Friday, July 4, 2008

Glories of the Ming

Thanks to my dear friend Bob who is a member of the museum, I got to see the exhibit today - first thing on the 4th of July. Art first, barbeque and fireworks second; as a Navy brat, I can wave the flag with the best of them but for me, celebrating the 4th means acknowledging the contributions of ALL the people who built our country. It seemed appropriate to got to a museum of Asian art today, seeing how Chinese labor built so much in the West and was so poorly compensated. I am critical of China’s politics but I have no quarrel with the art; they have a long and fascinating history and I’m glad to live in a place where I can experience the best that their culture has produced. It’s also my way of celebrating the death of Jesse Helms, one of the most racist and homophobic bastards to ever disgrace the American political scene.

Glorious, glorious and more glorious, even if (as SF Mike pointed out) rather inhibited by being crammed into too small a space. The PR for the exhibit claims that that it displays the “grandeur and opulence” of the dynasty and for once, the PR is not just hyperbole. However, unlike Mike, I don’t think that the move downtown was all that beneficial for the collection. The old Asian had two huge floors wrapped around a beautiful central courtyard with windows overlooking Golden Gate Park. This visually expanded the space, allowed natural light and prevented the claustrophobia that occurs from the low ceilings and enclosed spaces that I feel is a problem with the new Asian. I took many art classes at the old De Young and having been “backstage” as it were, can testify to the miles and miles of storage and office space that was never open to the public.
Unfortunately, the new museum is right in the middle of a rather gritty downtown area and when you ride the escalator up to the various floors, you get a fabulous view of SF’s urban blight. The view down of the gravel-topped roof is (to say the least) not very interesting. I’ve always wondered why they couldn’t put a few strategically placed pots of bamboo or at least, rake the gravel into Zen patterns. Xensen of Seven Junipers, who works at the museum, says that there are load-bearing issues preventing a roof top garden but I also heard that there could eventually be a garden – for the elite. Let’s hope that it improves the view for us plebeians.

However, I do understand the politics involved and the need for the “new kid” on the block to pound his chest and proclaim that “his” is bigger than “theirs.” The architect managed to maintain the graceful Beaux Arts façade of the old main library while expanding the interior in very creative ways. I love that they have maintained the old catalogue room – complete with the original floor, roof and windows as a space for events. The huge marble stairway gives one an overlapping visual experience of the best of both East and West while the mezzanine is perfect to show off some of the museum’s collection of Persian and other Middle Eastern ceramics.

After seeing the exhibit, I think I have to revise my viewpoint that the Tang Dynasty is my favorite period for Chinese art. I love Tang pottery, especially the horses and the willowy court dancers. But the Ming Dynasty calligraphy and silk paintings are superb and the jewelry, while too ostentatious for my taste, is gorgeous. Apparently, according to the Met Museum web site, the “early painters recruited by the Ming court were instructed to return to didactic and realistic representation, in emulation of the styles of the earlier Southern Song (1127–1279) Imperial Painting Academy. Large-scale landscapes, flower-and-bird compositions, and figural narratives were particularly favored as images that would glorify the new dynasty and convey its benevolence, virtue, and majesty.” While I acknowledge their craftsmanship, I don’t much care for the more elaborate cloisonné pieces but I realize that everybody has their own preferences. Perhaps I appreciate the difficulties of painting on silk because I am a painter and calligrapher. There is no room for mistakes and the fluid brushwork and delicate colors are breathtaking. Mike has an image up of marvelous small horsemen and soldiers from a Ming Dynasty tomb. My inner child wanted them immediately to play with; my more adult side immediately coveted all of the silk paintings. However, I'd settle for even one as I don't want to be greedy.

Another thing that struck me as I was researching the Ming Dynasty is how many Chinese dynasties referred back to the art of a previous era; the Ming instructed their artists to emulate the Song; the Song Dynasty – one of the most brilliant eras in Chinese history – referred back to the Tang (619-906) which is considered “the” classical period in Chinese art by the Met. Tim Johnson’s blog, “China Rises” has an amazing list of Chinese inventions, many of which occurred before the Ming Dynasty gained power. In spite of my criticisms, I do love the Asian and think it's the only museum in SF that's clearly world class.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Glad you had such a good time. I also have a membership to the museum. Call me any time to see about going during a calm weekday. We'll take pictures together and pose each other with the Buddhas.