Chinese art in a grand view Exhibit: National Gallery show, covering nearly 50 centuries, is a must-see. It is unlikely that such scope and magnificence will be under one roof again any time soon.

February 02, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

From its very beginning, "Splendors of Imperial China" announces its themes: monumentality, subtlety, impeccable craftsmanship and that old (but here justified) cliche, timelessness.

The show, at Washington's National Gallery, begins with a gallery of early masterpieces that sweep us down the ages from the third millennium (3000-2000) B.C. to the beginning of the Sung dynasty (960 A.D.).

There are bronze vessels, from earlier than 1000 B.C., whose massive forms are balanced by decorative animal motifs and geometric abstractions as precise and crisp as if they were made yesterday. There are jade objects whose simplicity is their purity, including an 18-inch-tall tube with square sides notched at regular intervals so that it looks like nothing so much as a model for a modernist skyscraper by Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei. (Think of Pei's World Trade Center at the Inner Harbor and you get some idea of it.) There's a vessel made about 2,000 years ago as a standard of measure -- but think of the Pyrex measuring cup in your kitchen and you won't have an idea of what it looks like; it is so dignified in its shape and proportions that it might be a ritual object for use on sacred occasions.

And there is the portrait of the first Sung emperor, T'ai-tsu (reigned 960-973), which, as the catalog aptly puts it, "combines careful observation with deliberate idealization." His features are somewhat abstracted but nevertheless there's someone in there, both determined and careworn. His body, completely covered in white robes, is massive and still -- a symbol of the stability he no doubt wished for himself and his successors -- but there may be a hint of the man of action (which he must have been) in the fact that the left foot does not point straight forward like the right but is slightly to the side.

This gallery is only the first of a dozen that spread before us the treasures of Chinese civilization down to the 18th century in some 350 examples -- from an 85-foot-long painting to a 1 1/2 -inch-long jade belt hook. No exhibition can fairly represent a whole civilization, especially one as ancient as China's, and this one doesn't claim to. But, although it's subtitled "Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei," it's much more than the usual group of great works one expects from a "treasures" exhibit. It has been carefully selected from the museum's immense collection of 600,000 objects (mainly assembled by the 18th century Ch'ien-lung emperor) to represent the best of Chinese arts for 5,000 years -- and especially for the 1,000 years represented by the Sung, Yuan, Ming and Ch'ing dynasties (collectively 960-1911).

In fact, we cannot see the whole show in one visit. All of the paintings and calligraphy are in rotation due to light sensitivity -- the 66 on view now will be replaced by others at the end of this month.

This is a show that one should see and see again, not only because the paintings and calligraphy will be rotated for the second half, but also because it is too much to take in at one time. And it is certainly worth two trips. True, as a vast collection of works created over 5,000 years, it's not art-historically ideal. One can imagine a more comprehensive (and comprehensible) exhibit devoted to any one period. But it's a safe bet that never again in our lifetimes are we going to be offered the opportunity to see a survey such as this. It's not an opportunity we should pass up.

Sung dynasty

The portrait of T'ai-tsu, currently on view, introduces the Sung dynasty (960-1279), a period to which later Chinese artists frequently looked for inspiration. The paintings to be seen now include "Layered Peaks and Dense Forests" (anonymous, 12th century), in which the mountains and trees appear to be $H dissolving into the mists.

"Apricot Blossoms" by Ma Yuan (active about 1160-after 1225) ++ joins poetry and painting in one work. Its apricot branches spread out in welcoming fashion toward the poem written by the empress Yang Mei-Tzu, much like a person with arms outspread to envelop a lover.

The album leaf "Kitten" by Li Ti (active about 1163-after 1197) shows us a kitten who hints at playfulness without losing its essential dignity. And in "Winter Play" (attributed to Su Han-ch'en, active about 1130s-1160s), a girl and a boy under a flowering plum tree entice another cat with a peacock feather tied to a tiny banner. It's a genre scene that provides a lesson in how to be endearing -- in fact, irresistible -- without a hint of cuteness.

Sung porcelains may be the most exquisite porcelains ever made, in large part because they are among the simplest in form and decoration. Their glazes impart a softness to forms of utter purity, such as the lotus blossom bowl of Ju ware, the rarest of all Chinese porcelains. These works have the effect of cleansing the eye, so that even the most magnificent of later porcelains can look ever so slightly decadent by comparison.

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