Met Galleries Steep Visitors in Chinese Aesthetic

The newly extended and refurbished Chinese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York do more than assemble masterpieces spanning 13 centuries. They immerse visitors in a Chinese artistic aesthetic, which bears as much resemblance to the strident reds and golds of Chinatown as pork chow mein does to the delicate flavors of shark-fin soup.

The $14 million renovation and new construction lasted two years and produced a concatenation of 14 galleries over two levels housing some of the world's finest Chinese works of art. Chief among them is "The Riverbank," the earliest example of monumental Chinese landscape painting and considered one of the supreme art forms developed in China. Once part of a larger composition mounted on a screen, "The Riverbank" is today darkened by age, creating the illusion that one is peering at its soft rounded hills through a veil of time.

The Metropolitan is by no means the only American museum with a fine Chinese collection, and some experts dispute the museum's claim that it now boasts the most comprehensive collection of Chinese paintings outside China. But there is no question that the masterpieces in the collection, their astounding range, and their installation make a significant contribution to the study and appreciation of Chinese art in the United States.

Rare masterpieces

For the scholar, the museum has made available 11 new masterpieces (including "The Riverbank") from the renowned C.C. Wang Family Collection. Among them, the 10th- and 11th-century "The Palace Banquet" offers a rare monumental example of women holding a private celebration in their palatial quarters. The works also offer what James Cahill, art historian and author of several books on Chinese painting, calls "probably the best collection of Chinese calligraphy in the country."

Of particular importance for the non-scholar are the way in which the works are presented, their broad range and consistent quality, and their cumulative effect on the viewer. Every detail contributes to an aesthetic whole: rich mahogany columns, ceramic doorways, wood-paneled ceilings, and black-granite borders around the carpeted or cherry floors. In the Scholar's Study, latticed windows look out onto bamboo trees animated by a soft breeze, and the doorway leads into a re-creation of a courtyard in Suzhou, China, complete with the trickle of water and tall craggy rocks.

Even the elevator plays its role. It is wood paneled and uses the back wall as a case to display cloisonn enamel and jade vases. These whet one's appetite for the finely embroidered textiles, ivories, metalwork, and stone that fill the four upstairs galleries. The common denominator here is artistic and technical mastery, and the collection sets the Metropolitan apart, since few museums pay more than lip service to Chinese decorative arts.

Fresh meaning for familiar sights

Yet these utilitarian objects serve an important purpose by steeping visitors in the Chinese aesthetic - and philosophy. The familiar sight of jade takes on new meaning when one learns the stone is so hard that it cannot be carved but must be laboriously ground, giving rise to the metaphor that likens the process to the perfecting of the human mind.

In the downstairs rooms, the juxtaposition of works, the preponderance of calligraphy, and the inclusion here and there of rocks - typically about foot-long fragments mounted vertically on a base - draw attention to the abstract quality of much Chinese art. As the chronological order makes apparent, artists throughout the ages took turns at distilling the beauty of nature into almost abstract forms only to give way to a backlash of exquisite realism and formalism.

This becomes all the more apparent when the collection is viewed in conjunction with the Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Galleries of ancient Chinese art. These are connected to the new galleries and replete with evidence that surrealism and abstraction are hardly 20th-century inventions. Within these walls, Chinese calligraphy also comes alive in purely abstract terms, so that one need not be literate in Chinese to appreciate it.

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