Saturday, June 2, 2012

Winged Spirits: Birds in Chinese Painting

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through August 5, 2012

For the first time in a long time, I saw some Asian art that wasn't from Japan!  Not that I have anything against Japanese art, far from it, but having exhausted the shows of the "Japan Spring," I was ready to reacquaint myself with the art of China.

Birds are ubiquitous in Chinese visual culture; specific types have symbolic meanings, especially when they are paired with flowers.  The paintings are lovely to look at even if you don't understand the meaning, but they are a sort of Rebus puzzle, and if you know what each element in the painting represents, you can read the message the work contains.  Early bird paintings are quite realistic; later works were modeled after earlier paintings and became more expressionistic.  They were no longer merely representations of birds; they had become primarily works of art.

The paintings are lovely, although many of them have darkened over the years, which makes them hard to see.  Those that are better preserved show a wonderful attention to detail and fantastic colors.  I was reminded of "The Colorful Realm," in which all creation comes to worship the Buddha, by a painting entitled "A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes."  I was also reminded of the Noah's Ark paintings I saw in the Castiglione exhibit; people certainly do seem to have the idea that animals will line up to worship deities, just as human beings will - not sure I can agree with that idea.

Verdict: It's always worth a trip to the Freer, and this exhibit does not disappoint.  It's easily managed in a lunch hour, and the crowds are small, even in the summer.

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