Monthly Archives: April, 2017

ARTnews Archives: “The Enthusiastic, Energetic Cuban Art Scene Comes to MoMA, in 1944,” BY The Editors of ARTnews

Raul Martínez, Rosas y Estrellas (Roses and Stars), 1972, oil on canvas.
©ARCHIVO RAUL MARTÍNEZ/PATRICIA AND HOWARD FARBER COLLECTION, NEW YORK


“The Enthusiastic, Energetic Cuban Art Scene Comes to MoMA, in 1944”

BY

Currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” the biggest survey of Cuban art in America since a 1944 Museum of Modern Art exhibition. In mind of the occasion—and in part to portray ways that colonialist and racially problematic means of thinking about Cuba and artists from different locales have changed—we have republished a review of the MoMA show from the April 15, 1944 issue of ARTnews. H. Felix Kraus praised the show and its artists, most of whom were largely unknown in America, for their “freshness” and “enthusiasm.” He also drew on unfortunate presumptions and language indicative of the time. The review follows in full below.

“Imports from Cuba: Verve at the Modern Museum”
By H. Felix Kraus
April 15, 1944


Among all the countries represented at last year’s Latin American exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art there was one whose vivacity and variety was outstanding: little Cuba, our island neighbor, stretching like an eel between the Caribbean and the Atlantic, opposite Key West. Official goodneighborliness (somehow always too strongly subjected to political considerations) has thereafter less to do with the Museum’s current presentation of Cuba’s contemporary painters than genuine interest in a young and daring generation of artists who ask nothing better than a chance to present their work abroad and let it stand on its own merits.

These merits, upon investigation, can only be ascribed to the sun of the Elysian island—a sun whose radiance is even more intense than the one that dazzled Van Gogh at Arles. “If you have any talent at all,” says Cuban critic José Gómez Sicre, “you are compelled by our sun to paint.” This is evident in the double invasion of Cuban art in New York, the painter Mario Carreño, besides being represented in the Museum, having just held an extensive show at the Perls Galleries. The animating rays of this sun might become even more far-reaching if a project were realized which so far only figures among Gómez Sicre’s pet dreams: the Inter-American Museum at Havana. Situated in a spot which Cristobal Colon described as “without doubt the most beautiful any human eye has ever seen,” such an art center would be sufficiently remote from the continents to facilitate an unbiased exchange of culture and yet to be accessible to travelers and to new tendencies.

Installation view of “Modern Cuban Painters” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944.
COURTESY MUSEUM OF MODERN ART ARCHIVES, NEW YORK

A main reason for the astonishing ease with which the Cuban artists have embraced a modern idiom (unlike so many of the other Latin Americans who are still caught in the toils of an out-lived academicism) is the fact that Havana’s Academy of San Alejandro exerted very little influence on them. Even the older ones have stood up against it—men like “the mad Murillo” Ponce de León, a solitary rebel whose Impressionist impasto technique has been turned to Expressionist ends. Like Cundo Bermudez (who numbers ten canvases in the show, among them the outstanding Barber Shop), Ponce is a “Master of the Big Noses,” humor being a notable characteristic of both painters, who, for all their vastly different techniques, refuse to take their subjects too seriously. Ponce is the most erratic of the Cuban artists, sometimes dropping out of sight for years at a time only to win even greater acclaim for his sensitive murals and lyrical figure pieces. Today the artist has reduced his color elements to a narrow scale of zinc-white built up in plastic layers, sienna, and sap green. At the same time he still imbues a fundamentally intellectual art with a sufficiently personal flavor, not carrying his experiments as far as Carlos Enriquez whose scintillating Nude of 1940 has a strange hollowness of form frequently observed in painters of predominantly literary interests.

