Any visit to Asian art exhibits leave me unsatisfied, because there is so much that I simply don’t know, and never will. But the special exhibits now at the Sackler and the Freer transcended my limitations.
For example, the ceramic exhibit “Taking Shape” includes about 200 (out of a collection of 800 amassed by two private collectors) ceramic pots and vessels from southeast Asia (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand). I didn’t focus on any one piece; I am not capable of that. But the presentation of the collection (so many in each display, almost looking like a terrarium) is striking. The designers of the exhibit are the winners here.
Then, there is an exhibit of Chinese art based on literary themes. It is not a big exhibit – maybe 20 pieces, and of course the literary themes are unfamiliar to me. But the stories are alluring: such as the story (I think non-fictional) of the scholar/poet’s daughter who, 2000 years ago, at the end of the Han dynasty, was captured by the conquerers, made a mistress of their king, and bore him two sons. Twelve years later, a treaty was signed which permitted her to go home to her people, but her sons had to stay with their father. She had no choice in the matter, but she was apparently very unhappy at leaving her children, and wrote a series of poems bemoaning her fate, called “Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute”. These poems have been illustrated over the centuries, as has another story about an inebriated bureaucrat named Bi Zhuo, who was so drunk that he wound up in his neighbor’s house drinking his neighbor’s beverages. He was arrested, and then freed. He invited his neighbor for a drink.
Then, there is Yellow Mountain (or Mountain), formerly Black Mountain (or Mountains), site of ancient Buddhist monasteries, and considered both beautiful and spiritual. Contemporary black and white photographer Wang Wusheng’s stunning photos (he has a gallery in Shanghai), and 17th century ink drawing by a well known artist named Hongren, and others, are interposed.
Finally, when the Moghuls conquered India in the 17th century (to rule until displaced by the British in the middle of the 19th century), they celebrated the Persian years of their history by compiling books of calligraphy, detailed drawings of famous personages, daily or court events, and religious scenes, all with beautiful borders, in books. Many of these books now repose in Dublin in the Chester Beatty Library, and are in Washington on display. The work (color, layout, etc.) is well worth looking at.