Archive for 'Chinese art'

Honoring James Francis Cahill

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

Landscape with fisherman, 1629, by Guan Si (1590-1630). Illinois. Ink and colors on paper.

The Asian Art Museum displays a landscape painting in Gallery 17, dated 1629, by Guan Si in remembrance of scholar and friend, James Francis Cahill (1926–2014), who passed away on February 14, 2014 at his home in Berkeley at age eighty-seven. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor. The painting will stay on view through July 13, 2014

The painter Guan Si was skillful at reinterpreting fourteenth-century masters, and his personal style evolved from complicated to simple. The subject of fisherman in landscape is a familiar theme in traditional Chinese painting, and the sparse brushwork and simple composition of this landscape exemplify Guan’s mature style. The painting was purchased by the Peabody Family Trust upon the advice of the influential art historian James Cahill, and then donated to the museum in his honor.

Cahill began collecting paintings as a Fulbright scholar in Japan during the 1950s. He served as a curator of Chinese art at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, from 1958 to 1965, and then taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1965 to 1994, during which time he mentored many scholars of Asian art, some who worked and still work at the Asian Art Museum. Among his numerous publications, major works include his first book, Chinese Painting (1960), and a multi-volume series on later Chinese paintings, including Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty (1976), Parting At the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty (1978), and The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty (1982). The College Art Association awarded him its Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2007. In 2010 the Smithsonian awarded him the Charles Lang Freer Medal for his lifetime contributions to the history of Asian and Near Eastern art.

Cahill gathered his lectures and essays as well as other writings on a variety of topics at www.jamescahill.info. The Asian Art Museum also has a two of Cahill’s talks on iTunes that can be downloaded.

Cahill’s ashes will be scattered at his favorite beaches at Pt. Reyes, north of San Francisco.

Horses in Ancient China

The Year of the Horse is fast approaching. What did the horse mean to people in the old days?

In ancient China, the horse provided fast transportation for noble and high ranking families and served a military function. This may be why the horse is associated now with leadership, freedom and energy. Chinese enthusiasm for horses dates back thousands of years, and as a result the museum contains many lovely examples of horse sculptures. Here, we take a really close look at some favorites.

Horse, Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Glazed with amber, green and white in the sancai (three-color) tradition, Tang ceramics of this type show splattered and dripped glazes full of energy and life. Here, the different and textures are used to highlight the bridle, mane and the horse’s flesh. Sancai colors are typically achieved using a combination of copper, iron, cobalt and manganese in a lead glaze.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Many horse figurines have been found in Tang dynasty tombs, and they are prized by collectors all over the world today. It follows that the figures are often heavily restored, sometimes invisibly so. This radiograph of a Tang dynasty horse figurine from the museum collection shows pins from old repairs in the legs and hooves.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1. Image processing by Courtney Helion

Look closely at this composite X-ray, and you can see reinforcing metal pins in each hoof, as well as major repairs in the back facing leg. This horse may look flawless on the outside, but she has seen a lot of changes!

The Blood-Sweating Horses of the Ferghana Valley

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

These two elegant red horse heads could be modeled after the famous Ferghana horses, sometimes called ‘blood sweating horses ‘(汗血馬) or ‘heavenly horses’ in Chinese literature. This unique breed – now extinct– is believed to come from the ancient kingdom of Dayuan in the Ferghana valley (modern day Uzbekistan). According to legend, these fast, powerful horses– whose red color was thought to be caused by sweating blood—were bred from heavenly stock and could even carry the rider to immortality.

According to some stories, in the second century BCE Han dynasty the Chinese Emperor Wudi sent an envoy and gifts westward into the Ferghana valley, hoping to acquire some of the heavenly horses. The Dayuan ruler refused, and ultimately the Chinese invaded. The Chinese defeated the Dayuan, and thus Emperor Wudi came into possession of some ‘heavenly horses’, receiving a small number each year as tribute.

What made these horses red?