Amelia Peláez, while older than Cuba’s amazingly young generation, is nevertheless, along with Wilfredo Lam, perhaps the most individual and radical of them all. Having started out as an outstanding exponent of academicism, she studied in 1924 at the Art Students’ League in New York before going to Paris where she came under the influence of Braque, Gris, and Picasso. Since then she has worked out her own solutions in a very definite manner which ranges from near-abstract designs reminiscent of the Argentine Emilio Pettoruti that capture in stained-glass color the flavor of tropical sun and fruits, to bold mosaic compositions such as Fishes and Three Sisters.

Lam, son of a Negro and a Chinese, like quite a few of his colleagues, is an extensive traveler who has studied both in Spain and Paris. Aided by a strongly decorative sense, he applies Picassian iconography to Afro-Cuban voodoo themes. In their pagan ferocity, some of his pictures rank among the most striking in the show.

Raul Corrales, Caballeria (Cavalry), 1960, Gelatin silver print.
©ESTATE CORRALES/COURTESY COUTURIER GALLERY, LOS ANGELES


“Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950”
Through May 21, 2017
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Info: http://bit.ly/2oK0n7h


By , Reprint from ARTnews magazine / ARTnews Archives, 17 March 2017, © 2017, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc..

“You know the names Klee, Kandinsky… you also should know Galka Scheyer,” By Jessica Gelt

A detail from a photo of art collector and dealer Galka Scheyer in her home built by architect Richard Neutra. (Lette Valeska)


You know the names Klee and Kandinsky. A new exhibition explains why you also should know Galka Scheyer

By JESSICA GELT


Galka Scheyer wasn’t just interested in art, she was obsessed with it. She devoted her life to turning others on to her single-minded passion.

During the tumultuous 1930s and ’40s, the prominent German-born art dealer and collector organized exhibitions, lectures, publications — and ultimately sales — of work by the beloved artists she dubbed the Blue Four: Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky and Vasily Kandinsky.

“It’s hard to underestimate the impact she had when it came to raising consciousness about these artists in the state of California,” says Gloria Williams, who the current show about Scheyer’s life, “Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California,” on view at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through Sept. 25.

Scheyer (1889-1945) became friends with a number of prominent artists during her years in Los Angeles, including John Cage, Walter and Louise Arensberg, Josef von Sternberg, Peter Krasnow and architect Richard Neutra, whom she hired to design her home in the Hollywood Hills.

“If you want to leave the establishment, California is where you come to really let your hair down and do something new,” Williams says of Scheyer’s arrival in the state in 1925, and her ultimate success in cultivating a popular taste for avante garde art.

People loved her exuberant energy, and many of the items on display contain tender inscriptions with terms of endearment, such as one by Feininger on a piece of personal correspondence that begins with, “My Dear Little Friend.”

Williams selected each object in the exhibition — including work by Alexander Archipenko, László Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera — based on its close and meaningful connection to Scheyer.

Untitled, 1945, by American artist Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) (Lyonel Feininger)

Untitled, 1945, by American artist Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) (Lyonel Feininger)

"Head in Profile," 1919, by German artist Emile Nolde (1867-1956) (Emile Nolde)

“Head in Profile,” 1919, by German artist Emile Nolde (1867-1956) (Emile Nolde)

"Plants in the Courtyard," 1932, by Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) (Paul Klee)

“Plants in the Courtyard,” 1932, by Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) (Paul Klee)

"Recalling Happy Memories," circa 1927, by American artist Peter Krasnow (1886-1979) (Peter Krasnow)

“Recalling Happy Memories,” circa 1927, by American artist Peter Krasnow (1886-1979) (Peter Krasnow)


Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California
Through September 25, 2017
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
Info: http://bit.ly/2pmIWcy


By Jessica Gelt, Reprint from Los Angeles Times, 19 April 2017, © 2017 Los Angeles Times.

“At MoMA, Women at Play in the Fields of Abstraction,” By Holland Carter

Anne Ryan’s “Collage, 353” (pasted colored papers, cloth and string on paper), part of “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction” at the Museum of Modern Art.


