Cup and Saucer Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) China Glass; Cup: H. 1 15/16 in. (4.9 cm), Diam. of rim 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm), Diam. of foot 1 5/16 in. (3.4 cm); Tray: H. 1/2 in. (1.2 cm), Diam. 6 in. (15.2 cm) Lent by Gansu Provincial Museum

The World of Khubilai Khan

Until January 2nd 2011
This exhibition covers the period from 1215, the year of Khubilai’s birth, to 1368, the year of the fall of the Yuan dynasty in China founded by Khubilai Khan, and features every art form, including paintings, sculpture, gold and silver, textiles, ceramics, lacquer, and other decorative arts, religious and secular. The exhibition highlights new art forms and styles generated in China as a result of the unification of China under the Yuan dynasty and the massive influx of craftsmen from all over the vast Mongol Empire—with reverberations in Italian art of the fourteenth century.

Incense burner

The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change

Until January 9th 2011
Noble Recluses and a Withdrawal into Art.
In the years immediately following the Mongol conquest, many former Song officials remained loyal to the fallen dynasty and lived in self-enforced retirement as yimin ,or “leftover subjects.” Expressing their dissent through veiled references in their art, the literati (wenren) produced work that was deeply autobiographical; it is this self-referential aspect of painting that demarcates a new threshold in Chinese art.

Young officials who had never served under the Song also struggled with the harsh new political hierarchy imposed by Mongol rule. Civil service examinations, the traditional means for recruiting talent into the government, were discontinued after 1234 in the north and after 1272 in the south, leaving most of China’s educated elite disenfranchised. As a group, the literati were largely ignored by the Mongols; those few who did enter government service often received only minor appointments, as teachers or low-level clerks. The southern Chinese, having resisted the Mongol invasion the longest, faced systematic discrimination, including inequitable quotas on the examination system when it was reinstated in 1313. Confronted with absolutist policies and prejudicial treatment, many southern scholars withdrew from politics and lived in humbled circumstances or semiretirement—a lifestyle that afforded them the time to pursue self-cultivation and self-expression through the arts.

Vase with Immortals Offering the Peaches of Longevity Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Kangxi period (1662–1722) Porcelain painted with overglaze enamels H. 29 in. (73.7 cm); W. 8 in. (20.3 cm); Diam. of rim: 6 1/8 in. (15.6 cm); Diam. of foot: 6 in. (15.2 cm) Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913

Celebration: The Birthday in Chinese Art

Until November 20th 2010
In Chinese art, the birthday is a celebration of a long and rewarding life. This exhibition—focusing on scenes of splendid celebrations and works incorporating the theme of longevity—draws together examples in many media from the Museum’s collection as well as some exceptional promised gifts.

A recurring scene of a grand reception at a family compound—appearing in a lacquer screen and boxes, a set of embroidered panels, a porcelain vase, and a tapestry—represents the eightieth birthday party of General Guo Ziyi (697–781), a Tang-dynasty hero who was transformed into a popular god of wealth, honor, and happiness. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this celebratory scene itself became a metaphor for birthday celebrations and a frequent theme in large-scale works presented to distinguished individuals to commemorate a birthday, promotion, or retirement. The largest works are usually in tripartite form: scenes of arriving guests, the reception, and the family’s private quarters.

Themes of longevity were pervasive in art of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and decorative arts, paintings, and garments with such themes were appropriately given, displayed, and worn on birthdays. Long life was encoded in the character for longevity (shou), in scenes with Daoist immortals, and in rocks, peaches, cranes, and flora and fauna of many kinds. Other associations with longevity are based on myths and legends, such as tales of the theft of peaches of immortality from the orchard belonging to Xiwangmu, the Daoist deity known as the queen mother of the west.

Works of art with themes of long life frequently operated on more than one level. Exquisitely beautiful combinations of plants also formed sophisticated visual play expressing wishes for the longevity of an honoree or an honored couple. The earliest work in the exhibition, a Song-dynasty album leaf, depicts a pair of white-headed birds with long tails on a snowy tree at winter’s end to extend wishes for long life to an elderly couple who together have withstood many wintry gales.

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