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|Art from the East
by Fred Stern
|No one is quite sure why it has taken all this time for a major museum to organize an exhibition of Taoist art.
But now, the Art Institute of Chicago has assembled "Taoism and the Arts of China," a selection of 151 works of art spanning 2,300 years and encompassing all the major disciplines. The importance of Taoist art to China and the world beyond is graphically illustrated by this show, which includes work from 50 lenders in nine countries. The show opened in Chicago, Nov. 4, 2000-Jan. 7, 2001, and subsequently travels to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Feb. 21-May 12, 2001.
Taoism (Daoism) has come a long way towards being understood in the West. The yin-yang theory of a universe made up of intertwined opposites, including a male component in the yin and a feminine component in the yang, has become part of pop culture. Other sympathetic Tao principles include notions of the void that generated the universe, the absence of a principal deity and the theory of the flow of things, the inertia of desire, the stillness at the center of being.
Legend has it Taoism was founded in the 6th-century BC by Laozi (Lao-tzu) as a philosophy rather than a religion. But with the downfall of the Han dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD), Taoism developed into a religion, with all that this entails. Tao philosophers and teachers were transformed from ordinary people into "immortals." The basic Tao book, Tao-te-Ching, was supplemented with religious texts. Temples were built and pilgrimages organized. Today, tens of millions practice Taoism in Hong Kong and mainland China.
How to describe Taoist art? In a word -- vibrant. In a hanging scroll from the Ming dynasty, the female sovereign of the Clouds of Dawn (ca. 1600), rendered in green, gold, red and blue, is seated in her celestial court. Seven phoenixes comprise her crown; six equally magnificent attendants accompany her.
However, unlike the saints of other religious traditions, many Taoist immortals do not appear awe-inspiring. In a Yuan dynasty scroll of the late l3th/early l4th-century, Lu Dongbin, the patron saint of pharmacists, merchants, ink-makers and scholars wears a flowing robe along with a quizzical expression.
Sanctity of the earth is an important concept in Taoist doctrine, and mountains in particular were venerated. They were considered manifestations of energy, and, as the site of the immortals, figured prominently in both imaginary landscapes and in real ones. In one of these, Chen Ruyan's Mountains of the Immortals (1331-1371), a young attendant dances with cranes, while an immortal on a crane flies over the peaks.
From the Los Angeles County Museum of Art comes the magnificent painting, Taoist Temples of Dragon and Tiger Mountain, created during the Qing dynasty, late l8th-century. The scroll depicts the headquarters of a Taoist sect whose temple structures terrace the great mountain.
In contrast to the peaceful landscapes, is a warrior component which was very much part of Taoist doctrines. A ritual sword from the l8th-century, decorated with yin and yang symbols, seems to suggest exorcistic qualities.
Tigers and dragons ornament a priestly robe, lent by the Minneapolis Museum of Art. The true forms of the five sacred peaks, symbols of the moon and sun and cranes as the embodiment of long life, are the other embroidered elements. From the sarcophagus of an aristocrat, comes a sculpture depicting Xuanwu, the ancient symbol of the north, in the form of a tortoise entwined by a snake. In the background is a scholarly male figure gazing at the snake. This powerful rendition, in low relief design, attests to the sculptor's great skill and artistic invention. The sarcophagus dates to the Northern Wei dynasty, early 6th century.
Mosaics in Worcester
In 1932, a consortium of universities and museums, including the Louvre, mounted an expedition to bring back some of Antioch's treasures and display them in the West. The Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum, one of the consortium founders, now proudly displays "Antoich: The Lost Ancient City," 160 Antioch objects -- mosaics, glassware, sculpture, jewelry and other treasures created almost 2,000 years ago. The exhibition runs until Feb. 4, 2001, when it will travel to Cleveland and Baltimore.
The mosaics are from the homes of Antioch merchants and patricians, where they usually decorated dining room floors. Although most of these mosaics postdate Pompeii by three or more centuries, the similarities with those from Pompeii are uncanny, favoring the same mythological scenes. A drinking contest between the Greek god Dionysos and the mortal Herakles depicts the god as the winner holding his cup upside down, while Herakles, half drunk, tries to finish his portion. In the struggle between mortals and immortals, the immortals, of course, win.
The exhibition includes sculptures, coins, jewelry and mosaics depicting Greek playwrights such as Menander and his mistress, and the sea goddess Daphne.
The new Chambers gallery
Current objects on display date to the l7th-century and include lacquered elm horseshoe armchairs. Traditionally, these chairs are carved in three or five sections, and have characteristic strong back and arm supports.
Equally impressive is a big huanghuali (hardwood) table with recessed legs and cloud-head spandrels. 16th-century tables like these were most often used in scholars' studios for painting silk screens. This example incorporates clean lines with outstanding decorative design.
The furniture, with its enormous esthetic appeal, provides the perfect setting to display the works of Lu ShengZhong, the first contemporary Chinese artist to be shown at Chambers Fine Art. He is inspired by the Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, and the later works in cut-paper by Matisse. ShengZhong's work will be shown until Jan. 12, 20001.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.