“At MoMA, Women at Play in the Fields of Abstraction”

By HOLLAND CARTER


Funnily enough, the Museum of Modern Art has never named the long-running blockbuster show that fills its permanent-collection galleries. So I’ll name it: “Modern White Guys: The Greatest Art Story Ever Invented.” What the museum does name are the occasional temporary exhibitions that offer an alternative to that story. “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction” is the latest, and a stimulating alternative it is.

Abstraction is a foundational subject for MoMA. The institution was basically conceived on the premise that this is the mode to which all advanced art aspires. But the work in “Making Space,” dating from the end of World War II to the beginning of second-wave feminism, is not really representative of the museum historically. For one thing, of course, it’s all by women. And it’s by artists of diverse geographic and ethnic backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, much of what’s here is late in arriving at MoMA. Several pieces from Latin America, given by the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, came just last year.

In its diversity and in other ways, “Making Space” escapes the old MoMA formula, though in certain other ways it adheres to it. We begin on what looks like familiar ground. The show’s first section, “Gestural Abstraction,” is dominated by two brushy, wall-filling paintings — one by Lee Krasner, the other by Joan Mitchell — of a kind that has been a staple at the museum since the 1940s. Both artists are big names but, you note, they are not quite big enough to rate fixed placement beside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline in the permanent Abstract Expressionist galleries.

Lee Krasner’s wall-filling “Gaea” (1966). 2017 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.  Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Lee Krasner’s wall-filling “Gaea” (1966). 2017 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Nicole Craine for The New York Times

So the show starts in what feels like honorable-mention mode. But it doesn’t stay there. Instead, it goes for difference and sticks with it, introducing us to artists we may not know or have an institutional context for. We meet one right off the bat, the Lebanese-born American painter-poet Etel Adnan, whom many New Yorkers — and possibly MoMA — first learned about only through the New Museum’s 2014 survey of art from the so-called Arab world.

Ms. Adnan’s painting, with its little central rainbow banner, signals that the abstraction by women in this show will not be just Euro-American, but global. And a second picture, this one a 1960s collage painting by the African-American artist Alma Woodsey Thomas, suggests that it will be racially inclusive, too. So, already, old MoMA barriers are leapt.

Alma Woodsey Thomas’s “Untitled” (c. 1968) made of polymer paint and pressure-sensitive tape on cut-and-stapled paper.

Alma Woodsey Thomas’s “Untitled” (c. 1968) made of polymer paint and pressure-sensitive tape on cut-and-stapled paper.

Even more interestingly, the Thomas piece complicates the idea of what “gestural” means. It’s done in the artist’s usual mosaic-like blocks of color, but on narrow strips of paper, joined by staples and masking tape. The result is not painting as a gush of I-am-here ego or emotion. It’s a construction, a sort of funky one. And it is personally expressive, though in ways hard to pin down.

A lot about the show is hard to pin down, which is its strength. The famous flowchart of Modern art’s evolution plotted by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, and still reflected in the show’s section labels — “Geometric Abstraction,” “Eccentric Abstraction,” etc. — simply doesn’t apply here. There’s too much genius irregularity — aesthetic, personal and political — on view to fit any prefab template.

It’s important to know, for example, that the exquisite, centrifugally spinning collages of the New York artist Anne Ryan (1889-1954) were inspired as much by life as by other art. Each of these sparkling visual salads of fabric, paper and thread reflects the artist’s work as a seamstress (she made all her clothes) and a cook (she opened a Greenwich Village restaurant) as much as her interest in Pollock and Kurt Schwitters. (Ryan fans will not want to miss a splendid gallery show dedicated to her at Davis and Langdale Company through April 22.)

