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Majesty of Chinese art at Peabody museum

By yael-katzwer

Section: Arts

December 3, 2010

If you are a fan of Chinese art, then you must visit the Peabody Essex Museum; if you are not a fan, you should visit anyway because you may find a new passion. To experience the majesties of Chinese art, there are four must-see exhibits at the museum.

The first is the Yin Yu Tang house, which translates to “home of plentiful shelter.” This house was built in China approximately 200 years ago and served as the ancestral home for the Huang family.

In the late 1990s, Nancy Berliner, curator for Chinese Art and Culture at the museum, traveled to China, saw the home and fell in love with it. Less than a year later, Berliner had negotiated with the Huang family to have the house disassembled in China and reassembled alongside the Peabody Essex Museum.

Today, the house shows the liaison between beauty and function in late 18th-century homes. One such example of this is the presence of deep ponds inside the house. The pools of water were present in case of fire, as the house is made primarily of wood, but were decorated aesthetically with fish. To preserve this, the Peabody Essex Museum keeps live fish in the water.

Another example is the wooden lattices covering the windows on the first floor of the house. Used as shutters, these intricate lattices have figures of dragons and urns masterfully carved into them. There are many more neat things in the house but you will just have to go see them yourself.

After walking through the Yin Yu Tang house, you should explore the exhibit “Perfect Imbalance: Exploring Chinese Aesthetics.” This exhibit features 30 pieces of various mediums, including paintings, jade carvings, embroideries, porcelains and prints, from various points in time spanning the Neolithic era to 2004. While all the pieces are worthwhile to look at, two really stand out.

The first is a jade brush-washing basin carved in the 18th century. This piece features feline-formed dragons, waves and celestial orbs in such detail that it seems as if the dragons are about to leap at you and as if the waves are truly crashing against the basin.

The other ingenious object in this collection is a small vase made during the Qing dynasty. What makes this vase so fascinating is that it is not made out of clay or stone; rather, it is made out of a gourd. The gourd was grown inside a wooden or clay mold and when the gourd had reached its desired size and shape, it was cut from the vine and extracted from the mold. The vase is small yet complexly decorated with crisscrossing lines and other geometric patterns.

This exhibit leads right into “Asian Export Art,” which contains pieces made in China and other Asian countries specifically for export to the West. Out of all the amazing works in this exhibit, one of the most striking was an elephant tusk carving on a carved Blackwood stand. This piece was created in China in 1839 and is stunningly complex. More than 100 figures of people are carved into the ivory and wood alongside houses, flowers, dragons and trees; the people are shown doing everyday tasks, such as talking to each other, gutting fish and playing board games. A group of approximately 10 people appears to be participating in a parade; they are wearing clothes that stand out from the others and are carrying flags and shields with micro-designs. The detail, which is so small, is truly astounding.

Unlike the previous three exhibits, the fourth exhibit is only temporary, staying until Jan. 9, 2011. Titled “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City,” this exhibit features artwork from the Qianlong Emperor’s palace, often called either the Qianlong Garden or the Tranquility and Longevity Palace Garden. This sprawling palace was built in a corner of the Forbidden City as a retirement palace for the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled the Qing dynasty from 1736 to 1796.

This exhibit is really once-in-a-lifetime. This is the first time these objects have been seen since the early 1900s and the first time they have left China. The Palace Museum in Beijing and the World Monuments Fund have been working for a decade already to clean and renovate the palace and they expect to be finished to open the palace to the public in 2019. The exhibit features 90 objects of varying mediums, including murals, paintings, furniture, architecture, jade sculptures and objects decorated with cloisonné.

One part of the exhibit shows a screen with 16 double-sided panels that depict Luohan, spiritual practitioners of Buddhism. The wooden panels have a thin layer of jade inlay, a rare white jade from Khotan that is becoming very difficult to find uncut today.

There is also an interesting story behind these panels. They were given to the Qianlong Emperor as a gift by a nobleman whom he then imprisoned for corruption. A docent suggested that perhaps while the emperor was looking at his present he began to wonder where the money had come from for such a lavish gift.

The pieces described above are just a small taste of the exquisite Chinese artworks at the Peabody Essex Museum, located at 161 Essex St., Salem, Mass. In order really to experience the mastery of Chinese art, you must visit and see the artwork for yourself.

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