"Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Painting," now on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is both an art exhibit and a scholarly exegesis of a specific kind of art which was made for a specific clientele. It is the first to bring together a broad selection in this genre, and includes work from public and private collections in the United States and Europe as well as from the Museum’s own collection (Courtesy BAM/PFA.
Organized by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White in collaboration with UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus James Cahill, the show presents thirty paintings of what is known as meiren huo, or paintings of beautiful women.
Meiren huo were previously dismissed as decorative images of upper class women but Professor Cahill has used his extensive scholarly expertise to examine the paintings in depth. By looking at the symbols in each painting, Dr. Cahill makes the case that the women portrayed are prostitutes and that the art was used in brothels to display the goods for sale. So, instead of aristocratic women, what is painted are women who were both objects of desire and merchandise.
In an exhibit like this, the wall texts are crucial. Dr. Cahill’s wall texts are well written and extremely informative. Dr. Cahill’s commentary points out the coded symbols of sex for sale – the poppies are symbols of women and sex, the ruya (wish granting scepter) a symbol of male sexual desire. The paintings, mostly by anonymous artists, are also full of phallic rocks, swimming fish, luxurious interiors and a "pleasure chair" occupied by a scantily clad girl with one limb coyly displayed up to the upper thigh.
Unlike the art of Shunga, now on display at the British Museum, the sexuality in the Chinese art chosen for this exhibit is only shown through coded symbols with no paintings of genitalia or explicit sexual congress.
Since we lack pre-Revolutionary China’s erotic response to bound feet, the numerous "lotus feet” on display mean nothing to the contemporary Western viewer. But for males in pre-Revolutionary China, the sight of these tiny feet, created through the sadistic and painful process of foot binding, would have given quite a frisson of desire.
Only one female is partially unclothed and even then, her raised leg only gives a coy glimpse of an upper limb. Their poses are languorous, passive; even the colors of the paintings are muted blues, greens and shades of brown. The décor is mostly interior, the exterior world exists only in symbolic form of an enclosed garden.
The world presented is polite, decorous, and heterosexual. The wild diversity of earlier Chinese erotica is missing, especially that of the Ming Dynasty (Chungong hua) which presented an incredible diversity of sexual behavior, enough to make even the most sophisticated San Francisco denizen blush.
But the policies of the Ming Dynasty were relatively liberal. Those of the Qing were more conservative, inspired by a resurgent Confucianism and eventually by Christian missionaries. One painting does have a hint of humor; a small female cat sits on a window ledge casting mischievous and presumably come hither glances to a larger male cat in the garden below.
The grey concrete walls of the gallery "bland out" paintings that are already done in muted colors.
It is a pity that this work couldn't be displayed at the Asian Art Museum. The intimate and more softly lit galleries there would have been perfect. As it is, the paintings are lost against the grey concrete walls and echoing exhibit space
Through December 22, 2013
The exhibit at the top gallery, "Deities, Demons, and Teachers of Tibet, Nepal, and India" is more successful. A exuberant galaxy of gods, goddesses, teachers and demons are on display; the gallery walls have been painted red for this exhibit and it both pulls the work together and sets it off beautifully. Unlike the exhibit below, the artistic energy displayed here is sensual and exciting.
While the whole show is full of treasures, there are three sculptures of unusual rarity and beauty – a massive bronze fourteenth-century Tibetan Buddha in the center of the gallery, a stone image of a third-century seated Buddha from the Swat Valley and a tenth- or eleventh-century bronze Standing Buddha from Western Tibet.
"Being and non-beings proliferate loving compassion and indivisible intelligent equanimity; Om Mani Padme Hum." —H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
Through April 13, 2014