- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

Like most museums, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Washington’s companion Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery face audiences who are demanding more and more but aren’t quite sure what they want museums to be.

Do they want them to be contemplative, like cathedrals? Social gathering places, like the old village green? Sites of higher education through Acoustiguide recorded audio tours? Repositories for works of beauty? Creators of intensively hyped blockbusters?

In the Sackler Gallery’s superb “Views of Chinese Art From the Indianapolis Museum of Art,” exhibit curator Jim Robinson, the Indianapolis Museum’s Jane Weldon Myers Curator of Asian Art, chose not to address those questions directly.

Instead, he designed an exhibit that makes Chinese art — considered by many to be esoteric — both more interesting and more accessible to lay viewers.

Mr. Robinson juxtaposes some of the best Chinese objects from both museums, creating “dialogues” between them. By highlighting small but significant differences and similarities in workmanship, materials, shapes, colors, regions and time spans, he enhances the viewer’s understanding and enjoyment of Chinese art.

“I wanted to do something different and interesting, not just the boring ‘treasures from’ type of exhibition,” Mr. Robinson says.

For example, the curator juxtaposes a Sackler Gallery neolithic nephrite jade “cong” more than 4,000 years old with an Indianapolis Museum Southern Song dynasty “Cong-Shaped Vase” made about 3,000 years later. The tensely squared tubular form of the prehistoric cong contrasts with the later, more relaxed form and flaccid decoration of the vase. The formal contrast reflects functional differences: The neolithic piece was used in prehistoric rituals, while the light green glazed ceramic vase was displayed later in luxurious homes.

In the effectively compressed entry gallery, housing a section of the exhibit labeled “Adaptive Transformation,” ceramic sculptures of a horse and camels reveal telling geographic and cultural variations in the treatment of the same basic subject matter.

A magnificent, brilliantly glazed and colored “Saddled Horse” from the Tang dynasty — known as the Chinese golden age — dominates the room. It is a somewhat static emblem of royal prestige and power, with its graceful head drooping slightly downward while the mane falls in regular strips.

By the seventh-to-10th-century Tang period, Chinese emperors had amassed 5,000 horses for warfare. Later, they increased the number to 706,000. Largely imported from Central Asia, horses were key to Tang China’s military might and popular subjects for art.

Camels also were popular subjects because they carried goods from China to the Western world. An artist caught two with riders — “Camel With Caucasian Rider” and “Camel With Rider in Foreign Dress,” both also from the Tang — in active poses conveying the restless energy of a commercial culture. Although most of the paint from the sculptures is gone, the artist captured the individuality of each rider.

Within the category denoted “Shape and Decoration,” the curator compares two exquisitely decorated vases of the cizhou type, both from the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127). One, “Vase With Floral Designs,” is a symmetrical, tapered, deeply carved brown-and-white ceramic. By contrast, the “Vase With Peony Scrolls” is asymmetrical because the neck and body are elongated and give an imbalanced effect.

Other sections include “To Glaze or Not to Glaze,” illustrated by an “Octagonal Vase With Daoist Immortals” from the Freer; “Drawing Quality,” represented by two later Ming dynasty blue-and-white platters that differ markedly in the quality of their respective painting of the grape design and curving tendrils; and the exhibit’s final vitrine, displaying examples of what Mr. Robinson labels “Decorative Choices.”

The pieces in “Views” were culled from the collections of three outstanding collectors. The eldest, Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919), founder of the Freer Gallery, was a hands-on collector. He even traveled through bandit-infested country in northern China to reach the Buddhist rock-cut caves at Lungmen for sculptures that are still in the Freer.

Eli Lilly of the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Co. collected only Chinese art. When he donated his Chinese art collection to the Indianapolis Museum during the 1940s and 195Os, his was the best individual collection of Chinese art in the United States.

The last, Arthur Sackler, a medical doctor, not only founded the museum named after him on the Mall, but also established Sackler museums in Beijing and in Cambridge, Mass.

Inclusion of a timeline of Chinese history and dynasties would have provided valuable additional context to “Asia in America: Views of Chinese Art From the Indianapolis Museum of Art,” but this is a minor fault in a highly original, illuminating and pleasurable exhibit.

WHAT: “Asia in America: Views of Chinese Art From the Indianapolis Museum of Art”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25, through March 20

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

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