In a section called “Geometric Abstraction” are several 1950s works from Latin America, though whether they embody Modernist order and balance is a question. The opposite seems to be true in a crazily tilting iron sculpture by the German-born Venezuelan artist called Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt). And while the interlocking black and white forms in a 1957 painting by the Brazilian Lygia Clark are in perfect alignment, their angled shapes convey a sense of psychological menace — like sharp teeth in a closing jaw — that MoMA’s 2014 Clark retrospective entirely smoothed over.

And what view of Modernist rationality lies behind the work of the Czech artist Bela Kolarova? Working in Prague under a repressive political regime in the 1960s, she created photographs of circular forms that look like drains in a giant sink, and made relief paintings that bristle with potentially finger-slicing grids of metal paper fasteners.

The grid as a form gets an impressive pre-Minimalist workout in 1940s room dividers made of cellophane and horsehair by the incomparable weaver, printmaker, art historian, philosopher, teacher, theorist and life-student Anni Albers. Eleanore Mikus melts and molds the grid in a 1964 relief. And Lenore Tawney bends, twists and lightens it in her “Little River Wall Hanging.”

Lenore Tawney’s “Little River Wall Hanging,” from 1968.                                                               Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Lenore Tawney’s “Little River Wall Hanging,” from 1968. Nicole Craine for The New York Times

In the 1950s, Ms. Tawney lived in Lower Manhattan, where she counted Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin (who is also in the MoMA show) as neighbors. Living in an old shipping loft, she made the most radical work of any of them: towering open-warp fiber pieces that stretched from floor to ceiling and across the loft’s wide space. Yet, in 1990, when she finally had a retrospective, it took place not at MoMA, but at the American Craft Museum, which was then across the street.

Have things changed much for art by women at MoMA? Ms. Tawney’s work is now visible there, but in set-aside circumstances. This is the way historical work by women is usually shown there, in occasional roundups, like the one assembled by the painter Elizabeth Murray in 1995, or the larger “Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art” in 2010, or now in “Making Space,” organized by the MoMA curators Starr Figura and Sarah Meister, with Hillary Reder, a curatorial assistant.

These shows are invariably moving, surprising and adventurous. The present one certainly is. But they have too easily become a new normal, an acceptable way to show women but keep them segregated from the permanent-collection galleries. In other words, they are a way to keep MoMA’s old and false, but coherent and therefore salable, story of Modernism intact.

Things may be changing. The old model may slowly be breaking up as the reality of Modernism as an international phenomenon, pan-cultural yet locally distinctive, becomes more widely known. And that knowledge can’t help confirming the reality that work by women, feminists or not, was the major inventive force propelling and shaping late-20th-century art.

Ruth Asawa’s “Untitled” (circa 1955), foreground center, and Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Yellow Abakan” (1967-68), right.                                                                            Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Ruth Asawa’s “Untitled” (circa 1955), foreground center, and Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Yellow Abakan” (1967-68), right. Nicole Craine for The New York Times

It’s time to integrate that force into the museum fabric, into the permanent-collection galleries that remain MoMA’s great popular draw. How to create the new mix? Experiment. Put Anne Ryan next to Schwitters and Pollock and 1950s fabric designs by Vera (Vera Neumann), and see how that shakes out, historically and atmospherically. Introduce a body-adjusting chair by the great Italian-Brazilian artist-designer Lina Bo Bardi to the body-obsessed sculpture of Constantin Brancusi. Put Ruth Asawa’s porous, basket-like wire sculptures up against Richard Serra’s fortresslike walls. Let Alma Woodsey Thomas and Mondrian meet and talk about masking tape and useful beauty.

Naturally, some people will have a problem with all this. A politically minded eroticist like the Italian artist Carol Rama (1918-2015), who has a fantastic piece called “Spurting Out” in the current MoMA show (and a retrospective at the New Museum coming at the end of the month), scares the pants off traditionalists, because what do you do with her? Where does she fit in? How can you make her make White Guy sense? You can’t.

