Monday, January 30, 2012

Curtain rises on a new Chinese dynasty at the Nelson

Curtain rises on a new Chinese dynasty at the Nelson

JILL TOYOSHIBA | The Kansas City Star Colin Mackenzie, the senior curator of Chinese art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has organized the renovated Chinese galleries around the theme of the tomb.


If you haven’t made the acquaintance of the Chinese art collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, for decades one of the museum’s hallmark departments, now is the time.

On Jan. 27, the museum will open four renovated galleries of Chinese art, enlivened by new cases, fiberoptic lighting and works that have never been displayed.

Newcomers and regulars alike will enjoy this quietly spectacular installation, centered on the theme of the tomb.

“The Chinese wanted to take it all with them,” said Colin Mackenzie, the Nelson’s senior curator of Chinese art.

And they did take it all — food, furniture, clothes, vessels, games, grooming and cooking items, money and wine.

A “Case with Tomb Miniatures” features small models, known as mingqi or “luminous objects,” of everything the deceased would need, from back bolsters to riding boots.

“They’re symbolic,” Mackenzie said. “It’s really the quest by the Chinese to find some way of making life go on. It’s all about recreation of life in the tombs for eternity that reflects a person’s life and status.”

Friday’s opening coincides with the Chinese New Year, which began Jan. 23 and is celebrated for 15 days. The Nelson plans a big celebration, with lion dancers, yo-yo demonstrations, a dragon hunt and more.

Dragons, a quintessential Chinese symbol of divine power, weave through the new display the way they writhe around of “Pair of Ceremonial Finials” from more than 20 centuries ago.

They can be tricky to identify.

In the finials, it takes some patience to extricate the dragon images, which appear upside down, their tails at the top.

The outlined dragons that appear on a pair of Western Han Dynasty tomb doors have a curlicue energy and elegance. In contrast, Alice in Wonderland meets Hello Kitty in the flower-studded dragon with a feline face that appears on one of a pair of Southern Song porcelain funerary urns.

Perhaps the most fetching example is a gilt bronze “Striding Dragon” from the Han Dynasty. He’s a tiny little guy, with a jaunty fierceness.

Bronze beginnings

Renovation of the four galleries has been going on for two and a half years, and two of them — the Chinese Temple gallery and the main Chinese gallery — have been open to visitors since June 2010. But with the completion of adjacent galleries focusing on ritual bronzes and tomb luxuries, the scheme is complete. Visitors can take a roughly chronological tour of collection highlights from the Neolithic period to the 14th century.

The earliest pieces are the ritual bronzes, made to serve as intermediaries with powerful ancestors.

The gallery features roughly two dozen of them — amphoras and ritual cooking vessels, wine buckets and libation ewers — with gorgeous, centuries-old patinas encrusting mysterious images of mythical animals and intricate abstract designs.

“This represents the beginning of China,” Mackenzie said.

Printed quotations on the walls above the cases — “This month there will be great rain;” “The king reading the cracks said ‘auspicious’ ” — relate to a small display of “Fragments of Divination Bones,” originally belonging to oxen or turtles.

During the Shang Dynasty, members of the elite sought answers from the ancestors by interpreting the cracks in the bones, which occurred when they were touched with a hot poker.

A bronze ax head from the Shang Dynasty introduces another aspect of ancient Chinese culture.

“We know it was used for decapitating victims,” MacKenzie said, “because it has pictograms that actually show someone’s head being cut off by an ax.”

The same case also features a ceremonial dagger ax made from jade, and a little carved jade sculpture of a cicada.

Also new to the public is a gallery devoted to “Luxury and the Tomb” during the first century of the Han Dynasty. The display chronicles the shift from simple wood-lined pits to more elaborate royal tombs featuring fired clay bricks and stone slabs.

“Casing Slab of a Tomb Chamber” is decorated with lively scenes of figures and animals, arranged in three tiers. The groupings vary in formality and playfulness, from the fanciful animals and acrobat in the top tier, to the graceful dancer and musician in the middle section and the purposeful officials on horseback at the bottom.

The items placed in the tombs included wine cups made of wood and coated with black and red lacquer. The display includes a striking one from the Qin Dynasty, decorated with abstract designs that have a distinctly modern feel.

Earthenware versions of multistory watchtowers also were placed in the tombs. One example features little figures perched on every tier. Another, with elaborate painted designs, is inhabited by a single man, probably the owner, who gazes out from a first floor balcony.

Children will enjoy a trio of three-dimensional animal scenes, including a “Pig Pen and Latrine.”

The “Luxuries” gallery also includes the museum’s treasured “Ritual Disc with Dragon Motifs,” billed as “one of the most famous Chinese jade carvings in existence.”

Foreign influences

The reinstalled main Chinese gallery explores some fascinating subthemes under the rubric of the tomb. Many objects speak to the foreign influences that came into China along the Silk Road, which stretched from Rome through Central Asia to China.

In fact, the lions that we think of as Chinese, and that often appear as guardian figures for the tombs, came from India, and were part of a vast array of Buddhist influences that flooded into China beginning in the 1st century.

The Sogdians, a merchant people from present-day Uzbekistan, also influenced China, when they came into the country and adopted Chinese burial practices and brought a few of their own..

From the 5th to the 7th centuries, a fashion for mortuary beds with exposed corpses replaced the traditional wooden coffin, a practice that may have begun with the Sogdians, Mackenzie said.

A display of tomb furniture includes a “Facade of a Mortuary Bed,” with a design scheme that incorporates Central Asian influences as well as lotus petals and lions from Buddhism.

Foreign influences also can be seen in the images of horses. They take on a different appearance after the 2nd century, reflecting the Chinese importation of Ferghana horses during the Han Dynasty.

This Central Asian breed was bigger and sturdier than the Chinese horse. The Chinese eventually went to war with Ferghana to have unlimited access to the horses, which played an important part in China’s battle with Mongolian tribes during the 2nd century.

A lively display of colorful Tang dynasty tomb figures, arranged on two tables on either side of a central aisle, includes horses as well as two-humped Bactrian camels from Central Asia.

People with Central Asian features, including elaborately dressed guardians, robed officials, and the grooms that attend the camels, dominate this figural grouping. Housed in a separate case, an unfired earthenware sculpture of a Central Asian woman breast-feeding her baby while rousing her camel, suggests that at one point, anyway, the Chinese apparently regarded Central Asians as rather vulgar.


The Buddhist influence on Chinese art continues in sculptures of luohans, who served as spiritual exemplars, and bodhisattvas, who served as intercessors. “Guanyin of the Southern Seas,” the museum’s most popular Buddhist sculpture, is the dramatic focal point of the Chinese Temple Gallery, which has been improved with lighting that allows visitors to see the coffered ceiling with carved dragons.

And the ceiling has quite a story.

It came from the Zhihua Temple, Mackenzie said, which survives in Beijing — the only remaining example of Ming Temple architecture.

The Nelson got the ceiling after it had been sold to a coffin maker’s shop. Laurence Sickman, who bought Chinese works for the museum from the early 1930s until his retirement as director in 1977, spotted it and worked to get it, Mackenzie said.

In Beijing, a huge digital photo of the ceiling, taken at its Nelson location, has been substituted for the lost original.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to

sourse: Buddhist Art News

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