In their galleries for Chinese paintings and calligraphy, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents “Arts of the Ming Dynasty: China’s Age of Brilliance,” now through Sept. 13, 2009. It’s a grand array of artwork created during one of the most celebrated dynasties in Chinese history. This new exhibit’s art collection was drawn from the Museum’s extensive resources. Featuring 80 paintings and calligraphies, including masterpieces by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Doug Qichang (1555-1636) and Chen Hongshou (1599-1652), the exhibition examines various artistic trends along with the distinctive personal expressions of many of the leading artists of the time. The works are complemented by a selection of textiles, ceramics, lacquers, cloisonne, jades and bamboo carvings that showcase the material prosperity experienced during the period.
The Ming Dynasty’s (1368-1644), name translates as “brilliant.” The early Ming era was a period of cultural restoration and expansion. Seeking to reassert native artistic traditions, court artists revived and adapted the figural landscape themes and styles of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to suit the new decorative and didactic needs of the Ming emperors. The period was also among the most glorious in Chinese ceramics history. However, capricious and incompetent rulers weakened the second half of the dynasty. Many government officials often worked in garden settings, similar to the Metropolitan’s Astor Court. It’s modeled on a Ming scholar’s garden courtyard in the cosmopolitan city of Suzhou.
Arranged chronologically, the exhibition is organized into three overarching themes: “The Return of the Academy,” “Literati Artists,” and “The Late Ming: An Expanding Literati Culture.” For “The Return of the Academy,” the artists worked in brilliant mineral colors on silk. They revived the representational styles of the Song Imperial Painting Academy. An astonishing example on view from this period is “Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden”(ca.1437), attributed to the preeminent court artist Xie Huan. It depicts the most powerful men in Chinese government and demonstrates how the Chinese elite preferred showing how they engaged in refined cultural pursuits rather than with the obvious trappings of political power.
While professional painters followed the representational tradition of the Song Dynasty, Literati artists developed the calligraphic idiom of Yuan Dynasty scholar-amateurs. Throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries, political weakness at court and rapid economic and commercial expansion in the south brought social change and artistic innovation to late Ming China. Good show!