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|Art from the East
by Fred Stern
|I must admit to feeling a certain amount of trepidation when I entered the Asia Society's newest show, titled "Dancing Demons: Ceremonial Masks of Mongolia," which is on view July 12-Sept 17.
At the entrance stands a forbidding figure in a hideously ferocious mask. Wall plaques and photos detail both Mongolia's tragic recent history and the figures of the country's most important dance -- the Tsam.
Mongolia -- aka Outer Mongolia -- is located between China and Siberia. Its geography forecasts its turbulent political history. After the Mongol conquests of earlier centuries, the country came under Chinese rule from 1691 to 1911. When the Manchu Empire collapsed, the White Russians took control. In 1924 the Communists set up a Soviet puppet state that finally came apart with the collapse of the Soviet system around 1989. The Soviet occupation had just about eliminated the privileged classes, destroyed many monasteries and sharply curtailed the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people.
Today, independent Mongolia is a thriving democratic country. Close to 2,000,000 Mongolians have gone back to the old ways, herding their flocks, traveling the inhospitable country. Lamas (Buddhist priests), whose numbers had been decimated under the Communists, are once again preaching at their shrines. Shamans (non-Buddhist spiritualists) had undergone a similar fate, but have now returned to practice their healing arts.
The brutality of the Soviet system had another tragic impact -- the destruction of art treasures. But fortunately, a fair quantity of masks, costumes and textiles survive, unearthed from hiding places in underground caves, and from the few surviving monasteries.
Many of these masks are now on display. Their function is simple: use in the Tsam dance.
"For the first time since 1937, Mongolia had a Tsam festival last year. This is a New Year's Day celebration. Hundreds of dancers don demonic masks and other headgear thought to drive out the bad spirits and ghosts of the previous year," says Professor Jan Fontein, curator of the present exhibition and former director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "These masks are often ferocious looking, many with skull replicas imbedded in their crowns. But one needn't be frightened. The masks really address the desire for Nirvana, the hope of escaping the wheel of rebirth and finding peace."
Along the walls of the gallery are photographs of Tsam celebrations. Here one can identify the various dancers whose masks are on display, some of which I will describe.
Most of Tsam dances were performed by the masked dancers at a slow, almost majestic pace, but the dancer wearing a stag mask adopted a fast, wild tempo. It was the function of the deer dancer to pierce the lingka the doughlike structure that collects all evil during the Tsam.
The Horned Garuda mask shows an ancient Indian sun-eagle devouring a snake. The sun-eagle is a shamanist figure, adopted into the Lamaist-Buddhist pantheon. The mask represents one of the Lords of the Four Mountains. It is identified with Mt. Bogdo Ulla, a 3,000-foot mountain above the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Baatar.
Kashin Khan and his Eight Sons is a group of nine masks adapted from Chinese folklore. When a Ming emperor fell sick, the Mongolian prince Kashin Khan was called upon to cure him. According to the legend, the eight sons were not the sons of Kashin Khan, but those of the Emperor. The function of those wearing the mask is to welcome each dancer by sounding a trumpet.
Tsaghan Ebuegen, or the White Old Man, is a buffoon of sorts, but he also personifies longevity. He hits out at people near him and whomever he strikes will not last out the year unless he is hit a second time.
The processional chariot of the Maidari (the Buddha of the Future) is a highpint of the Tsam. It is a great honor to pull the chariot, which features a horse's head covered in green velvet. Tradition has it that those who participate in the procession, are assured of rebirth as Buddha's disciples, when the Maidari returns to earth.
Seeing these rare masks is a memorable experience and offers a glimpse of a very different and sometimes eerie civilization.
More than 60 masks are on display at the temporary home of the Society in Christie's old quarters at 502 Park Avenue, July 12-Sept. 17.
The Asia Society is presenting a variety of programs supplementing this exhibition. For further information call (212) 288-6400 or visit the Society's website at www.asiasociety.org.
Phillips ceramic triumph
The efforts of French financier Bernard Arnault to remake Phillips Auctioneers into a global art powerhouse came to a head in the May, when Phillips rented the American Craft Museum in New York for big-ticket sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art.
The jury is still out on Arnault's hubristic endeavor. What many art observers overlooked, however, was the Phillips auction of contemporary Japanese ceramics in New York on May 17.
Two factors were working against a "go" in this endeavor. First, the Craft Museum venue was a new and untried auction space, away from Phillips familiar 79th Street facility. And second, a ceramics sale of this stature would ordinarily take place in London. An auction of 20th-century Japanese ceramics and design had never been tried in New York.
