In the tiled courtyard of the entrance to the MFA's featured spring exhibition, "Tales from the Land of Dragons: 1000 Years of Chinese Painting," the viewer confronts two magisterial images. On the left is an unusual dark brown stone, known as a scholar's rock, valued in Chinese artistic tradition for its elegant natural form and its power to render the viewer's glance into a contemplative, even mystical gaze. On the right stands a wide stone relief of the serene Buddha with his attendant Bodhisattvas: enlightened beings destined to help the Buddha's followers reach Nirvana, on either side.
Should we think it odd that an exhibition attempting to survey 1000 years of Chinese painting begins with this strange pairing of ancient sculptures--works that have been wrenched from diverse geographic and historical contexts to serve as an introduction to an unfamiliar artistic culture? Perhaps, but not because such a juxtaposition fails to address important issues for Chinese painting. In fact, the dramatic meeting of the two religious traditions, Buddhism and Daoism, and their dialogue with a third belief system, Confucianism, is the intellectual thread that Matsutaro Shoriki Curator of Asiatic Art Wu Tung attempts to draw across the three spacious galleries of the MFA's Gund Gallery. Nor should it bother us so much, at this stage in the game, that the scholar's rock and the Buddhist relief are utterly divorced from any notion of social function or historical relevance. As the exhibition labors to argue, the apparent ahistoricism of the initial salvo is possible only because Chinese culture itself has perpetuated the timelessness of its ancient aesthetic and philosophical traditions, allowing one to make logical comparisons across centuries of time (as Chinese artists often did themselves).
Around the corner from this intriguing introduction is the first gallery, a darkly lit hall filled with sculptures, scrolls, and paintings from the China's earliest dynastic periods, most notably the Han (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) and Tang (618-907 A.D.) dynasties. Aside from a vitrine comparing a Neolithic pre-Buddhist wood painting to a brightly-colored yet carefully-shaded Buddhist silk scroll, the exhibition quickly abandons its emphatic insistence on religion as an organizing principle and begins to strain under the weight of its own ambitious chronological framework. An intricate gold dragon stands prominently along the main path with scant explanation of its significance or social use, while a collection of vases and other cultural artifacts, to judge from the sparing wall labels, seemingly have nothing in common other than their status as decorative objects.
Rather than a sustained and incisive presentation of religious influences on Chinese painting, what unfolds is a series of scrolls incredibly rich in calligraphic detail and historical import. All are completely unrolled and elegantly presented in cases that run along the entire length of the gallery. They range from Yan Liben's Thirteen Emperors' Scroll, the only surviving visual record of a series of Chinese emperors, to the scrolls of the famous emperor and artistic patron Huizong, whose devotion to the arts cost him his throne, to the earliest portrait of Confucius. These paintings overwhelm the viewer not only with their historical importance but also with their delicate and subtle rendering of volume, depth and material detail.
The final work of the first gallery is an imposing monumental image attributed to the Northern Sung painter Fan Kuan, one of the acknowledged masters of Northern Sung landscape painting. Even under the dim lighting to protect the fragile works, one can still discern the painstaking brushwork and elaborate design that many associate with the austerity of Daoism and the harsh climate of Northern China.
It is this pattern--outstanding works desperately seeking a coherent intellectual framework--that continues to plague the exhibition's second gallery, a tripartite cross-section of Song Dynasty (960-1279) painting. Chen Rong's Nine Dragons scroll is accorded a central place as the source of the exhibition's title. There is also an impressive series of 10 Buddhist Lohan paintings from the temple of Kaitoku-ji in Kyoto, Japan (originally shown in the MFA's first Chinese painting exhibition in 1894).
But it is the seemingly benign wall of Southern Song landscape paintings that packs the most visual and intellectual punch. In contrast to the rugged monumentality of the Northern landscapes, Southern Song painters, in their own particular ways, tried to prove that "less is more." Instead of the sheer density of Northern brushstrokes, we are submerged in vast areas of blank space in which islands of calligraphic brushstrokes take on the appearance of solid ground. What distinguishes this section is not only the meticulous attention it gives to the variations within the Southern Song landscape tradition but also the fact that we see this transformation through the works of its most innovative practitioners: Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, the founding fathers of the so-called Ma-Xia school of landscape painting.
The power of "Tales from the Land of Dragons" comes from the visual strength of its main works and from the occasional moments when astute juxtapositions combined with judicious wall text produce an interesting argument, as in the case of the Ma-Xia school. Though the exhibition, judging from the introduction, seems to want us to walk out with some sort of understanding of the influence of religion on Chinese art, one instead wonders about the assorted pieces of a puzzle that have been scattered throughout the space of the exhibition. What of the relationship of calligraphy to painting, the differences within various appropriations of Buddhism or Daoism, the significance of dynastic upheaval on aesthetic production, the mysterious figure known as the scholar-artist? These are questions that leak through the seams of the exhibition, sometimes even appearing in the wall text, but which are never addressed in full.
Of course, such a perplexing lack of arrangement is symptomatic of Asian art exhibitions in general. Museums are frequently forced to present the "entire picture" under the constraints of increasingly fewer slots in the exhibition schedule and decreased funding and audiences. Given these harsh realities, the MFA must be commended not only for hosting one of the best Asian art collections in this country but also for its willingness to exhibit the gems of that collection, albeit in less than perfect order.
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