"China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD," Oct. 12, 2004-Jan. 23, 2005, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Sometimes a museum is better off taking a small bite, presenting a more confined period in the art history of a country in an exhibition. This is especially true of China, where huge exhibitions can take on too much, even for experts to digest, much less your average museum-goer.
In 1988, the Guggenheim Museum mounted a "best of" exhibition of China's five millenia under the banner "China 5,000 Years." The year 2000 brought "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology" to Houston and Washington. The exhausting presentation came replete with a 12-pound catalogue.
This fall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in its Tisch Galleries on the second floor, mounted a magnificent presentation of China's art of the period from 200-750 AD -- from the collapse of the Han dynasty to the zenith of the Tang dynasty. Although 550 years is still a huge span, the Met exhibition was refreshingly staged and structured.
During the Cold War, museums were frequently forced to "beg and borrow" items from here and there to furnish a proper show of Asian art. One item would come from a private collection, the next was snagged from a university, a third pried from another museum.
Such practices have become a thing of the past. The People's Republic of China has established the official Institute of Cultural Relics, which now handles exhibitions in concert with foreign museums. In addition, the Institute was formed to help prevent the continued loss of the Chinese cultural heritage through "grave robbing" and the more indiscriminate international machinations of an illegitimate art trade.
In the case of the current exhibition, scholars and curators at the Metropolitan, guided by the Institute, worked for seven years with their counterparts at 47 Chinese institutions, from Mongolia to Hebei and Shanxi, and a mulitude of provinces in between. Their aim, clearly achieved, was to assemble an exhibition that featured all the relevant art treasures that were available.
In its show, the Met presented a wealth of objects -- more than 300 offerings in such diverse fields as ceramics, glass, precious metals, stone, wood and jade. All were presented with a master's touch in spacious well-lit halls. What's more, the majority of objects on display were only disinterred during the last 30 years.
One highlight of the show was a selection of gold objects that are traced to the nomadic tribes of Mongolia. The Mongols overran North China at the demise of the Han dynasty, early in the third century, and although they were barbarians in relation to the more sophisticated Hans, their gold objects speak well of the skill and sensitivity of Mongol jewelers.
But most the show focuses on the Han dynasty. The Han had built the Great Wall, strengthened the structure of the family and imposed a uniform moral order. Under the 400 years of Han rule, a system of examinations for government offices was set up, Confucian ideas were reinstated and an extensive road building program was put in place. And in artistic endeavors, the dynasty was equally advanced
The Han objects were displayed in exciting fashion, especially the group of chariots and mounted guards in the entrance hall. The 15-inch-high bronze figurines were unearthed in 1969 from the tomb of a regional governor. Although twice looted in earlier times, the tomb figures miraculously survived in good order.
Other Han objects include a pottery watchtower, which provides an insight into upper class power during that time. The 58-inch-high glazed earthenware model, subdivided into nine levels, was most likely a miniaturized replica of an existing structure. Like other entombed objects, it was meant to serve an important function in the afterlife, a function identical with its role during the owner's lifetime.
Gold ornaments taking the shapes of fabled animals have also been found in tombs from this era. Many of those on view featured precious or semi-precious stones, such as two chimeras (imaginary animals) of gold and inlaid semi-precious stones. They were among the highlights of this part of the show.
Because of the early belief that jade protected the dead from decay, jade objects found their way into tombs long before the Han dynasty. The practice continued under Han rule; deceased members of the elite were sheathed (literally) in jade, and their mouths, noses and ears were plugged with pieces of jade, sometimes in the forms of cicadas or other small creatures. When no jade could be obtained, plugs of another precious material, glass, were used.
Glassware from both Han and Tang dynasties was in the show. The Romans had taught glassmaking to Han artisans, and glass objects traveled along the Silk Road. Glass bowls and shards were found in a scattering of tombs in many Chinese provinces.
The introduction of Buddhism through the 4th through 6th centuries AD brought with it a preponderance of Buddhist statuary in stone, sandstone and bronze. On display were statues of Buddha in all manner of positions, some solitary, some among groups of bodhisattvas. Size varies, as well. An early Crowned Buddha or "Buddha Vairocana" from the Tang period towers over seven feet tall.
Artists and artisans were eager to achieve excellence during the early decades of the Tang dynasty. Tang figures, glazed and unglazed, continue to amaze. Here are the ladies of the court, dancers and musicians and of course the animals -- horses and camels. One of the finest examples is a young girl asleep on a camel. Camels were not rare in Tang China. In fact, even today you will find camels in the desert regions of the country, especially in the Gobi desert.