Another World Lies Beyond
On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum of Art Fifth Avenue
Another World Lies Beyond
August 24 – January 5, 2020
In the Chinese galleries flanking the Ming dynasty scholar’s courtyard, artworks from the sixth century through the early 20th century demonstrate the sheer variety of divine and supernatural motifs expressed through Chinese art and artifacts. Paintings, prints, fabrics, ceramics, furniture, jade carvings, and lacquerware bear elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and folklore. These objects show the fluidity of spiritual and religious beliefs in China, including the fusion of Taoism and Buddhism. The curators divided the exhibition by theme rather than by period. They devoted an entire gallery to Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. Another gallery consists of woodblock prints made for Lunar New Year celebrations, which include auspicious images of household deities. These prints team with energy, making them the exhibition’s most satisfying find.
The cult of Guanyin is one of the better examples of how the Chinese made the external influences of Buddhism their own. Guanyin’s precursor, Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit for “the lord who looks down on the world”), appeared as a male deity in the iconography of North India. From there he proliferated across the Himalayas and East Asia, to become the most revered bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition. Up to the Song dynasty, c. 1000 CE, Guanyin appeared as a man. Remarkable that it survived to this day, a common woodcarving print on paper from 979 CE, The Greatly Merciful, Greatly Compassionate Rescuer from Suffering, Bodhisattva Guanyin, shows him as a young prince with an elaborate crown. However, subsequent representations had Guanyin as a woman, often wearing a white robe. White Robed Guanyin, c. 18th century, is an exquisite example of Fujianese ivory white porcelain, a high-end commodity, as the curators’ notes show, for a wealthy family. The porcelain shows Guanyin gracefully drawing her hands to her heart as she turns her gaze in our direction. This aspect of Guanyin remains a favorite to this day. Paradoxically, Guanyin, The Bringer of Sons, a late 16th century painting has the bodhisattva in male form. The sobriquet reflects the traditional pressure on Chinese mothers to produce male offspring.
Another Buddhist trope that became thoroughly Chinese was the Luohan, or in Sanskrit Arhats, the original disciples of the Buddha. Just a handful in the Pali sutras, their number ultimately swelled up to 18 in Chinese lore. In spite of their sacred status, the representations of these figures are often humorous, emphasizing their peculiar appearances, jarring Western sensibilities accustomed to reverential depictions of holy figures. The exhibit has a series of 16 rubbings taken from stone-carved copies of the famous 18 Luohans paintings by the Buddhist monk Guanxiu. Hailing from the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, he set the gold standard for Luohan portraits. The carvings, commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor after 1757 CE when he found what he believed to be the original paintings in a Hangzhou monastery, were an attempt to preserve a cultural treasure. The monks have ancient, craggy faces with long noses—emphasizing their non-Chinese features—and are often caught in informal, even odd, postures. Guanxiu belonged to the Chan sect of Buddhism, which is better known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen. Chan Buddhism blended Buddhist philosophy with Taoist teachings, which stress acting in accordance with nature rather than standing outside of it. The naturalism, and even eccentricity, that Guanxiu gave to his Luohan subjects, looking more like vagabonds than monks, would have been unimaginable in traditional Mahayana Buddhist representations, which emphasized perfection and the celestial over the earthly and peculiar.
Whereas Guanxiu’s Chan paintings blended homegrown Taoism with Buddhism, the early 20th century CE prints of door gods and other apotropaic figures for the Lunar New Year celebrations are pure Chinese folklore. These woodblock prints on paper are the high point of the show as they bring to light the customs of ordinary Chinese that seldom make it into any museum. They are brightly colored with shards of bright colors packed into densely polygonal patterns that look almost Cubist in their flatness. Military Door God, (c. 1912 – 1949) shows a stout fellow with a red face wearing a traditional hat denoting high status. He is holding two baby boys, good luck symbols, with more children and a smaller military man at his feet. The entire composition is packed into a tight rectangle. His robe is hot pink and turquoise. The baby boys are wearing orange and purple. In spite of the rough-hewn nature of the print, there is a fluidity and verve to the image that belies its vernacular origins. Due to its size, this exhibition can’t give a comprehensive overview of what life was like in pre-Modern China. But with canny inclusions, such as these Lunar New Year prints and other humble artifacts, it does make a good case for the breadth and complexity of that legacy.