There are a few theories concerning why the Ferghana horses to appeared to sweat blood. Some modern researchers believe that a parasite (the nematode, Parafilaria multipapillosaI), still common on the Central Asian steppe, is the cause. Others think that it is due to tiny blood vessels under the skin bursting after strenuous galloping and exercise. Blood would mix with the sweat around the horse’s neck, creating a pink foam.

The two horse heads from the museum’s collection do not sweat blood (so far), but owe their distinctive red color to the use of pigment made from red iron oxide (Fe2O3), also referred to as hematite. Under X-ray fluorescence analysis, both horses show very similar chemical profiles. Iron is the major element, with smaller quantities of titanium, zinc, mercury, manganese, and lead. Iron, mercury, and manganese all create reds and purples, and have been in use since ancient times. Titanium and zinc, used to make white, probably indicate later restoration.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15. Image by Courtney Helion.

To reveal areas of previous restoration the horse heads were viewed under ultraviolet light. Restoration paints often appear as a velvety purple under ultraviolet light (as on the bridle, on the upper horse).

Read more about these horse heads at our online collection.

Bibliography:

Winter, John. East Asian Paintings: Materials, Structures and Deterioration Mechanisms. London: Archetype Publications, 2008. Print.

Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History: Exhibition Catalog. Lexington, KY: Kentucky Horse Park, 2000. Print.

Gettens, Rutherford J., and George L. Stout. Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.

Goodbye, Terracotta Warriors

Jennifer-and-truck

Jennifer with the truck that took the warriors away.

We’re all going to miss those wonderful Terracotta Warriors. But after their stay at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for several months, and then here at the Asian for 13 weeks, the warriors are finally on their way back to Xi’an, China.

Packing up the entire exhibition was a formidable job, as you can imagine, but we got it done in just four days — a minor miracle. We could never have accomplished this huge undertaking without the help of so many people working behind the scenes from the Preparation, Conservation and Registration departments.

We also had a team of three staff from Xi’an helping us pack the exhibition up–Messrs. Ma, Wang and Zhou–really nice guys who were very helpful in assisting us. Now that the warriors are in crates, registrars from Minneapolis Institute of Arts will travel on two separate flights with the crated exhibition objects. (Ship Art International, CASE Company and Exclusive Art Service have offered us excellent assistance as well.)

Packing-objects

Packing objects into cases.

But now we’re getting the galleries ready for Larry Ellison’s wonderful Japanese collection. Of course, we’re looking forward to the shift into an entirely different exhibition. But I was the last to see the warriors as they drove away, and honestly, it was sad to see them go.

Sharon-packing-objects

Sharon packing some of the treasures into a case.

After a Night Rain

Chen Xianzhang, After a Night Rain.

After a Night Rain by Chen Xianzhang, 1428–1500. China. Ink on paper. Museum purchase, B68D6.

Our librarian John recently translated a poem from a work in our collection. Below is the original Chinese text and his beautiful English translation; above is the calligraphy. We hope you enjoy it.

陳獻章  : (雨夜後詩)

蒼山收雨鵓鳩靈

曉雨松花對曉晴

風日醉花花醉鳥

竹門啼過两三聲

 

After a Night Rain

—-Chen Xianzhang

When it rains in these blue-green hills

The pigeons become ghosts:

(unseen,

unheard).

Yet,

When sparkling-dry daybreak comes

& the pines and flowers,

alike,

Greet the brilliant dawn,

Then

The birds, like the flowers, flutter

Drunkenly

In the brilliant breeze,

Even now,

I hear their cries penetrate the

Bamboo gate.

The Lettering of Letters

Lee gallery, Out of Character

I find it fascinating that in China letters provide some of the earliest evidence of calligraphy being considered a visual art. As Bai Qianshen points out in a recent essay, the earliest extant personal letters in China date from the time of the First Emperor (221–210 BCE—be sure to visit our exhibition, coming in February). Early in the first century CE an emperor of the Han dynasty is said to have sent a special envoy to request ten letters from a famous calligrapher who was on the verge of dying. By the late fourth century, the famous calligrapher Wang Xianzhi (344–404) finished a letter he was sending to his emperor: “my calligraphy in this letter is quite good.  I wish it to be kept and stored away.” Letters like his and many, many others serve as an example of two different functions of calligraphy: as writing and as a visual art.  The content of most letters tends to be personal and private; on the other hand, the calligraphy is intended for public consumption.

