The Guggenheim Museum's latest continental blockbuster, "China: 5,000 Years," has arrived at both the uptown and SoHo facilities, to largely positive reviews. Everyone agrees that the 500 items on view are wonderful.
It's worth noting that the Chinese nationalists, after losing the Civil War that hit China following World War II, spirited away to Taipei the great palace treasures of the emperors. With the best of their heritage gone, the Chinese communists were obliged to turn to archeology. Indeed, many of the items in this show seem to come right from the earth!
First a few caveats. Given the scope of the show, I had hoped that it might integrate the art of each dynasty so that viewers could see the calligraphy, sculpture, ceramics and other artifacts much as contemporary aristocrats would have. The curators decided otherwise, however, grouping the exhibition's contents by medium -- jade, bronze, pottery, ceramics, calligraphy, painting.
The show's emphasis on the delightful bronze animals and mythological creatures of the Shang period (ca. 1600-1100 BCE) seems too generous, though it is guaranteed to please most visitors. It is interesting to see an elephant-shaped vessel unearthed in Hunan Province. There were apparently elephants in South China for a brief period -- though you won't find them in today's China.
Overall, the presentation of ceramics and earthenware was inadequate. The Chinese unlocked the secrets of clay in the Neolithic period, while the West couldn't make porcelain till the 1700s! Perhaps the curators considered the wealth of such material already here in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Smithsonian. But enough grousing.
The painstaking installation designed by architect Arata Isozaki and A. Adefope involved four column-like hangings in the Wright atrium (corresponding to the four directions of the compass so important to Chinese cosmology) made the space as dramatic as it has ever been. And the eight-pound catalogue is a beauty, with its carefully crafted introductory chapter by Sherman Lee, former director of the Cleveland Museum and the eminence gris of Chinese art, and essays by other big guns such as Berkeley professor James Cahill on painting and U. Cal. art historian Peter Sturman on calligraphy. The illustrations are worth the book's $45 price tag.
There could be no more dramatic beginning to "China: 5,000 Years" than the group of terra-cotta soldiers from the 221 BCE army of China's first emperor, Quin Shi Huangdi. It consisted of 7,000 life-size soldiers, officers, horses and chariots. The artifacts were discovered by chance when peasants digging a well in northwestern China near the ancient capital of Xi'an found a terra-cotta head at a depth of eleven feet. Further excavations uncovered the rest.
Ornate armor distinguishes the general. And the artisans sculpting the lower-ranked figures gave each distinguishing features. The show also features a chariot horse with a circular opening on its sides, indicating the craftsmen knew this technique would protect the object from exploding during firing in the kiln.
The use of jade in China dates back at least to 7,000 BCE, China's Neolithic Period. Jade is quite difficult to cut, so workmen had to use a great number of abrasives including quartzite to wear away the stone. The patience required was amply rewarded by the beauty of the jade. Jade was used often in rituals, and many pieces are found in burial sites. Among the most stunning jades on display is a concave, ceremonial blade (zhang) from the Shang period (l600-1100 BCE), whose design evolved over hundreds of years. It was uncovered in l986.
Other compelling, visually fascinating objects were an ornamental plaque featuring an animal mask design; a l6-piece belt of the Tang Dynasty (6l8-907) discovered in l970; and a Sichuan Province bronze vessel with elephant trunk handles dating from the Western Zhou period (1100-77l BCE).
Western viewers are more likely to be familiar with the charming lady musicians, camels, horses, heavenly kings and guardians from the Tang era (618-907), one of China's most liberal. But one of the show's treasures is the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) earthenware tower with its three roofs and its figurines. This tower probably represented an important edifice in Henan Province. Equally beautiful are the low-relief tomb tiles of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) that almost seem Egyptian in style. One shows a sensitively portrayed carriage and horses, with two men driving the carriage. The other shows harvesting and hunting scenes.
Other highlights from Neolithic China are an earthenware owl and what is probably a bird, both dating from around the 4th millennium BCE These are quite rare, and have a sophistication that seems -- elemental? -- to the contemporary eye.
In the Shang Period (l600 -1100 BCE), craftsmen produced white earthenware with incised animal mask designs. From then on the ceramic message becomes quite fluid and evermore adventurous, like the octagonal shapes of the green-glazed (Celadon) stoneware from the Yue kilns of the Tang Period. A vase from the Palace Museum in Beijing has two leopards incised on a ring-matted ground. It dates from the Sung Dynasty (960-1127) and is a potters' masterpiece with white slip and transparent glaze.
Dragons and other animals predominate in early Chinese sculptures, but after the 1st century CE, Buddhist subjects spread through China. Chinese Buddhist works differ from their Indian counterparts by being more solidly constructed, with more highly stylized lines. As in a majority of Buddhist sculptures the Sakyamuni Buddha dominates a grouping of bodhisattvas (intermediaries between god and men), his benign face reaching out to viewers in an enlightened fashion.
Paintings fill the Wright building's two tower galleries. Only a limited number are shown, of course, but their quality is exceedingly high. Among the most delightful is a Literary Gathering in the Apricot Garden by Xie Han (active 1426-1452) of the Ming Dynasty. His colorful silk handscroll shows several groupings of scholars, with tame cranes and ripe apricots, reciting their verses to one another in this idyllic setting.
Downtown, at the SoHo Guggenheim, is a selection of Chinese art from the late 19th and 20th century. Here, we enter another China, one reshaped by the revolution that established the Chinese republic in the 1920. Never again would painting in ink be "the norm" of Chinese painting. Visitors would be well-advised to treat this installation as a separate exhibition. It has no catalogue of its own, and is admittedly missing a contemporary component. Guggenheim director Thomas Krens has promised a survey of contemporary art from China for 1999.
The exhibition contains a small but tantalizing selection of Chinese modernism, works by artists who had studied in Paris and other European art centers. An outstanding surprise are woodblock prints from the 1930s, used by Chinese artists in the same fashion as the Weimar Republic German Expressionists.
But the biggest transformations came with the Communist Victory in l949. Gone were the Paris and Tokyo influences. At this point Moscow prevailed. As is well known, the Socialist Realism of Chinese Communism is an art apart, in which happy peasants and workers cooperate selflessly to build Mao's utopia.
Today, the Chinese scene has once again undergone a critical change. With a more open economy and grudging non-interference from government, Chinese artists are once again exploring their artistic options, as well as their markets in New York, Paris and London as well as to the great new Asian markets.
It will be interesting to see the progression of work to come out of China in the new century. It will be interesting, as well, to see whether the Guggenheim's China card results in still another branch of the global museum, as rumored, this one in Shanghai.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.