It was Dan Klein's idea. He is the international executive director of Phillips in London. "I felt that holding the auction in a craft museum would be great, especially since we were auctioning Impressionist paintings and photography there anyhow." The experiment was on.
Phillips accumulated more than 100 items over a two-year period, which resided briefly in neatly arranged basement vitrines at the American Craft Museum, admired by New York's stoneware and ceramics collectors. Knowledgeable experts were on hand to satisfy the curiousity of would-be buyers.
In this auction, the top offerings were created by the Japanese potters Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai, and Hong Kong-born Britisher Bernard Lowell Leach, a pupil of Hamada -- who is a "Living National Treasure" (Japan bestows the honorary title "Living National Treasure" on its outstanding painters, sculptors and decorative artists).
Hamada (1884-1973) was well represented at this sale with 37 items, which constituted the largest number of offerings. Three brought the highest auction prices. A stoneware vase of deep olive green glaze, measuring over 14 inches high, brought $55,000 (its low estimate was $14,000). It had a triple band of raised ribs and panels, with each panel was a wax-resist finger wipe design.
A large stoneware jar with running ash glaze and a rust-colored foot brought $25,000 against an $8,000 estimate. Another Hamada creation, a thrown stoneware jar with thick white glaze and red-rust interior, squared by Hamada using a wooden paddle, yielded $19,000 against a $9,500 estimate.
Kawai (1890-1966), who had refused all national honors and who had been a founder with Hamada of the Mingei folk art movement, is known for combining high art with the highest expertise in technique and glazing. He is richly represented at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. Seven of his stonewares were in the auction.
One of Kawai's early flower vases dating to 1923, of striking green and yellow design, bearing the prestigious Snider family provenance, reached $16,000 its low estimate. Another Kawai piece, a flattened 10 inch high flask vase with white panels illustrated in six colors, signed and sealed in a wooden box brought $l8,000 against a low estimate of $9,500.
(A word about signatures and boxes. Not all potters sign their work, but most provide special wooden boxes for them and these are usually signed. The value of Japanese pottery, while not dependent on an accompanying box, is enhanced if the original is available. According to a Phillips spokesperson, however, "retro-fitting happens on a regular basis.")
The most successful of the Bernard Leach (1887-1979) offerings, a rare early slipcase dish with a leaping deer design, circa l928 brought a surprising $16,000 against a $5,000 low estimate.
Phillips was delighted with the take of $611,000 (81 percent by value, and roughly 70 percent by lot).
Who bought? American collectors accounted for 80 percent of sales, and according to Phillips, 20 percent of the buyers were European collectors. Institutional buying? Eight pieces were acquired by museums, most of these, American.
Would Phillips do it again in New York? They would like to, yes, but things depend on availability and the market structure, a bit down the road.
Indianapolis' new Asian installation
From now until Aug. 6, the Indianapolis Museum of Fine Art (IMA) is introducing its new collection of Japanese Edo period scrolls and folding screens.
The collection, valued at $10 million, is an important component of the museum's ambitious expansion program, begun in 1998 with the acquisition of 101 paintings and prints by Paul Gauguin and his followers (the Pont Aven school). The Gauguin was followed by the Glick collection of Contemporary Glass, and the Clowes bequest of European Old Masters.
The present Japanese collection consists of a gift from Boston businessman Alan Strassman, augmented by purchases from New York area dealer, Leighton Longhi.
"In one swoop" says IMA curator James Robinson, "the IMA moves into the front rank of U.S. museums in Japanese works of art. Come and visit us, even if you don't have an intimate knowledge of Japanese culture. You'll be delighted by the variety and skill of the artists, especially the wealth of flower, bird and other scrolls."
The collection ranges over two centuries (1756-1938).
The Crow Collection
How do you turn a haphazard personal collection into an important museum facility? Mr. and Mrs. Trammel Crow were part of a real estate development team in Dallas with many overseas facilities. Asian travels led them to collect ambitiously and enthusiastically. They bought what they liked and what they thought would show to advantage in their home. But they also realized that their space was not infinitely expandable. They decided to share their collection with the public, in a dedicated museum.
They called on experts to cull the best objects for the Crow Collection Of Asian Art, which now occupies a 12,000-square-foot facility in downtown Dallas. It is sheltered by cypress trees and a stepped fountain framing a monumental Taoist deity. The outstanding object in the collection is the facade of a residence from the Northern Indian region of Rajasthan. The red sandstone structure was created in the Mughal period (1526-1756). The Crow masterpieces originate from all of Southeast Asia, and represent a rich diversity of art forms throughout the centuries.
FRED STERN writes on Asian art for Artnet Magazine.