By the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) treating letters as works of art was a well-established tradition. Special colored and decorated papers were designed specifically for them and letters were collected and bound together in large albums. An example of such a collection is on display in Lee Gallery. We can only show two pages each from two of the five albums in the collection, which features letters written by a remarkable array of Ming dynasty scholars, court officials and calligraphers. A discussion of these letters can be found in Xiao Yanyi’s essay in the exhibition catalogue (see pages 118-127).

Eighth Wonder: Eight Gifts

As you’re getting ready for the holidays, we’re getting ready to welcome the Terracotta Warriors to the west coast. Sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World, Xi’an’s famous denizens are unique and awe-inspiring. They will be appearing at the Asian Art Museum from February 22, 2012—perfect timing for a memorable holiday gift. Here are eight gift ideas to get your holiday shopping underway:

1. The most economical way to see the warriors is to become a member of the museum. Memberships start at $75 for a year of free entry for two adults (children under 12 are always free). Special exhibitions are always free for members.

2. If you’re a planner, you could grab some advance tickets for the exhibition. Tickets are already selling fast, so lock in your preferred date now. Adults $20 weekdays, $22 weekends (children under 12 free).

3. Big family? Bunch of friends? Book a group visit, with discounted admission for groups of 10 or more (adults $18 weekdays, $20 weekends). To make the experience really special, add a private tour of the exhibition.

Maybe you like a gift you can put a bow on. Luckily, the museum store is full of beautiful items—many of them artworks in their own right—for all ages.

 

4. Sterling silver jewelry from Johnson Hui  These hand-crafted pendants recall the graceful movements of calligraphy. Sleek and contemporary, each piece is unique and will add a dramatic look for a special occasion. $100 – $475

5. Zen Collection Jewelry.  Inspired by forms and designs of the Qin Dynasty, these sterling silver pieces are rhodium plated.  Rhodium, a member of the platinum family of metals, has been used for centuries to plate jewelry to create vibrant pieces.  Rhodium gives a very bright finish without the need to polish and is hypoallergenic. The collection includes earrings, necklaces, bracelets and even cufflinks. $25 – $185

6. Buddha Boards. Enjoy practicing your calligraphy or just painting to watch the board transform.  Slowly the image fades to create a blank canvas for new inspirations. Each set includes the Buddha Board, brush and water tray/stand. Everything you need for hours of artistic enjoyment. $34.95

7. Batik scarves from Java.  These beautiful scarves use a combination of hand drawing and stamping to create delicate patterns before they are hand dyed in a several step process.  Lightweight and dynamic these scarves are a perfect gift. $20 – $135

Batik scarves8. Gifts for kids.  We have a wide range of stories, with over 100 titles that explore the tales and cultures from across Asia. Other gift ideas for our younger visitors include dolls, puppets, puzzles, language blocks and more.  Ask our staff about their favorites.

Water Stains on the Wall

Xu Bing in front of his video installation 'Character of Characters' at the Asian Art Museum

Xu Bing in front of his video installation ‘Character of Characters’

Our book on Xu Bing’s fascinating animation The Character of Characters will be arriving in the museum store soon.  Featuring essays by Britta Erickson, a leading expert on Chinese contemporary art, and by the artist, as well as a version of the actual animation, its arrival will be something to keep on your radar.

We have just finished translating Xu Bing’s essay, which makes clear the artist’s intellectual as well as artistic depth.  It follows the order of the animation and makes many aspects much clearer; it is also full of delightful and sometimes challenging references to writings from the past.  An example is the simple sentence: “The stroke’s force should convey the aesthetic sensibility of ‘water stains caused by rain on the wall of a country cottage’.”

If you’ve seen Out of Character already, that quotation may sound familiar. Included in the exhibition is a video of contemporary dance work Water Stains on the Wall, by Cloud Gate Dance Theater from Taiwan.

