The World of Khubilai Khan: A Revolution in Painting
Lecture by Maxwell K. Hearn
Given at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 15, 2010
The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change
The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change, a complement to the exhibition The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, traces the momentous stylistic transformation in painting and calligraphy that began under Mongol rule and culminated in the literati traditions of the early Ming. Featuring more than 70 works in all pictorial formats—hanging scrolls, handscrolls, album leaves, and fans—the installation focuses on the rise of a new scholarly aesthetic in the graphic arts that occurred in response to the wrenching social and political changes brought about by the Mongol conquest. Drawn primarily from the Metropolitan’s own holdings, the installation also includes 17 important loans from local private and university collections.
Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China, for the first time in its long history, was subjugated by foreign conquerors, becoming part of the Mongol Empire. Yet during this century of occupation, Chinese culture not only survived but was renewed, and Yuan artists established new paradigms that had a profound influence on painting and calligraphy during the ensuing Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
The installation is organized chronologically into three sections. The first section, which focuses on the period from 1280 to 1350, illustrates the response of literati living in south China to Mongol occupation. Having withdrawn from government service out of loyalty to the fallen Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) or having been prevented from serving due to the cessation of civil service examinations, these men often found sanctuary in the alternate bureaucracies of the Daoist or Buddhist religious establishments. Turning to art to express their emotions, they created escapist visions of unattainable paradises or wintry landscapes in which old trees became a metaphor for survival.
The brilliant statesman, poet, and artist Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) led the way in setting a new direction in art during this period. Drawing upon the scholarly aesthetic of the late Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), Zhao no longer took truth to nature as his goal; instead, he insisted that painting was basically the same as calligraphy, transforming it into a vehicle for self-expression. The dozen works by Zhao in the two exhibitions give an unprecedented opportunity to examine this artist’s impact on both the painting and calligraphy of his era.
The second section of the installation features 28 works dating to the last two decades of the Yuan dynasty, when the central government’s control disintegrated as a result of political infighting at court and peasant uprisings in the provinces unleashed by famine and the flooding of the Yellow River. Capitalizing on the revolutionary redirection of painting established by Zhao Mengfu, late Yuan masters created highly personal calligraphic images of landscape, bamboo, and blossoming plum. Often these images are embellished with the artists’ own poetic inscriptions as well as appreciative colophons by contemporary and later admirers. Wu Zhen (1280–1354), Ni Zan (1306-1374), and Wang Meng (ca. 1308-1285), three masters whose styles were particularly influential for later Chinese art, are each represented by four works.
The final section illustrates the impact of Yuan styles on leading literati painters of the early Ming dynasty. Spanning three generations, Wang Fu (1362-1416), Shen Zhou (1427-1509), and Wen Zhengming (1470-1555), all active in the Yangzi Delta region around the city of Suzhou, creatively reinterpreted the styles of one or more of the late Yuan masters, establishing those styles as lasting paradigms that were creatively revived by virtually all later literati painters.
The installation’s curator Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Curator, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave a lecture entitled A Revolution in Painting, on Friday, October 15, 2010 in the Museum’s Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall.