Introducing the new Chinese Gallery

Chinese gallery

An installer puts the finishing touches on the “Reading” Symbols section of the newly renovated Chinese Gallery.

Tomorrow, October 18, we’re reopening our Chinese Gallery! After years of planning and months of construction, we’re thrilled to unveil the finished product. This gallery presents our Chinese collection in a more thematic way, much like the Orientation and Korean galleries that have also been recently renovated.

China, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, is the birthplace of significant philosophical and religious systems including Confucianism and Daoism. Buddhism also flourished after coming from India, and new forms like Chan Buddhism arose. Some of the finest sculptures, paintings and textiles were commissioned to support such practices, and scholar-artists expressed their values through painting and calligraphy. Because social status was reinforced by visual cues (garments, accessories and objects in homes, for example), Chinese craftsmen and artists working for wealthy patrons explored rich symbolism in art-making while sparing little expense sourcing materials. China also played a pivotal role as a trading power in Asia and beyond, stimulating art and culture of neighboring countries and bringing new ideas and resources into the mainland. Today, these longstanding traditions are a catalyst for the work of contemporary artists in China, both through homage and acceptance or rejection and reinterpretation.

The Ralph and Angelyn Riffenburgh Gallery has featured the Pacific Asia Museum’s significant collection of Chinese ceramics since 1999. This renovation brings it in line with the new thematic approach in the museum’s permanent galleries, and displays a broader range of the arts of China including paintings, textiles and sculptural works, which will benefit from the state-of-the-art improvements in climate control in the gallery. The five themes in the gallery are Philosophies and Religions, Commerce and Trade, Tradition and Innovation, Status and Adornment and “Reading” Symbols. Within each of these sections, multiple objects in different media give the visitor a deeper understanding of the role art has played in Chinese society for centuries. For example, the Tradition and Innovation section will use a combination of contemporary and historic art to show how artists and artisans have responded to and reinterpreted traditions throughout history, including our recent acquisitions of contemporary Chinese art.

horseshoe chair

Horseshoe Chair, Late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Huanghuali wood with metal fittings and woven cloth, Gift of Mr. Tracy A. Pulvers, 1983.102.1

In the Status and Adornment section, we examine how the elite classes in China displayed their power through carefully chosen motifs and themes in the objects with which they surrounded themselves, including beautifully embellished textiles, flawless ceramics and intricately carved jades. This section explores how the ruling and elite classes of China secured and continued their legacy by controlling resources, materials and manpower. One object in this section is a spectacular folding chair from the Ming dynasty, seen at left. Chairs from this period display extraordinary craftsmanship combined with a refined aesthetic simplicity. Among chairs produced at the time, folding armchairs in the shape of a horseshoe back such as this are extremely rare. They were useful for their portability, and the round armrests and slightly curved backs provided comfort and elegance for the user. But this usefulness has led to the rarity of these chairs– constant use and transport allowed few examples to survive. The high level of workmanship and expensive material of this chair would be a mark of great status for the owner. Made with huanghuali wood, a form of rosewood, it is constructed with mortise-and-tenon joints without the use of nails, and brass fittings with floral designs reinforce the construction where structural stresses occur. The splat, or back, is decorated with a caraved landscape, an appropriate motif for its elite sitter. Paintings from the period confirm that folding chairs were used by Ming and Qing emperors for their outings—playing chess in gardens, hunting, visiting ancestors’ tombs or receiving foreign envoys.

Of course, there are many more objects in this and the other four sections! As in the other newly renovated galleries, the thematic presentation will allow us to rotate in many more objects over time, so you’ll want to make sure to visit early and often. And make sure to keep visiting this blog, too! We’ll be posting more on this new gallery in the coming months. ~CM


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