Freer Shows a Thousand Years of Chinese Art

Posted June 14, 2010 at 5:05pm

The work of Dong Qichang defined Chinese art.

By dating paintings and figuring out who painted certain works, Dong, a 17th-century artist, helped create an understanding of the art that came before him. He also formed an art theory based on past masters in Chinese culture. In addition, the work he did inspired Chinese artistry for centuries.

Dong’s influential art, along with works dating from the 10th to the 18th centuries, can be seen at the latest exhibit opening at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting.”

Curator Joseph Chang has organized the exhibit, which features a selection of 27 works that will allow visitors to see the progression of art throughout four dynasties: Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911).

Chang describes the exhibit as the perfect place for art history professors to lecture.

“Many of the works that appear here actually appear in students’ textbooks,” he said.

The first piece visitors will see is “Bodhisattva Guanyin of the Water Moon,” a well-preserved painting dating to 968. The painting was recovered from a cave in Dunhuang and restored.

The hanging silk scroll features Guanyin, the bodhisattva (or wise being) of compassion in Buddhism, prominently in the center. Chang said to take note of the four people featured at the bottom of the scroll — they’re featured in the painting because they donated money for its creation.

From there, the pieces evolve from figure portraits in the Song dynasty to scrolls featuring landscapes and poetry.

The history of China can be seen in the paintings. When the Chinese capital moved from the north to the south in the 12th century, and the royal court along with it, the landscape for artists changed. Earlier paintings featured more buildings, while later paintings were of plants and mountains. Chang described this as a case of artists painting what they saw.

As visitors move through the gallery, they will notice scrolls that feature poetry and landscapes. This introduces the onset of Mongol culture into Chinese artwork, after the Mongols conquered the area. More educated people, known as the literati, took to painting during that period, often focusing on telling a story through both pictures and words.

These literati creations demonstrate the “three perfections,” a mastery of painting, calligraphy and poetry, Chang said. By having the three perfections, a painter could demonstrate not only a talent for artistry, but his own education.

Some of the art, such as “Horse and Groom, After Li Gonglin,” have edges lined with red etchings. Collectors, not the original painter, added these details through the years. But curators and art history professionals such as Chang consider them a gift, as it allows them to trace the lineage and ownership of these paintings.

Organizing the exhibit took months of planning for Chang. Per restoration standards by the Smithsonian, paintings can be displayed for six months before they’re taken down and put to rest for five years. And as the Freer Gallery can only display works that are a part of its permanent collection, Chang and others putting the display together needed to see what would be available before they could plan for the exhibit.

“I hope people come in to see the variety that Chinese art has to offer,” he said.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 28.