Magazine article The Spectator

China Syndrome

Magazine article The Spectator

China Syndrome

Article excerpt

To see the art of the East, at the moment it is a good idea to fly west. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, there is, until 3 June, China: 5,000 Years, in all probability the most encyclopaedic array of the visual arts of the Middle Kingdom which has yet been brought together. As an exhibition it is comparable in ambition with Africa - The Art of a Continent at the Royal Academy a few years ago, but to my mind considerably more rewarding (which doubtless merely means that I personally prefer Chinese art to African).

China: 5,000 Years climbs all the way, up the notorious snail-spiral ramp at Frank Lloyd Wright's uptown Guggenheim which tends to kill paintings, but in this case works well, since the objects on display are three dimensional - and spills over into the downtown Guggenheim in SoHo. Admittedly, in the autumn show at the Guggenheim, a single living artist Robert Rauschenberg - took up even more space. But this is an account of Chinese art rich and full enough to satisfy anyone.

Its fascinations are twofold. First, the history of China is taking shape before our eyes - in the way that of Egypt and the Middle East did a century ago - as more and more remarkable things appear from beneath the soil. Many of the finest objects on show were excavated within the last couple of decades - an extraordinary cache of beautiful black and red Han dynasty lacquerwork, virtually unaffected by the passage of 2,000 years. (The most spectacular finds of all are probably still to come, when the tomb of the first emperor is finally excavated.)

We were given some idea of the new discoveries by the show at the British Museum 18 months ago, which was excellent in itself, but restricted in size and scope. There is far, far more at the Guggenheim - not just one of the guardian soldiers from the first emperor's tomb, but a small detachment, led by a general, looking murderously real in their padded jerkins. And the story, rather than breaking off millennia ago, continues to the present day.

This leads on to the second fascination - the chance to make generalisations about the aesthetic strengths and weaknesses of a whole civilisation, just as one might otherwise in the case of a single artist. Obviously, this is hazardous - if only because there are areas of oriental art, such as calligraphy, of which it is very hard for an outsider to form any judgment at all. Still, wandering up and down the ramp at the Guggenheim, it is hard not to turn over tentative conclusions. Stone sculpture right up to the final twist of Wright's rollercoaster - does not seem to have brought out the best in Chinese artists (the medium was imported from India, along with Buddhism). On the other hand, ceramics from the earliest eras onwards, are superb. The pale blue-green and white vessels of the Song dynasty -- produced about the time of King Canute and the Norman Conquest - have an abstract refinement and subtlety that makes Brancusi look a little crude.

But the most exciting sections, to me, were those, in side galleries off the ramp, devoted to Chinese painting. The poet Kathleen Raine has suggested that the Chinese have been the greatest landscape masters of all - and it's a conclusion that doesn't seem that outrageous in this context. In Chinese painting, mountains and water expand horizontally and vertically, rather than into the picture, as in Western art. One may wander upwards past peak after peak, or laterally along paths through groves of bamboo, over little bridges, around lakes, through a far wider expanse than could possibly be encompassed by Renaissance perspective. …

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