Anyway, it’s time to give the White Guys a rest. They’re looking tired. And the moment is auspicious. MoMA is expanding; the only ethical justification for doing so that I can see is to show art it hasn’t shown before, to write a broader, realer story, one that might even, in truth, be great. Construction is still in progress, but plans for the new history can start right now. Go see the work by women in “Making Space,” then go to MoMA’s permanent- collection galleries and start mentally moving in their art.


Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction
Through August 13, 2017
Museum of Modern Art, New York
moma.org


By Holland Carter, Reprint from The New York Times, 13 April 2017, © 2017 The New York Times Company.

“Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable review – a titanic return,” By Jonathan Jones

A detail from Demon with Bowl by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd


“Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable review – a titanic return”

Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice
‘Artist has once again found the underwater grotto in his mind where monsters live, making a fool out of all of us who lost faith’

By JONATHAN JONES


Art is magical. It is a fairytale. It can make you rich. It can make you poor. It can turn everything you thought you knew inside out and upside down.

It has made Damien Hirst rich, colossally so, and now it has done something else. It has redeemed him. For years he has appeared a figure of strangely wasted and ruined promise, whose commercialism snuffed out his artistic spark. Yet with his exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which fills not only a Venetian palace but also the capacious halls of the ship-shaped Punta della Dogana at the mouth of the Grand Canal, the arrogant, exciting, hilarious, mind-boggling imagination that made him such a thrilling artist in the 1990s is audaciously and beautifully reborn.

The young artist who put a tiger shark in a glass tank never died, after all, and we who lost faith in him look like fools for failing to believe.

Not that he is taking credit for the Egyptian statues, Greek armour, Chinese bells, unicorns, medusas and other wonders that unfold in ever more mind-boggling richness and strangeness as you explore what amounts to an entire museum of ancient history and myth. Hirst claims a new role, that of archaeological impresario, presenting to the world one of the most important discoveries of recent times. In 2008 the wreck of a treasure ship called the Apistos (meaning “the Unbelievable”) was found on the seabed off east Africa. It sank about 2,000 years ago. Its unique cargo of global artefacts, assembled by a freed slave called Cif Amotan II, have spent two millennia undergoing a “sea change” straight out of Shakespeare’s Tempest, becoming wrapped in coloured corals and bizarre crustacean growths – until the archaeologists who found this sunken marvel asked Hirst to use his millions to help recover it.

Sphinx by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Sphinx by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

If you believe that, you’ll believe anything. The curators who told this bit of hokum straightfaced at the start of the press view deserve bonuses, if Hirst has not yet bankrupted himself creating this luxury masterpiece. Telltale clues that we are not really seeing ancient works of art include a barnacle-encrusted statue of Goofy, a sculpture of Mowgli and Baloo, and what looks like a Jeff Koons statue that has been left on the seabed for a few years. The multicoloured corals are mostly painted bronze.

Calendar Stone by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Calendar Stone by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

I was disappointed for a moment. Photographs and films of the salvage project Hirst’s team carried out in the Indian Ocean make you hope for an underwater exhibition or a boat ride through a sunken world. Instead, the display at Punta della Dogana starts with a gargantuan fake Aztec sun stone that frankly looks like a prop from an Indiana Jones film. Is this going to be any more artistically rewarding than a trip to the Harry Potter studios to see the sorting hat? But Hirst’s wizardry proves to be the real thing.

It takes a kind of genius to push kitsch to the point where it becomes sublime. Hirst’s hero Koons has done something like it with his giant reflective balloon dogs. Here, the kitsch doesn’t so much grow on you as wrap you in its tentacles and drag you down into its underwater palace. After one implausible fake of an unknown pharaoh’s portrait, I was disgusted. After a roomful, followed by rooms full of everything from Roman dinnerware (purportedly) to a massive coral-covered statue of a multi-armed woman fighting a writhing many-headed Hydra, I was intoxicated.

