Saturday, December 6, 2014

Pavilion of Lasting Amazement

Some calls you can make five days out.

When a prior obligation kept my friend from meeting up to take in "Forbidden City" at the VMFA with me, she countered with, "Saturday is supposed to be gray and raining - a perfect day for the museum."

The weather gods didn't let us down. It had been merely spitting when I'd walked this morning, but by the time I left for the museum - taking the long way around because of the remaining parade traffic - the rain was showing more intention.

Of course she was right; the museum was a lovely place to spend a gloomy afternoon. We met at the Boulevard entrance and made our way to the service desk for tickets. To my utter delight, there I was surprised with my Christmas gift from her: a VMFA membership since mine had expired.

Talk about the gift that keeps giving! I was absolutely thrilled at her thoughtful gift, knowing it will be well used for the next twelve months.

Then it was downstairs to see "Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing," a collection of royal "stuff" from the 17th and 18th centuries. Its appeal was that commoners would never have been able to see most of it since the city was walled and had a moat to keep out the hoi polloi such as me.

While I learned some things from reading the signage next to the objects (favorite horse name: Thousands of Auspiciousness), too often I found myself left wondering about others. Like, how did an emperor have time to write 40,000 poems in his lifetime?

What was carried in a banquet box? Was the wooden box with metal grate the equivalent of 17th century Chinese Tupperware or did it have some ritual purpose?

Probably most fascinating was that Italian painters went to China and spent years as the court painters there, marrying eastern and western styles of art. The last names I expected to see on pieces of Chinese art were Giuseppe and Ignatius, but there they were. Surely there was a bit of a language barrier in the beginning.

Everything depicted, whether on a screen, scroll, canvas or object, depicted a detailed scene. One charming example was a paperweight (big enough to hold down the Dead Sea scrolls) on which was carved a scene of scholars competing for wine with recitations of poems.

It appears that wine and poetry have suited each other throughout the ages.

And speaking of verse, when we came upon one on a wall, my friend noted, "That describes the new Karen." It read:

I care not a jot for immortal life
But only for the taste of tea
~Poet Lu Tong

Clearly she wasn't talking about tea.

We both found it interesting how Chinese art of this era differed from western art. Perspective was often flawed - figures looked like they could slide right off the picture plane - and there was no accurate suggestion of bodies or musculature under the robes worn in the images.

Both a set of ritual bells with dragon motifs in a stand resting on crouched lions and a set of ritual chimes in a stand resting on swans were awe-inspiring for the intricacy of the components.

A piece depicting the emperor with all his many children celebrating the New Year with firecrackers was stunning (and again, by an Italian) in its use of color and composition. The way the father held his infant son reminded us of a classic Madonna and child pose.

On leaving the ornate exhibit, she admitted to an attraction for all the textiles - many of the ceremonial robes were intricate works of art - but said she felt unsatisfied. I knew just how to fix that.

Leading her upstairs, we spent the next hour lost in "Water and Shadow: Kawase Hasui and Japanese Landscape Prints," the show that had bowled me over a couple of weeks ago, here.

Because she's also an artist, her appreciation for the stunning prints was also for the technique involved; his depiction of night time rain and snow was a thing of wonder. Walking beside her as she experienced the exhibit for the first time, I knew instinctively that any dissatisfaction she'd arrived with was long gone.

Hasui's watercolors and woodblock prints from 1917 to 1923 display elements of Monet's water, Cezanne's buildings and Whistler's atmosphere and synthesize them through images of a rapidly eroding Japanese landscape, each more compelling than the last.

Before we were halfway through, she turned to me to say that she intended to come back. Since I was already on my second visit, I understood at once. It's a show that leaves the viewer utterly serene.

That and completely satisfied.

Let's just say had she been a smoker, I think she'd have pulled out a cigarette as we left the museum.

That kind of good.

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