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The Met’s Timid “Khubilai Khan” Show: No Barbarians at These Gates

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Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell, and Asian art chairman James C.Y. Watt, at press preview for “The World of Khubilai Khan”

Where are the barbarians when we really need them?

The Metropolitan Museum’s just opened exhibition of art in China during the period of occupation by Mongol invaders—The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty—is a typically brilliant exercise in object-wrangling. Although drawn from a wide variety of international sources, the bulk of the loans come from China, including many recent archaeological finds and some other treasures that never before left their homeland.

One of the latter is a stone post embellished with writhing dragons—a monument from Khubilai Khan’s celebrated “stately pleasure dome” in Xanadu:

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Where this assemblage of impressive objects falls short, though, is in incisive curatorial analysis. Even the label for the star object above seems to shortchange its significance: The description consigns “Xanadu” to parentheses and fails to mention that this monumental carving belonged to the fabled structure immortalized in Coleridge‘s poem. You would never know from its label that this imposing, evocative decoration had never previously budged from its original site:

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This missed opportunity to engage general audiences is the least of this show’s underachievements, however. More perplexingly, the exhibition and catalogue hype and sanitize this difficult period in Chinese history, 1215-1368, which, as Sherman Lee, the Cleveland Museum’s late, legendary director, observed in his catalogue essay for his museum’s own sweeping 1968 show, Chinese Art Under the Mongols, was too brief in duration for “the usual Chinese sequences of innovation, development, and gradual absorption so charactistic of the great classic periods.” Perhaps more crucially, it was “a time politically dominated by foreign barbarians.”

The B-word, typically associated with the invading Mongols, is largely eschewed by the Met in both its exhibition and its catalogue (with a notable exception, discussed later).

Perhaps a key to why this dynamic and disruptive era has given birth to a surprisingly tame exhibition can be found in the decision to consign the Met catalogue’s forward (customarily written by the organizing curator) to Shan Jixiang, director of the Cultural Property Promotion Association, People’s Republic of China.

Here’s an excerpt from this property promoter’s promotional prose:

Unification under the Yuan dyanasty contributed to the formation of a culture that was at once heterogeneous and integrated; it led to a new phase of exchange and harmony among various ethnic groups….An environment characterized by ethnic harmony and cultural eclecticism gave rise to artistic invention and diversity.

Contrast this with Cleveland curator Wai-kam Ho‘s contribution to his museum’s 1968 catalogue:

Under the Mongolian policy of racial discrimination and institutionalized double standards, the Chinese most painfully affected were obviously the Confucian scholar-gentry, the pillar of the traditional society prior to the foreign conquest.

It is no exaggeration to say that the most unique and decisive single factor that substantially altered the entire cultural scene of the 14th century, expecially the arts and crafts, was the universal humiliation and frustration of these scholars and the various forms of their reactions…against their reverse in fortune.

So much for Shan Jixiang’s “new phase of exchange and harmony.”

Only Met curator Maxwell Hearn deviates significantly from People’s Republic-style political correctness at his institution. In his illuminating catalogue essay on Chinese painting, Hearn describes the causes of a “stylistic shift” during the period, as well as the influence of “dynastic change” on the format of paintings.

He even dares to invoke the B-word (albeit in quotation marks):

Those who had held office under the Song…suddenly out of work, turned to art to express their enduring loyalty to the Song and their opposition to they new order of “barbaric” conquerors….Yuan figurative art often evokes ancient cultural paradigms that might serve as emblems of moral courage and survival in the face of adversity.

And in his own companion exhibition to the loan show, Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change, drawn largely from the Met’s own collection, Hearn forthrightly analyzes the period, pulling no punches:

This exhibition focuses on the revolutionary transformation in painting that took place during the Yuan. Drawing upon the scholarly aesthetic of the late Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), Yuan literati painters no longer took truth to nature as their goal, but rather used painting as a vehicle for self-expression. In the hands of highly educated scholar-artists, brushwork became more calligraphic, assuming a new affective dimension that transcended its representational function….

[The] aesthetic shift was accompanied by a similar change in content: the representational imagery and auspicious symbolism of Song paintings took on political or personal overtones that reflected an artist’s state of mind, and inscriptions written directly onto the picture surface allowed the artist’s “voice” to became an integral part of a work as well.

It is this the kind of lucidity of thought and expression that I missed from the larger show and its often turgid catalogue.

Was the Met constrained in its scholarship by a need to kowtow to its Chinese lenders? We’ll probably never know. But there should have been a way to present an analysis of the material that gives viewers a fuller understanding of specific stylistic and substantive changes, demonstrating how Chinese art was influenced by the incursion of foreigner rulers and the interactions of the various cultures that were brought together by the unification of diverse geographical areas under Mongol rule.

Cleveland’s Lee called this tumultuous period “a true watershed in Chinese cultural and social life.” That’s a concept that should have informed the Met’s presentation, using the show’s well-chosen objects to elucidate it.

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Mongol Dancer, Jin or Yuan dynasty, 13th century, Henan Museum
Excavated in 1973 from a tomb in Henan Province

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