As you reach the top of the show, you come across a parade of twenty or so placid Buddhas meditating under Wright’s sky-lit dome. Is it an illusion that they seem to be putting on weight? It is not: “In the latter Tang dynasty,” says the wall panel, “Buddhist images tended to become more ponderous, fleshy, and overly ornate, completely departing from the slender and ethereal beauty characteristic of many sixth-century sculptures.”

The paintings are hidden down discreetly marked passageways in darkened galleries. The well-known scholar James Cahill, who wrote the essay on painting for the exhibition catalog, tells of taking a Chinese connoisseur through the European painting collection of the National Gallery in Washington. “Very nice,” commented the visitor, “but they all look alike.” Cahill is at pains to show the differences among Chinese landscape paintings, which, to an untrained Western eye, can blur together. He notes that Chinese painters mastered verisimilitude early on–by the 10th or 11th century–and spent the next few centuries developing Expressionist departures from it. In the West, a comparable moment occurs with the advent of modernism early in this century.

T wo masterpieces hanging side by side show how two different painters responded to similar social pressures. Wang Meng and Ni Zan worked during the Yuan period (1279-1368), when Mongol invaders had seized control of southern China. Wang served the Mongol rulers just as he had the earlier regime. Ni chose exile instead, adopting a nomadic life–he traveled around in a little boat–and painting to pay his keep.

Wang’s famous painting of the Dwelling in the Qingbian Mountains (1366) explodes the myth of the artist’s peaceful retreat in the hills. These hills have a cascading fury to them, and the dwelling seems to be under siege. Indeed, two factions striving to succeed the Mongol rulers were warring nearby when Wang painted this commotion in the natural realm. Ni, by contrast, paints six gaunt trees by the riverside and calls the picture Six Gentlemen (1345). It is a potent image of alienation and disengagement, a stark visual rebuff to Wang’s life of chameleonic compromise. An art whose expressive conventions can survive a century of alien occupation must be as flexible and deeply rooted as Ni’s disheveled trees.

I f the din of history is held at bay in the uptown section of “China: 5,000 Years,” it is everywhere audible downtown, in the SoHo installation of post-1850 work. Ren Xiong, a Shanghai artist who died of tuberculosis in 1857 at age 34, tries to balance Chinese tradition with the inroads of Western art in his unsettling self-portrait. His bare body and long fingernails slip out, diva-like, from jaggedly stylized clothes. His intent face is rendered according to European naturalistic conventions. It’s as though he is shedding his Chinese accoutrements, and warily embracing a Westernized future.

The embrace was brief and traumatic. The woodcut revival of the 1920s occurred just in time to record the horrors of the Japanese invasion; stark images of torture recall Goya’s Disasters of War, which detailed Spanish suffering under Napoleonic rule. Upstairs are a couple of rooms of Socialist Realism, with ubiquitous Maos–first, youthfully slender in front of a traditionally rendered mountain, then putting on weight just like those Buddhas. Five thousand years of Chinese art, and you end up staring at a painting of a cluster of peasants grinning in front of Tiananmen Palace, below the visage of Mao. The year is 1964 and all seems well, notwithstanding the recent Great Famine, perhaps the most severe in human history and almost entirely Mao’s fault. Everything in these rooms is superficial and forced–a depressing departure from the confident traditions of wit and invention that China had nourished in the previous 50 centuries, and is nourishing even now, albeit by marginalized artists who were given no place in this show. The very existence of the Guggenheim exhibition signals yet another experiment in opening China to the West. But it’s hard not to see in these smiling peasants a warning of what such openings can bring in their wake.