Chinese furniture reached a pinnacle of fine design and workmanship during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the later part of the Ming period (1368-1644). Fine furniture of this period is characterized by restrained and elegant designs, hardwoods imported from southeast Asia, and complex joinery that held the furniture together without glue or nails.
“Beyond the Screen,” not only explored the beauty of these forms, but also carried the viewer into the physical surroundings of their time. The gallery installation evoked the rooms and courtyards of a Ming residential compound. The furniture was placed within large wooden - columned and roofed structures. Paintings and other decorative arts of the Ming period further enhanced the context of the furniture. Visitors were invited to meander along the corridors and in the courtyards, to peek into the various rooms, and to rest on the stone stools and reproduction chairs.
In the centrally located “great hall,” a handsome folding chair greeted the visitor. Tall cabinets, stools, and couch-beds, a furniture form unique to China, filled the room. A study was an essential chamber for any proper Ming gentleman wanting to project an air of erudition. Here, among restrained and unadorned tables, desks, and chairs, the scholar would practice calligraphy, write poetry, study the classics, or enjoy a game of weiqi (a Chinese form of chess). The women’s quarters, typically located in the rear of the compound, held more elaborate furnishings. A grand canopy bed with intricately carved rails of twisting and intertwining dragons graced the bedroom along with a finely carved garment rack and other furnishings appropriate to the boudoir.
The beauty of Chinese furniture can lie in great simplicity of form or in intricate carving.
In the garden, urban officials or merchants - surrounded by constructed rockeries and planted trees-could feel as if they were escaping momentarily into the venerated untamed landscape. Chairs and tables were arranged among bamboo in the exhibition to simulate an outdoor area.
Chinese carpenters frequently worked within the confines of the patron’s home. In a small carpenter’s workshop off the front courtyard, the tools and marvels of the trade were displayed. The intricacies of the complex, puzzlelike joins that hold together legs, table tops, and chair sets were explained alongside reproductions of these otherwise hidden mechanisms.
The furniture and paintings in the exhibition were generously loaned to the Museum from a number of private and public collections. Most of the objects have never before been on public view.