China's Camelot: The Southern Song Dynasty
More than 60 works of the Southern Song era (1127 to 1279 A.D.) are paying a visit to "Exquisite Moments" at the China Institute, 125 East 65 Street in New York, where they are on view until Dec. 9, 2001. On display are fans, album leaves, richly ornamented porcelain cups and paintings on silk.
The Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) existed for a scant three centuries, but despite the moderate rule of its emperors and major innovations in commerce and art, its northern component fell to marauding troops in 1127 A.D.
A son of the last Song emperor established the kingdom of the Southern Song. The golden years of the wealthy dynasty were a time of commercial achievement and relative plenty. New strains of rice were developed, salt production became more efficient and, importantly for craftsmen, new mining techniques produced an abundance of gold, lead and tin. Goods flowed efficiently over rivers and canals throughout the kingdom and to its neighbors, facilitated by the use of a Southern Song invention -- paper money.
But the emperors were not so preoccupied with commerce that they could not take an interest in the rapidly developing arts. The revived court academy (it had been active under the old Song dynasty) became the focal point for subsidizing creative endeavors. Often the emperors or their wives contributed the poems that remain an important component of this art.
The landscapes of Hang Zhou and West Lake, including its towers, temples and terraces, are brilliantly recreated in a number of fans. The moon and its effect on the landscapes are also celebrated images. Among the most famous of the artists was Ma Yuan, active 1190-1225, who worked with Emperor Ningzong on an Album of Poetry and Painting.
For this exhibition, the China Institute was able to borrow heavily from the Metropolitan Museum, the Cleveland Museum, the Princeton Art Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The modestly sized rooms at the Institute are ideal for displaying this intricate, intimate art.
New York's Asian art auctions
With the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the fall Asian art sales scheduled to take place at New York's auction houses in September were cancelled. Needless to say, stateside, no one was in the mood for art buying. And Asian dealers and collectors were hardly likely to fly in, nor were the usual clients from London and Paris.
A one month postponement was in order. The result was:
1) Auction bidders and viewers missed the flavor of foreign languages, the gesturing of the Europeans, the fine faces of Asian dealers. They didn't come content to do their bidding by mail or phone... if at all.
2) The American collector came into his or her own, especially in the Indian and Southeast Asian sale at Christie's, where five of the top ten lots found U.S. homes.
3) The reserves were inconsistent. Some were so high that they seemed based on early '90s rates. Some were ridiculously low, especially the erotic scene offerings in Christie's Japanese sale.
4) There were only minor skirmishes among telephone bidders, even for the astounding Gandharan schist figure of a Boddhisatva from the 2nd or 3rd century. The figure garnered $358,000.
5) Results at Christie's and Sotheby's were strikingly different.
Accounting for the vast difference was Christie's acquisition of the Falk collection, a huge treasure load of 470 pieces acquired with immense care and sensitivity from 1935 onward. Especially rich in Song Dynasty ceramics and Ding ware, early Ming blue and white bowls, the Falk sale brought in $6.3 million. It was 92 percent sold by lot.
Sotheby's big sale was likewise in the Chinese area, but it netted only $3.7 million.
6) Christie's likewise secured a richer yield in the Indian area with $6.3 million vs. Sotheby's $1.8 million.
7) Contemporary painting found enthusiastic bidders in both houses and in all categories.
Christie's began its series of sales on Monday, Oct. 15, with an auction of Japanese and Korean art. Among the highpoints in this sale was a strong demand for classical ceramics; a Korean Koryo Dynasty "Maebyong" sold for $248,000. Another good price was brought by a 16th-century Korean Mountain Landscape hanging scroll, which also sold for $248,000.
On Tuesday, Oct. 16, Christie's offered Chinese furniture and ceramics, a sale that demonstrated a "longing for quality," according to Theow Tow, director of sales in this category. "Dealers and private collectors dueled heavily in all areas," he said.
On Wednesday, Oct. 17, Christie's held its sale of Indian and Southeast Asian art. Christie's expert Hugo Wehe complimented the "international community of private collectors, who appreciated high quality and understood that it required substantial investment." Six private U.S. collectors accounted for 30 percent of total purchases in this category.
Up at Sotheby's, Asia Week got underway with a sale of Indian art on Monday, Oct. 15. "While buyers remained selective, high prices were achieved for outstanding items," said Edward Wilkinson, Sotheby's director of sales in this category.
On Wednesday, Oct. 17, Sotheby's offered Chinese works of art. "Topping high estimates, many Chinese items sold very well" according to Joe Hynn-Yang, Sotheby's director of Chinese sales.
Jewels at the Met
Asian art aficionados are flocking to the Metropolitan Museum to see Kuwait's al-Sabah Collection of jewelry in the exhibition, "Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals," Oct. 18, 2001-Jan. 13, 2002. The recent history of these Mughal jewels, from the empires of the Shahs of l6th-century India, is almost as colorful as the treasures themselves. During the Desert Storm campaign in 1991, these prime examples of the goldsmith's art were carried off to Iraq. Only the efforts of the Kuwait house of al-Sabah, the Met's intercession and help from the United Nations brought this sumptuous collection back to Kuwait and to its current sojourn at the Met.
Earrings, jeweled sword sheaths, cameos, ruby-encrusted jades and 300 other awe-inspiring examples glisten with gold, emeralds and rubies.
From the very beginning, the craftsmen working for the Indian dynasties and sultanates created intricate jewelry, enabled in large measure by the vast deposits of precious stones in India's Golconda mines. As early as the 8th century, Hindu and Buddhist goldsmiths and others crafted jewelry, but the true flowering of this exquisite craft came with the arrival of the Moghul princes, Babur in 1526 and his heirs Jahangir (1605-27), Shah Jahan (1628-1657) and Aurangzeb (1658-1707).
So dazzling was this art and its display at the court of Delhi, that the English ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, wrote to the then Prince Charles (later King Charles I) that the jewels of Jahangir made him "the treasury of the world."
In the course of time, Indian jewelers developed new techniques that expanded the potential for creativity. One of these, "the kundan technique" purified gold to the point that it became malleable at room temperature. The technique allowed craftsmen to secure all types of gems in gold with ease and precision, with the tiniest gems in the most elaborate of settings.
Because Islam restricts human representation, the jewels have animal, plant, ornamental and other motifs.
The Met displays turbans, dagger hilts, pendants and miniature bottles in small cabinets and vitrines, permitting the viewer a close look.