Detail from Hydra and Kali by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Andrea Merola/AP

Detail from Hydra and Kali by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Andrea Merola/AP

The exhibit that completely overcame the last shreds of scepticism was a display of two enormous skulls of Polyphemus, the one-eyed cyclops that tries to eat the heroes of Homer’s Odyssey. These are marble models of mammoth skulls: archaeologists believe, says a display label, that the hole for the mammoth’s tusks may have inspired the myth of a race of one-eyed giants.

The thing is, this theory really does exist, and you can read a similar label beside a fossil skull of a prehistoric elephant in the Natural History Museum. Throughout this exhibition, real historical information is offered about what are clearly fakes. Then again, some of the fakes are more plausible than others. Are those real Roman coins? Is that a real Roman spoon? I can’t tell.

Skull of a Cyclops and Skull of a Cyclops Examined by a Diver. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

Skull of a Cyclops and Skull of a Cyclops Examined by a Diver. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

It is the combination of intricate detail and stonking, mind-blowing scale and quantity that makes this collection so beguiling. By the time you get to a room full of gold objects, including a majestic-looking cornucopia (horn of plenty) and a gold replica of one of the sculpted portraits of life in west Africa, you feel drugged with history and art.

It is not just a random mass of stuff, but a subtle meditation on the practice of collecting, on museums and why we go to them. Throughout the exhibition, sculptures in rollicking bad taste alternate with glass cases that evolve Hirst’s oldest, most quintessential idea – putting things in vitrines and cabinets – into a profound image of the act of collecting. These cabinets contain things of apparent antiquity and historical meaning, arranged – as they might be in a very beautiful museum – by a fastidious curator. What are the principles of arrangement? How have the treasures of the Unbelievable been classified? How do we classify and know anything at all, and what drives people to do it?

This fictional museum is not only impressive, but moving. Hirst shares his passion with us. He obviously loves art, loves the dark and inexplicable mystery of it. He communicates, too, a love of history – or perhaps, rather, a love of time. Art is changed by time as wrecks are changed by the sea. Today’s spoon is tomorrow’s wondrous relic.

Will Hirst one day be in the history books as a genius? It looks a hell of a lot more likely after this titanic return to form.

Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

At Palazzo Grassi, you enter the second part of the exhibition to see a foot … a leg … It is the biggest statue I have ever beheld. Hirst has created a figure on the scale of ancient monuments like the Colossus of Constantine, whose marble foot survives in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. Even more disorientating, this figure that dwarfs and awes a now seriously befuddled crowd of journalists has been fitted into a tall, narrow galleried courtyard. It is a monstrous bronze man out of a dream or gothic novel. Some say it represents Pazuzu, and that the bowl it holds is for human blood – but the curator disagrees.

When did I last see a contemporary artwork that surprised, unsettled and delighted me as much as this? It was probably when I walked into the Saatchi gallery in 1992 and saw a tiger shark apparently swimming towards me, mouth open.

Hirst has once again found the underwater grotto in his mind where the monsters live.


Exhibition:

“Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”
April 9 — December 3, 2017
Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice
Info: http://bit.ly/2oQ5RML


By Jonathan Jones, Reprint from TheGuardian.com, 6 April 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

” ‘Age of Empires’: How 2 Dynasties of Art Forged China’s Identity,” By Holland Carter

“Female Musician Playing a Zither,” an earthenware sculpture from the Han dynasty.
Photo: 
Jake Naughton for The New York Times


” ‘Age of Empires’: How 2 Dynasties of Art Forged China’s Identity”

By HOLLAND CARTER


No one does epic better than the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It brought Pergamon to New York last spring and got the balance of giant and delicate right. It flew in medieval Jerusalem, and kept its multicultural sprawl intact. Now, in the exhibition “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220),” it brings us China becoming China in a big-picture take as strange and warm as life.

We love life, of course, all the details: sparrows in the forsythia; books and lamps and late-night coffee; the voice of a friend on the phone. The ancient Chinese loved it, too, and wanted it to last forever. China’s first emperor believed it might.

