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|Art from the East
by Fred Stern
|A flurry of Asian art shows has opened this spring, providing a rich visual feast for Asian art enthusiasts, not only in New York
but clear across the country.
In the Japanese area, nothing can match the glory, elegance and leisurely installation of the Mary Griggs Burke collection at the Metropolitan Museum, which is on view through June 25. The treasures span the most exciting art periods in Japanese history, beginning with the prehistoric era and moving right up to the Edo Period (1615-1868), when the imperial court relocated to Edo (the ancient name for Tokyo) from Kyoto.
The Burke collection is especially rich in art from the two great "luxury" eras: the Muramachi Period (1392-1573), with its vast number of paintings and screens; and the blindingly brilliant but short-lived Momoyama period (1573-1615), with its incredible number of lacquered boxes and stoneware dishes.
When the Met has permanently added the major Burke collection treasures to its holdings, it will have achieved the preeminent position among U.S. museums in Japanese art.
Japanese treasures from San Francisco
Another important show of Japanese art is: "For the New Century: Japanese Treasures from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco," on view at the Japan Society, 333 East 47 Street, Mar. 22-July 9.
47 masterworks spanning 3,000 years were selected for this exhibition, which takes place while the San Francisco Museum is closed for a move from Golden Gate Park to its new home in the Central Building of the San Francisco Public Library.
A four-foot-high Haniwa greets the visitor to the show's first gallery. Haniwas are cylindrically shaped earthenware figures from pre-Buddhist Japan, before 500 AD. Powerful leaders at that time were buried in huge funeral mounds and Haniwas, typically warrior figures but made in female versions as well, marked the boundaries of sacred sites. This Haniwa has a characteristic touch of gaiety about it and excudes great charm.
The compassionate Bodhisattva Shokannon, a majestic carved and lacquered wood statue standing on a lotus base, dates to the 12th century, Japan's Heian period. The figure emits an aura of absolute tranquility that is reinforced by a shawl and scarf draped over his shoulder.
The celebrated Edo painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716) came from a well-to-do family and mingled freely with Kyoto's royalty and aristocrats. For many years he enjoyed a life of leisure but eventually was forced to go to work for a living. Enamored of both portraiture and landscape, he often mingled the two. In a happy scroll we see Chou Moushu at a pond's edge, leaning on an armrest and admiring floating lotus blossoms. Horizontal lines suggest the still waters, broad washes proclaim land.
A two-panel screen by Fukae Rohu (1699-1752), The Path by Mount Utsu, illustrates a scene from one of Japan's favorite folktales, The Tale of Ise. It shows a courtier on an autumn mountainside who encounters a Buddhist monk and asks him to carry a letter back to Kyoto.
Among the other San Francisco offerings are a lacquered wood reading stand with mother-of-pearl inlays, a pair of six panel screens titled Pine, Bamboo and Plum, Three Friends of Winter and an array of hanging scrolls, stone and lacquerware.
The Mongolian horse in Islamic art
The Metropolitan Museum picked the Mongolian horse as its vehicle for celebrating New York's "Festival of Mongolia," which is sponsored by the Mongolian embassy and ends soon, on June 19. Not to worry, the Met's exhibition, "Riding across Central Asia: Images of the Mongolian Horse in Islamic Art," is up through Sept. 24.
A small and inelegant creature, yet untiring and resourceful, the Mongolian horse left its imprint on both Eastern and Western worlds.
It was this horse, after all, that enabled the Mongols -- only 2.5 million strong -- to exert an outsized influence in art, culture and warfare. Later this horse brought the Turks, descendents of Mongol warriors, to the gates of Vienna and the French at Poitiers.
The Mongols were nomads following their cattle, camels and sheep across Eastern and Central Asia for centuries. Genghis Khan (1167?-1227) unified these tribes into the "Golden Horde," terrifying the inhabitants of Turkestan, China, Siam and India.
The Tartars and their ruler Tamerlane (yes, the one in Christopher Marlowe's play) were also descended from the Mongols. One of their number, Babur, founded the Mugal empire of India. The Mongols left their mark on the arts, architecture and ceramics of Persia. The tiles of Kashan and the pottery of Tabriz also offer impresssive testimony to Mongol creative skills.
They greatly influenced the Chinese throughout the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368) which they set up under Kubla Khan, (yes, the one from Coleridge's "pleasure dome") a direct descendent of Genghis Khan.
Some 25 objects in all -- metal, works on paper, ceramics and paintings -- demonstrate the many areas of Mongol influence during the 12th to 14th centuries.
Two "well worn" (to put it mildly) saddles dating to this period leave the most profound imprint on the viewer, speculating what they must have seen, how many battles they might have survived.
The lyre and the bull
On Jan. 4, 1928, the archeologist Leonard Woolley sent this telegram (in Latin to discourage interception) to the University of Pennsylvania's archaeology museum. "I found the intact tomb of Queen Puabi adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups." He had found the burying place of ancient Sumer's most influential woman. Between 1922 and 1934, Woolley would discover and excavate the Royal tombs and their ancillaries containing the remains of some 2,000 people.
Now this cache of more than 250 objects from the third millennium B.C., celebrating the civilization of Ur of the Caldees, is on display at the Morgan Library on East 36th Street, May 24-Sept. 10.
The Sumerian city of Ur was located on the Euphrates River in what is now southern Iraq. The region, which we know as the "fertile crescent," was an alluvial plain, without stones or other building materials. Its ziggurats (fortified structures) were made of air-dried bricks. Other buildings were mud and straw constructions. The garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the birth of Abraham all were said to have been located there.
The "bread basket" of the Middle East, Sumer traded its grain and other agricultural produce for stone from Iran, for Lapis Lazuli and Calcite (Oriental Alabaster) from northern Afghanistan, for Carnelian from the Indus Valley.
Incredibly skilled in jewelry-making, the Sumerians left a cornucopia of objects, many of which now sparkle from Morgan displays. Gold and semiprecious stones predominate. Earrings, floral wreaths, bracelets, hair ribbons and ornaments rival those from dynastic Egypt.
The Sumerians prized music. Music was considered sacred and was performed on ceremonial occasions, for events as rare as lunar eclipses or as common as childbirth. Instruments, found in royal tombs, including many lyres, are here displayed. One of the most spectacular finds shown at the Morgan is a gold, silver, shell, wood and bitumen lyre from the "King's Grave."
Bull heads of silver, bronze, gold or copper, or mounted on decorative stele, were found throughout the tombs. Their job, it is believed, was to guard the deceased and their treasures. Many expertly worked examples are on display.
Colors from Mongolia
E & J Frankel, one of New York's premier Chinese art galleries, is host to this city's first exhibition of contemporary Mongolian paintings in oil and gouache, as well as some sculptures. The show, called "Colors from Mongolia," is on view until June 24.
In all, 85 works by 22 artists are on display. The art partakes of both western and Chinese influences. Many of the paintings are in the traditional realistic Mongol "zurag" style, featuring the interplay of people and "the five treasures" -- cattle, horses, camels, lambs and goats. But there are abstract and nonobjective canvases as well.
E & J Frankel is donating part of the sale proceeds to the needy children of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Prices range from $400 to $8,000.
At Naadam is a striking frieze of horses and riders by Erdenebayar. L. Bold paints birds of prey in combination with striking Kandinskyesque swirls of color on a huge canvas. Ganhuyag's Mirage of the Dream is a strong bronze sculpture of rider and horse.
The gallery is located at 1040 Madison Ave and 79th Street.
FRED STERN writes on Asian art for Artnet Magazine.