Middlebury College Museum of Art

News & Events

Major Exhibition Examines the Art and Legacy of Games in Asia

September 16, 2005

“Asian Games: The Art of Contest”

September 17– December 11, 2005

Press Preview: Friday, September 16 at 11:00 a.m.

For immediate release: August 8, 2005

For further information, contact: Colin Mackenzie, Curator of Asian Art, (802) 443–5558

“Strange that I who rule the world from the Indus in the East to Andalusia in the West cannot manage thirty-two chessmen in a space of two cubits by two.”—Caliph Al-Mamun (786–833)

MIDDLEBURY, VT—Enjoyed by kings and commoners, men and women, young and old, games have been since time immemorial a universal human activity. Games can be played with the simplest of equipment, but they have also inspired magnificent works of decorative art that are treasured possessions and status symbols, finely crafted and elaborately decorated. Images of games and game playing pervade literature and the visual arts throughout the ages. Artists have long been fascinated by the drama and excitement of games as well as the range of emotions that are revealed by those who play them.

Presenting stunning works spanning 2000 years, a major exhibition at the Middlebury College Museum of Art examines the art and legacy of games in Asia. Using the paraphernalia of games as well as paintings, prints, and decorative arts that depict people playing games, Asian Games: The Art of Contest is the first exhibition to explore Asia as a source of games such as chess, Parcheesi, Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, playing cards, and polo. Featuring over one hundred works of art from distinguished collections—including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Royal Asiatic Society—the exhibition examines the role of games as social activity and as an expression of cultural values in the diverse societies of Asia. The exhibition will be on view from Sept. 17 to Dec. 11, 2005.

“Games are universal, and without games people would be unendurably bored,” notes exhibition co-curator Colin Mackenzie, Robert P. Youngman Curator of Asian Art at Middlebury. “Yet the role of games in society has been largely neglected by cultural historians. By exploring the evolution and social functions of games in Asia and their transfer to other regions, Asian Games illuminates important yet unfamiliar aspects of Asian culture and their ongoing legacy.”

Asian Games has a broad chronological and geographical reach, spanning 200 B.C.E. to the twentieth century and Japan to Persia. Included in the exhibition are spectacular examples of game sets dating from the 12th to early 20th century, Persian court paintings and illuminated manuscripts of the 14th to 18th century, and Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings and screens that depict game-playing.

The Art of Contest is organized into four sections—“Tossing and Turning” (games of chance), “War and Territory” (games of strategy), “Memory and Matching” (playing card and matching games), and “Power and Dexterity” (games of physical skill). Each section traces the histories of games that have played an important role in their respective societies or that have been transmitted from one culture to another.

“Tossing and Turning,” for instance, explores how the various forms of the game of Snakes (Chutes) and Ladders that flourished in India, China, and Japan reveal much about the attitudes and aspirations of their respective societies. The game of Chutes and Ladders played by children in Britain and the United States originated in an Indian game of moral instruction in which the aim was to attain spiritual purity, while in China, a similar game was all about getting ahead in the bureaucracy. And how many people know that the American family game Parcheesi is derived from the traditional Indian game pachisi, played by nobles and emperors, or that backgammon was played in Japan as early as the eighth century?

“Many of the games that we take for granted today have their origins in ancient Asian societies,” notes Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art. “What we see in this exhibition is that games have been as significant as trade and religion in transmitting cultural forms and ideas. In tracing their spread across different societies, we also see how certain games have retained unique qualities that reflect the cultural aspirations and values of their players.”

In contrast with games that have survived down to the present, the exhibition also includes more obscure examples of games such as the extinct Chinese game of liubo. Liubo was a craze for five hundred years from around 300 B.C.E.–200 C.E., before it disappeared. Although the rules are barely understood, models of people playing the game have been found in tombs and testify to its widespread influence at the time.

“War and Territory” examines the world’s two greatest games of intellectual skill, chess and weiqi. Exquisite illuminated Persian manuscripts of the 14th and 16th centuries from the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrate the legend of the transmission of chess from India to Persia, and numerous early Persian and Islamic chess pieces confirm its popularity there. Magnificent later Indian chess sets in the form of confronted armies are vivid reminders that chess is a game of war. The examples and illustrations of weiqi, also known as go in Japan, point up its role as the supreme game of the intellectual and cultivated person. Indeed in China it was considered to be one of four essential cultural accomplishments along with music, calligraphy, and painting.

“Memory and Matching” shows how playing cards and tile games spread across Asia, eventually reaching Europe, and how in each region they took on different forms, most notably the exquisite hand-painted circular ganjifa playing cards of India and the poetry cards and shell games of Japan. The exhibition also includes the earliest known example of mahjong, a game that originated in China but became a craze in America in the 1920s.

“Power and Dexterity” focuses on a game that has been influential globally—the quintessential pastime of emperors and kings, polo. The game is thought to have originated among horseback chase games, like buzkashi, still played in Central Asia today. In China, references to polo date from the late 7th century, and the exhibition includes three outstanding polo-playing ceramic figurines from the Tang dynasty (618–906), though by then it was already being played in Persia where poetry and painting bear witness to its central role in the heroic culture of the Persian elite. Indeed, three important 15th century court paintings illustrating the theme are included in the exhibition. From Persia it was transmitted on to India, where British colonials adopted it and brought it to the West.

The exhibition also offers visitors interactivity in the form of a hands-on game playing area. “We wanted to make this a fun exhibition, as well as one with serious intellectual content,” says Dr. Irving Finkel, co-curator of the exhibition and Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Near East at The British Museum. “We therefore decided to include a section where visitors can actually try out some of the games; this is a fully interactive exhibition that can be enjoyed by the entire family.”

The hands-on game playing area will be open during normal Museum hours. Instructors will be available most Wednesdays and Sundays between 12:30 and 2:00 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to call the Museum reception desk at (802) 443–2291 to confirm that instructors are available.

Asian Games: The Art of Contest is organized by the Asia Society. Major funding for the exhibition and related programs is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition is accompanied by a vibrantly illustrated 280-page catalogue. Copies of the catalogue are available for purchase through the bookstore at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is accessible to people with varying disabilities. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at http://museum.middlebury.edu.