China's court arts at the IMA

 

Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Through Jan. 11, 2009

We tend to romanticize ancient cultures, even those that were imperialistic, decadent and thrived on class hierarchies. China’s Ming dynasty, which reigned for roughly 300 years through the mid 17th century, isn’t terribly ancient in the larger scheme of things, but it is distant enough to be revered, particularly since this period in Chinese history stands out for its aesthetic fruits, as well as its maritime and mass production prowess. The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in collaboration with three major Chinese institutions — the Palace Museum of Beijing, the Nanjing Municipal Museum and the Shanghai Museum — is being touted as the first major exhibition to focus solely on the Ming dynasty’s court arts.

Indianapolis is no stranger to cross-cultural endeavors with China, despite the complex political tensions: China is too great a presence globally, too important culturally to be ignored — the Indianapolis Art Center’s recent cross-cultural exchange of contemporary art is another recent effort. Further, the vast country continues to make connections to the West that allow for greater understanding between cultures even while social and political conditions continue to be dangerous and repressive for so many of its citizens.

Putting all that aside, a trip backwards in time to the Ming Dynasty’s aesthetic abundance offers a respite to admittedly weary political pundits. Consider the richness of symbolism, which endures to this day: the dragon as a symbol of power (its female counterpart is the phoenix), the fish as a symbol of abundance and prosperity. These and other symbols made appearances in jade, silk painting, textiles and carvings, among the many artforms enjoyed by Ming court artists. And the exhibition offers many stunning moments in all of these categories. It certainly helped that members of the Ming ruling class had time on their hands, making an artform of leisure, including game playing — their game boards also works of art.

Power and Glory, which also highlights some of the IMA’s own fine pieces from its extensive Asian collection, is made up of more than 200 items, including all of the above plus gold, textiles, jewelry, architectural and funereal objects, carvings and lacquer pieces, porcelains and enamel and metal work, some of which may seem familiar to those already friendly with the IMA’s wares. On the other hand, many of the objects shown here have not been seen outside of China before, having only recently been excavated from tombs of Ming-related folk — a royal extended family that at one time numbered in the thousands.

As a follow-up to the Egyptian blockbuster To Live Forever, Power and Glory seems to indicate a thrust on the part of the IMA towards large-scale themed shows from heavy-hitting ancient cultures, no doubt an indication of the expanded global reach of the museum and its audience-building goals.

Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty is on view through Jan. 11, 2009, in the IMA’s Clowes Gallery. Several related programs are offered as well, from lectures to silk painting classes. Exhibition is free for members; visit www.imamuseum.org for ticket prices and hours.

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