Wednesday, October 26, 2016

“Emperors' Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Essay

Gold Bowl Used Personally by the Qianlong Emperor,
Qing dynasty, reign of the Qianlong emperor, 1735–96,
gold, National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Image © National Palace Museum

" in his entourage must have thought I needed a history lesson. “Taiwan not China!”..."

“Emperors' Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Attending the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s media previews gives me the opportunity to watch Director Gary Tinterow up close.  I once observed him take a deep breath while staring at a Degas painting.  Here was a seasoned scholar of 19 th century French art, and he appeared transported, as if seeing the Degas for the first time.

I’m blown away by how charming Tinterow is, and not solely to rich people, 
art scholars and visiting foreign big-shots.  Did you know he oversees $1.53 billion in MFAH net assets, and that back in 1993 he finagled the most expensive purchase the Metropolitan Museum had ever made ($57 million Van Gogh?)

Last Wednesday I previewed Emperors' Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei and watched Tinterow share an intimate moment with consulting curator James Watt, Curator Emeritus of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum. Tinterow bent down and hugged the seated Watt and said “I’m so happy to see you” in a tone so genuine and heartfelt it made me wonder if they had been close friends when the worked in New York together.

One of the fun things about being invited to the museum is you get to meet important people. I’m reminded of the Egyptian art exhibition preview at which I met the motor mouth TV archaeologist Zahi Hawass, an insufferable flirt. During Wednesday’s preview I got to meet Taipei National Palace Museum Director Lin Jeng-yi, and one in his entourage must have thought I needed a history lesson. “Taiwan not China!”

He traveled to Taiwan in 2013, Tinterow told us, with the goal of returning to Houston with the promise of a museum exhibition, and it’s mouth-opening to see what he managed to corral, over 160 lovely Chinese imperial objects - paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, porcelain, textiles, enamels, and jade decorative pieces, which span over eight centuries. The artworks and artifacts displayed are not only beautiful and rare, they were the prized possessions of China’s emperors.

Curator Watt tried to describe the impact some of these objects made when first seen in Europe. “Poets were moved to create,” he told us, and you’ll find this statement plausible as you walk through the galleries. Look closely at the engraved pomegranate designs on the Qing dynasty “Gold Bowl” (1874), the pomegranate symbolizes fertility.  This elegant bowl was a gift to Emperor Qianlong from Prince Erdeni Deshi-e in appreciation for being ennobled. From the earlier Ming dynasty, see the “Vase with Flying Dragon and Flowers.” When it was created in the early 1400s, the dragon and scroll motif was just beginning to be reproduced on ceramics, before having appeared only on textiles. It was interesting to learn that the vessel’s cobalt pigment entered Chinese workshops from Persia.

Paintings in this show are on silk, in the form of scrolls and album leafs. “Ancient Temple in a Mountain Pass” is a striking landscape painted by Jia Shigu in the mid 1100’s during the Southern Song dynasty. Known for bold brushstrokes, Shigu worked in Emperor Gaozong’s Imperial Painting Academy, a fact which exemplifies the curatorial theme that the emperors’ tastes, imperial whims, their commissions and collecting, helped to drive Chinese artistic innovation.

I was spooked by a white ceramic decorative piece in the shape of a young boy. Its glazing is flawless.

Vase with Flying Dragon, Ming dynasty, 
reign of the Yongle emperor, 1403–24, 
porcelain with cobalt­ blue underglaze, 
National Palace Museum, Taipei. 
Image © National Palace Museum

Jia Shigu, Ancient Temple in 
Mountain Pass, Southern Song 
dynasty,  1127–1279,  album leaf: 
ink and color on silk, National 
Palace Museum, Taipei. 
Image © National Palace Museum

Ceramic Pillow in the Shape of a Boy, 
Northern Song dynasty, 960-1127,
high-fired ceramic with glaze,
National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Image © National Palace Museum

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