He viewed death as a kind of power nap, from which he’d awake refreshed in a tomb that was like an earthly home, but better, more fun. He designed his mausoleum as an underground Mar-a-Lago, with countless pavilions, great feng shui and a major security force. For light, there were candles, the most expensive money could buy, guaranteed to keep burning after he’d moved in — he died in 210 B.C. — and the doors had shut for the last time.

A portion of the jade burial suit of Dou Wan, a Han princess, in the exhibition “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220),” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit Jake Naughton for The New York Times

A portion of the jade burial suit of Dou Wan, a Han princess, in the exhibition “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220),” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

Those lights are still burning in the Met’s hypnotic, glow-in-the-dark exhibition of 160 objects from 32 museums in China, which opens on Monday. Of the museum’s several presentations of Chinese antiquities over the past 20 years, this one is probably the most dramatic visually and the most accessible emotionally. There’s a certain amount of the type of art the Met is too comfortable with: imperial bling. But here even this material feels purposeful, because it dates from a time in China when the idea of empire and corporate branding through art was experimental.

By the third century B.C., the long-lived Zhou dynasty had run its course, and turf wars broke out among smaller regional states. One of those states, the kingdom of Qin (pronounced CHIN), overcame all rivals and brought much of China under one rule for the first time. It did this partly through armed strength, but also through a sort of management savvy taught in business schools today.

The Qin ruler, born Ying Zheng, decided that the most effective means of control was to promote team spirit: Get everyone on the same civic page, and keep them there. To that end, he instituted a unified currency and a single standard of weights and measures. He decreed the use of a universal written script, which let him control the political conversation. And he initiated construction of the Great Wall, a brick-and-mortar statement of Us versus Them.

“Kneeling Archer,” an earthenware sculpture from the Qin dynasty. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

“Kneeling Archer,” an earthenware sculpture from the Qin dynasty. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

The effect of all this was to create a rudimentary sense of shared identity within a diverse population; a sense of Qin-ness or — to use a modern English word that may derive from Qin — Chinese-ness.

The M.B.A. thinking worked, or did for Ying Zheng himself. He became the first Chinese ruler to assume the heaven-kissed title of emperor — Qi Shihuangdi, or First Emperor of Qin — and built a tomb near Xian, in northwestern China, to match its grandeur. We have only written accounts of what’s in the tomb (the pavilions, the candles; it’s never been excavated). But its presence yielded one of the late-20th-century’s great art historical finds when, in 1978, on a tip from local farmers, archaeologists uncovered an army of some 7,000 life-size terra-cotta figures buried nearby.

Five of those figures, four standing, one kneeling, open the Met show (along with two modern reproductions of buried chariots found with them). They, or their like, have been endlessly circulated for display, but they’re still magnetic, with their blocklike bodies and personable faces, mold-cast and customized. Even more striking, and less familiar, is another figure found in a different part of the tomb site, this one a beefy court entertainer, nude to the waist, with every fold of flesh and swell of muscle precisely rendered.

“Female Dancer,” a vogueing earthenware dancer from the Han dynasty.  Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

“Female Dancer,” a vogueing earthenware dancer from the Han dynasty.
Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

There was no precedent in China for any of this, the scale, the naturalism. So what was the source? Historians point to a likely one: the Hellenistic art that was introduced by Alexander the Great to Asia — at Pergamon, for example — and filtered over trade routes to China. Whatever its origins, the new sculpture adds another facet to the profile of Qin-ness: cosmopolitan taste.

But for all its innovations, or maybe because of them, Qin rule was brief, 15 years. The emperor spent a lot of time on the road, surveying his domain but also on a quest for life-extending elixirs. His sudden death unleashed an opera-worthy drama of assassinations, suicides and civil war, until another imperial power, called Han, took its place, and held it more than four centuries.

