- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

Now is a good time to compare the pros and cons of Western and Asian portraiture with “Facing East: Portraits From Asia” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. It’s a stunning exhibit of portraits from cultures as far apart as China, Japan, India and Egypt over a 5,000-year period.

First, think about the kinds of portraiture best known in the West: realistic Egyptian funeral portraits and Roman sculpture; Leonardo da Vinci’s dreamy, introspective “Mona Lisa”; Pierre Bonnard’s symbolist paintings of his mistress and future wife, Marte; Rembrandt van Rijn’s moving self-portraits; and the impressive American presidents and first ladies back on display at the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery here.

Portraiture, always concerned with status and symbol in the West, plays the same role in Asia — as the Sackler’s intriguing exhibit amply demonstrates.

The exhibit also lays to rest the disparagement of the genre in the East by Western scholars.

To clarify things, curator Debra Diamond, the Freer and Sackler galleries’ associate curator for South Asian and Southeast Asian art, divided the show thematically into three major sections: Projecting Identity, Portraits and Memory, and Likeness and Identity.

In the main Projecting Identity segment, the impressively bearded, more-than-life-size painting of Persian ruler “Fath-‘Ali Shah as Warrior” (signed Mihr-Ali, Qajar dynasty, A.D. 1814) is the exhibit’s dramatic entrance work. The Persian king assumes a godlike status, much like pharaonic statues in Egypt and god-king images (“devarajas”) in Cambodia.

This ruler is remembered for energetically promoting the arts after he became Persia’s first shah in 1797, resulting in hundreds of his portraits being sent to neighboring India and Russia.

They became, as the curator says, his “calling card.”

By contrast, a more contemporary, equally dramatic, take on Projecting Identities is photographer Jannane al-Ani’s two “Untitleds” (1996) — enormous, horizontally composed portraits of five female members of her family.

Acting as reflective compositions — they’re hung opposite each other — the photographs “read” from left to right, first with a fully veiled, burka-dressed, come-hither-eyed young woman, then with an unveiled woman at center and, finally, an older woman, possibly the mother, at the outer ends.

They’re definitely more ambiguous than “Fath-‘Ali Shah,” but during a private tour, Miss Diamond explained that the artist is part of a worldwide art movement centering on individual identities.

For example, much as American photographer Cindy Sherman dresses in various costumes before photographing herself, Miss al-Ani captured her sisters and mother to reveal their personalities.

Another work that, like “Fath-‘Ali Shah,” projects a powerful identity is the tiny, gold struck Mughal dynasty “Coin” centered with an inscribed portrait of “His Majesty Shah Jahangir.” When visitors pause to think about it, they’ll see the same link between portraiture and money as they see with American political icons whose faces appear on U.S. currency.

In a grouping titled Gender Identities — also under the Projecting Identities segment — viewers see different artistic approaches to Asian women, usually regarded as second-class citizens. They are treated seriously here. A Japanese poetess, for example, is eulogized in the Kamakura period (1192-1333) “Portrait” of the poet Saigu no Nyogo Yoshiko from the Agedatami version of “Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry,” by showing her bent toward an exquisitely painted screen.

In sharp contrast are Yu Xunling’s portraits of the last Chinese imperial ruler, the “Empress Dowager Cixi in a Snowy Palace Garden,” posing for the camera (1903-1904). The exhibit label tells us that “she radiates the confidence of someone who reputedly once proclaimed, ‘I am the most clever woman who ever lived.’”

Turning to the works in the Portraits and Memory grouping, two Chinese ancestor portraits, “Portraits of a Qing Dynasty Nobleman and Wife” show the vital importance of communicating with one’s forebears in China.

A son commissioned these pasty-faced, unindividualized portraits of his parents after their deaths so he could relate to them at will.

The exhibit’s most varied, humorous section is Likeness and Identity. For example, Kohno Michisei patterned his 1917 “Self-Portrait” after Albrecht Durer’s “Self-Portrait in a Fur-Trimmed Coat.” It required much witty self-deprecation on Michisei’s part to satirize himself as a Northern German Renaissance artist.

Artists pay careful attention in this segment to their brushwork, as with the circa 1615 ink-on-paper workshop drawing of “Prince Khurram, the Future Emperor Shah Jahan,” builder of the Taj Mahal. Its sensitive brushwork makes it one of the show’s standouts.

This full-of-surprises exhibit is extraordinary for its depth and elucidation — although dividing it into so many themes and segments is apt to confuse most who see it. Visitors would do well to concentrate more on the show’s beauty than its complex structure.

WHAT: “Facing East: Portraits From Asia”

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

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Sept. 4

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: www.asia.si.edu

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