New Display of Works from China’s Golden Age Debuts at MFA’s Lunar New Year Celebration on February 6
BOSTON, MA (January 22, 2016)—On February 6, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), debuts a new display of art from the prosperous and vibrant Song dynasty (960-1279)—regarded as a pinnacle of Chinese art and aesthetics. Opening in conjunction with the MFA’s Lunar New Year celebration that Saturday, the gallery explores this golden era of Chinese art through some of the Museum’s greatest treasures, including masterpieces of Chinese ceramics, paintings, calligraphy and sculpture. The centerpiece of the gallery is the larger-than-life wood polychrome sculpture, Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion (early 12th century). The object, which hasn’t been on view since 1999, underwent an 18-month conservation process before being unveiled to the public. During the Song Dynasty, Buddhism fused with centuries-old Chinese philosophies and artistic techniques—inspiring new heights of painting, calligraphy, ceramics, gardens, poetry and art theory. The gallery is a contemplative space that evokes the aesthetics of the Song Dynasty. Additional highlights of the gallery include the Nine Dragons scroll (dated 1244, by the scholar, official, poet and painter Chen Rong), widely celebrated as the greatest Chinese dragon painting in existence. Objects in the newly installed Paul and Helen Bernat Gallery, from elegant ceramics to exquisite painted scrolls, explore the incredible achievements of Song artists. The conservation of Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, is generously supported by the Stockman Family Foundation and an anonymous gift. The new Song Gallery display was made possible by the Chauncey and Marion D. McCormick Family Foundation and individual supporters of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa Department.
“The gallery has been designed to welcome visitors to view the objects, and as well to sit and sense the compassion the artists intended to project through the Guanyin figure,” said Nancy Berliner, Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art at the MFA. “The Guanyin has been inspiring MFA visitors for almost a century, and after this most recent conservation it will be able to inspire many more generations.”
Acquired by the Museum in 1920, Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion is a centerpiece of the gallery. The sculpture depicts a bodhisattva—one who has achieved nirvana but decides to return to be among mortals to assist them in achieving enlightenment. One of the most beloved Chinese objects in the MFA’s collection, the work was previously conserved in the 1950s, when six layers of paint (previously applied over the centuries as acts of devotion) were removed in an attempt to restore the sculpture to its original color. The recent 18-month conservation project employed UV imaging, x-radiography, radiocarbon dating and other techniques to identify and date the wood, and uncover numerous new clues to the history of the object. Other works in the gallery that show the growing spread of Buddhism into Chinese lifestyles are two temple paintings and a lacquer Head of a Luohan (11th-12th century), which depict disciples of the Buddha who became enlightened.
The opening of the gallery on the second floor of the Museum coincides with the MFA’s third-annual Lunar New Year celebration, ringing in the “Year of the Monkey.” During the free open house on Saturday, February 6 (10 am–4:45 pm), visitors can enjoy Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese New Year traditions with free activities, demonstrations and performances throughout the day. Festive music and dance performances are complemented by hands-on family art-making activities, interactive demonstrations and tours exploring the Art of Asia collection and the Song gallery, featuring the recently installed works on view. Highlights of the day include interactive Chinese Lion Dance performances by Gund Kwok, the only Asian women’s Lion and Dragon Dance troupe in New England; Saebae demonstrations, a traditional bowing and greeting ceremony practiced in Korea during the New Year, with members of the Korean Cultural Society of Boston; and a talk presented by VietAID on the art of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
The Song ushered in a new era of appreciation for expression in art. Recognizing the shared foundations of painting and calligraphy, artists integrated writing into their compositions. In his inscription on the Nine Dragons scroll, artist Chen Rong confesses that he was inebriated when he executed it, “When drunk I spit the painting from within;” uses lyrical language to describe the dragons he depicts, “The flying dragon appears from the gorge and flies toward the river of spring; The glistening jade dragon rubs scales against inaccessible cliffs;” and then, in awe of what he has produced, notes that only a god could have produced such brushwork. The Nine Dragons scroll is one of a number of paintings that will periodically be rotated in the gallery, offering visitors a dynamic display of works from the MFA’s renowned collection of Song paintings—one of the greatest in the US.
Objects in the gallery explore the influence of radical new thinking, such as a criticism of naturalism and a move towards abstracted expressionistic painting. A time of dynamic innovation, many artistic ventures during the Song period referenced ancient aesthetics. Archaic bronze and jade vessels from the Shang (16th–11th century BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) dynasties were significant staples in Song connoisseurs’ collections, and archaism—which reflected a passion for ancient bronzes and jades— flourished in Song visual arts. One ceramic vase in the gallery imitates the shape of a Zhou ritual jade, while another is in the form of a Han period (206 BC-220 AD) bronze wine warmer. A time of exquisite taste in ceramics, Song-era connoisseurs preferred simple monochrome glazes, as seen in an extremely rare imperial Ru ware Bowl stand (late 11th-early12th century). Epitomizing the refined aesthetic of the Song court, it is one of only a handful of Ru ware pieces on view in American museums, and one of fewer than 100 in existence worldwide. Also on view in the gallery is a variety of ceramics that show off lustrous blue-green glazes, the pure white Ding wares, and the sumptuous black glazes from southern kilns.
Beyond this new display, visitors can explore six additional galleries dedicated to Chinese art at the MFA, highlighting sculpture, ceramics and Bronze Age art, as well as Chinese furnishings, scholarly objects and Buddhist art. Beyond the Screen evokes an elegant courtyard household from the late Ming period, highlighting Chinese furniture of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Art of Asia and China at the MFA
Among the finest in the world, the MFA’s collection of Asian art covers the creative achievements of more than half of the world’s population over the course of five millennia. The collection encompasses Japanese, Chinese and Indian painting and sculpture; Japanese prints and metalwork; Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese ceramics; and the arts of the Islamic world; as well as contemporary works from across the region. The strength of the Chinese collection lies in masterworks of sculpture, painting and ceramics. Highlights include Buddhist stone sculpture and early handscrolls that are among the most famous Chinese paintings in the world. The ceramic collection is rich in imperial stonewares and porcelain, while an extensive collection of Chinese textiles is overseen by the David and Roberta Logie Department of Textile & Fashion Arts.
Lunar New Year presented in partnership with Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, the Korean Cultural Society of Boston, VietAID, and the Chinese Culture Connection. Additional support provided by the National Museum of Korea (NMK).
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300.