- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

The Freer Gallery of Art’s new take on Chinese art, “Beyond Brushwork: Symbolism in Chinese Painting,” shows viewers that the brush does not necessarily dominate in these works as generally thought.

For example, symbols such as bamboo, which bends but never breaks, stand for strength; chrysanthemums indicate long life and good health; and delicate plum blossoms anticipate spring while blooming in winter’s cold.

Consider further the plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum grouping that constitutes what the Chinese call the “Four Gentlemen” — a motif standing for the ideals of “Confucian scholars” and “Chinese gentlemen.”

Unfortunately, that’s as far as the usefulness of the “Four Gentlemen” wall label goes. Who were the Confucian scholars and Chinese gentlemen? Another sentence would have explained that they were learned men who studied the early literary classics.

The show also cries out for a timeline, with dates and descriptions detailing the major Chinese dynasties, and a summing up of China’s major religions.

But let’s move on to consider each of the plants of the “Four Gentlemen” in the exhibit’s context.

An “Orchid,” possibly painted by a Chinese monk of Zen Buddhism’s Obaku sect, symbolizes purity through its subtle fragrance. Here, as with others in the show, the orchid’s long fluttering leaves overwhelm its smaller flowers — which manage to pop up nonetheless.

Sometimes the stories rival the images. Though the gray-greenish celadon-glazed “Vase With Peony Motif” (11th- to 12th-century Northern Song dynasty) appears near-perfect, the much larger 18th- to 19th-century Qing dynasty “Peonies” hanging scroll knocks your socks off with its delicate pink petals.

There is a legend about peonies that goes like this: One cold day, the notorious Tang dynasty Empress Wu (reigned A.D. 684-705) commanded the flowers of her garden to bloom — and all obeyed except the peony. Infuriated, the empress banished the peony from Changan, now Xian, to the other capital of Luoyang, which became the “city of peonies.”

To this day, peonies continue as symbols of power and status in China, the exhibit label tells us.

Prized also are chrysanthemums, one of the few flowers that bloom in fall and winter. One of the show’s most modern and original artists, Qi Baishi (1863-1957), painted the brilliantly hued “Chrysanthemums in Vase,” a contrast of heavy, falling blossoms over a roughly brushed see-through glass flower holder.

The exhibition rejoices with its many bamboo images, and the best, by Wang Fu (Ming dynasty, 1410), is a complex riot of bamboo leaves seen from two levels — from ground level and above — accented with spiky fronds.

There is much more, not all of it so elegant. Chinese artists loved animals to a fault, especially their humorous gibbons (a type of monkey), fish (far too many here for Western taste), cranes and eagles. Zhao Mengfu’s “Sheep and Goat” symbolizes prosperity and also is one of the great masterpieces of Chinese art.

As fine as this exhibit is, much more explanation is necessary, especially for those untutored in Chinese art. Although it presents handsome, even show-stopping images with professional explanatory labels, the Freer needs to sketch in a much bigger picture for background purposes. Perhaps at least a tip as to why the huge “Mandarin Ducks Under Blossoming Plus Tree,” “Two Eagles on a Branch” and “Phoenix and Two Cranes Under a Tree” — hung together on a wall — appear so dark.

The answer is simple: Silk paintings darken with age. What happens to the supporting silk over time determines how they look.

Average visitors would never know this unless they were told.

WHAT: “Beyond Brushwork: Symbolism in Chinese Painting”

WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Nov. 26


PHONE: 202/633-4000

WEB: www.si.edu.

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