The title of Cloud Gate’s work and Xu Bing’s reference both derive from a legendary conversation between two of the most respected Chinese calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907):

“Where do you get inspirations for your calligraphic style?” asked Yan Zhenqing, whose signature style of standard script brought Chinese calligraphy to a new height. “I observe summer clouds that resemble mountains with spectacular peaks,” replied Huaisu, the young monk who later became the most renowned master of wild cursive style. “The most exciting parts remind one of birds flying out of woods and snakes slithering into bushes. . .” “How about water stains on the wall?” asked Yan Zhenqing. “Right on! You old devil!” exclaimed Huaisu.

Water stains on a wall are the result of a long process of natural, organic, and fluid evolution. The legend of the conversation established “water stains on the wall” as a popular metaphor that represents the highest aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy. Inspired by this metaphor, choreographer Lin Hwai-min and the Cloud Gate dancers create an abstract work of spellbinding beauty and breathtaking technique that stands sublimely on its own.

We’re thrilled that in Out of Character you can experience both of these contemporary works in the context of the artform that inspired them. And be looking for the publication on Xu Bing’s The Character of Characters at the museum store soon.

Designing “Out of Character”

Wen Peng Thousand Character Essay Installed

Strong visual impact was a primary goal for our exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.  This is not always easy to accomplish in an art form often intended for private viewings by small groups or individuals.  An example is Thousand Character Classic by Wen Peng (1498-1573), an album of 85 double leaves.  The album is a format that is meant to be viewed page by page, but we asked Marco Centin, our exhibition designer, Shiho Sasaki, our paper conservator, and Vincent Avalos, our mount maker to come up with a way to show all 85 leaves and the cover on a large curved wall.  As shown in the photograph here, their solution is ingenious and the result is stunning and magical.  It took almost the entire summer for the team to make this happen!

Our Crush

You guys, we have a secret: the Asian Art Museum has a total crush on JVST.

Ok, here’s the story: JVST is this digital design firm who came to visit us a while ago. They took a look around and thought we were cool enough to visit again. In fact, they were so hella intrigued that the next thing is they called us up to ask if they could do projects for the museum! I know, right? We were like, “Yes! Hells yes.”

So then they made our gorgeous Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy page (which is the exhibition that starts next week). (PS The website features Dae Advertising’s handsome image, and we are muy simpatico with Dae, but we digress.)

Anyways the point is that we think JVST is so rad and SO HOT.  Whenever we have a meeting with them, we can’t even wait to see the genius new plans they’ve thought up. Ok, we’ll be honest: just thinking about them gives us butterflies, seriously.

But we don’t know if they dig us like that too, is the thing. Except just listen to this:  they sent us a CAKE today, you guys! Just because we happened to mention it was our birthday. Which: wha???? And here’s a picture of it (don’t mind our dirty fingernails).

We have two words for you: Salted. Caramel.

K, so now here’s the question: do you think they’re into us? Because we totally hope so!

Installing Calligraphy

Curators Michael and Joseph in front of the installation of Wen Peng's Thousand Character Essay

Curators Michael and Joseph in front of the installation of Wen Peng’s “Thousand Character Essay”. Photo courtesy of Jerry Yang.

Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy opens next week, and installation is in full swing. This is always a frantic, stressful, and exciting time for us, especially for the people at the coal face: curators, registrars, conservators and the preparations team.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to walk past one of the galleries while the team was installing. I felt compelled to press my face against the tinted glass doors to try to get a better look. Although unfinished, the display in the galleries is breathtaking. I must confess, I had trouble getting excited about an exhibition of calligraphy at first. But having seen the exhibition take shape over the past few months, I can’t wait for it to open. It’s going to be amazing.

Luckily for you, our photographer has been snapping some images of the installation, so you can have your own sneak peek on Flickr. Out of Character opens on October 5, but we’re kicking off with artist Xu Bing and collector Jerry Yang in conversation with museum director Jay Xu on October 4. See you there.