Saturday, August 10, 2013

Old Tales Retold: Chinese Narrative Painting

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through October 20, 2013

Yet another lovely exhibit at the Freer, the most relaxing Smithsonian museum.  It's hard to think of a better way to unwind from a busy week than to go to the Freer on a Friday lunch hour and take in some beautiful things beautifully arranged.

This visit found me looking at Chinese narrative paintings - one of the first forms of pictorial art.  These are paintings that tell a story, replete with moral prescriptions for the viewer.  The figures are "paragons of virtue" (a phrase I have long enjoyed using in contexts more humorous than what is on view here) who remind those who gaze upon them of their own responsibilities in trying circumstances.  Since most people in 21st century America are not familiar with ancient Confucian teachings, the Freer is kind enough to provide summaries of the stories.

My favorite is "Tugging the Emperor's Robe," the story of an adviser to the Emperor who tugs on his robe in order to persuade him to reconsider a decision that could have led to catastrophe.  A version of speaking truth to power, I think, and a reminder that sometimes we all need to tug on someone's robe in order to make them reconsider wrong-headed notions.

An interesting pairing is "Gathering at the Orchard Pavilion," which depicts a springtime tradition of friends getting together by water to eat, drink and write poetry, with "Obtaining the Langting Manuscript by Deceipt," which tells the story of the emperor getting a copy of the preface to "Gathering at the Orchard Pavilion" from a monk who was concealing it.  Nothing like seeing the object that is the focus of a painting to make it come alive.

As with many of the Freer's shows of Chinese art, some of the paintings are full of vivid color, and others have darkened quite a bit over time.  With my love of color in art, I find my attention focused on the more lively offerings, but each piece has something to recommend it.

Verdict: When I have I ever not advised attending a show at the Freer?  A very pleasant outing, especially if you can combine it with a stroll over on a nice day.   

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