Han artists built on Qin precedents in art, but with adjustments. For a while they maintained an interest in realism, but seemed to shift the emphasis from the human figure to the natural world. The big personalities in Han sculpture in the show are animals: horses as majestic as gods; elephants, foreign to China, closely observed. Even common barnyard creatures — chickens, goats and pigs — are portrayed with empathy; you can almost hear them clucking and snuffling.

A detail of “Cowrie Container With Bull and Rider,” a bronze container from the Han dynasty that was found on an ancient site associated with the Dian people. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

A detail of “Cowrie Container With Bull and Rider,” a bronze container from the Han dynasty that was found on an ancient site associated with the Dian people. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

The Han further refined the policy of centralized imperial rule and expanded its reach outward, globally, evident in the steady increase in material richness and variety seen as you move through the show, past granulated gold work, amethyst necklaces and luxury textiles brought overland and by sea from Afghanistan, India, Persia, nomadic Eurasia and the Mediterranean.

Some of the most exotic items are from China itself. An eye-stopping, fantastically sophisticated bronze cowrie shell container, swarming with tiny figures in what looks like a raucous Bruegelesque market scene, was produced by the Dian culture in what is now Yunnan province, people that Han court records referred to as “southwestern barbarians.”

Was that imperialism or provincialism speaking? They can be the same thing. And they can equally motivate people to shape an exclusive group identity. The Han were intent on doing so, though this didn’t prevent them from borrowing heavily from other cultures, including their immediate predecessors.

From left, “Warrior,” “Female Courtier” and “Court Attendant: Eunuch,” all earthenware sculptures from the Han dynasty. They were meant to provide for the emperor in his afterlife, the warrior offering protection, the eunuch and courtier attending to his needs.  Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

From left, “Warrior,” “Female Courtier” and “Court Attendant: Eunuch,” all earthenware sculptures from the Han dynasty. They were meant to provide for the emperor in his afterlife, the warrior offering protection, the eunuch and courtier attending to his needs.
Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

As with the Qin, Han society, at least at elite levels, focused on the hereafter. Most items in the Met show came from graves. Many objects were specifically for funerary use. Like much art everywhere, the underlying inspiration was political and personal. Art promoted and shored up the hierarchies on which a culture was built. It also answered to a human need to keep life going.

The Han elite spared no expense to ensure their continuance. The survivors of a Han princess named Dou Wan encased her corpse in a jumpsuit made from 2,000 jade plaques linked with gold threads, jade being a stone thought to have preservative properties. The suit is in the show, and as we approach through a passageway in Zoe Florence’s theatrical exhibition installation, it looks like a sleeping extraterrestrial, a space traveler patiently waiting to be beamed up.

Yet everything in the surrounding galleries seems designed to anchor the traveler to life on earth: a little hand-warmer in the form of a carved jade bear; a silk pillow woven with the words “extend years”; a vogueing earthenware dancer with ankle-length sleeves; and a jeroboam-size wine jar that, when discovered in 2003, still held Han wine. There’s even a luxury high-rise, or a model of one, and lamps to light it, including one shaped like a tree sprouting ducks and dragons like spring buds.

At the end of the show — organized by Zhixin Jason Sun, a curator of Chinese art at the Met, assisted by Pengliang Lu, a curatorial fellow — there’s a low closed door, carved from stone, made for a tomb, and painted with figures that could be earthly or celestial. If you passed through the door, which life would you be entering, or leaving, and is there a preference?

An answer may lie in an object hanging on the exhibition’s exit wall. It’s a round gilt-bronze mirror with an inscription embossed on its rim: “May the Central Kingdom be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come, by following the great law that governs all.” Central Kingdom meant China. And for the Qin and the Han, wherever you went, in this world or the next, you were there.


“Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin & Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220)”
April 3 – July 16, 2017
The Met Fifth Avenue
Info: http://bit.ly/2olL2sv


By Holland Carter, Reprint from The New York Times / Art & Design, 30 March 2017, © 2017 The New York Times Company.