Middlebury College Museum of Art

News & Events

Classical Painting and Ritual Bronzes on View at Middlebury Museum

April 11, 2008

“Artists and Ancestors: Masterworks of Chinese Classical Painting and Ancient Ritual Bronzes”

September 12–December 7, 2008

For immediate release: 4/11/08
For further information contact: Colin Mackenzie, (802) 443–5558

Middlebury, VT— This exhibition brings together two of the most revered traditions in Chinese art: paintings of nature, primarily landscape and flora, and bronze vessels and musical instruments used in antiquity to venerate the ancestors. Although separated by a thousand years—the tradition of ritual bronzes flourished before the Common Era, while landscape painting arose in the tenth century C.E.—these two traditions were linked in the minds of Chinese by their connection with the past. Many of the collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese painting also collected and studied ancient bronzes, examples of which are often depicted in the paintings. Included in the exhibition are outstanding works by some of the most famous artists of the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, as well as remarkable bronze ritual vessels and bells cast between the thirteenth and fifth centuries B.C.E.

No other painting tradition has celebrated nature so profoundly and subtly as has China’s. As early as the tenth century the realistic depiction of landscape had been mastered, and it was landscape—though not necessarily realistically depicted—that was to be the primary inspiration for painters for the next millennium. The earliest painting in the exhibition, an anonymous fan painting of the twelfth or thirteenth century entitled “Myriad Blossoms on a Spring Evening,” epitomizes the genius of Southern Song (1127–1279) artists for harmoniously interweaving the worlds of humans and nature. Although framed in an architectural setting peopled with ladies and servants, the blossoming bushes announcing the arrival of spring are the palpable focus of the painting.

Late winter and early spring are also celebrated in a hanging scroll of plum blossom painted by the celebrated Yuan dynasty literati (scholar) painter Wang Mian (1286–1359). By this time educated painters considered expression of the artist’s personality more important than realism and individual stylistic expression rather than scientific accuracy as the hallmark of artistic achievement. Wang’s evocation of the flowering plum (which for Chinese scholars possessed connotations of independence and incorruptibility) is austere yet elegant, understated yet virtuoso in its handling of brush and ink. Bamboo was also deemed a particularly suitable vehicle for the scholar-artist, because the strokes used to depict the leaves and stems possess a close relationship with the strokes used in calligraphy, that most scholarly of art forms. Exemplifying such virtuoso displays of monochromatic brushwork is a rare bamboo handscroll by Wu Zhen, ranked as one of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).

Paintings of the Ming period are represented by a stunning handscroll, “Pine Village Landscape,” by Tang Yin (1470–1524), one of the Four Great Masters of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) renowned for his brilliant brushwork, and a finely painted landscape handscroll by the Daoist painter Zheng Zhong (active early 17th century). The centerpiece of the exhibition is an exquisite handscroll by the professional painter Qiu Ying (active first half of the sixteenth century). “Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute” tells the poignant story of the daughter of a Chinese aristocrat abducted by a barbarian nomad of the steppes. After many years in captivity she is finally ransomed and allowed to return home, but she is forced to leave behind the children that she has borne to her captor. Qiu Ying brilliantly captures the pathos and drama of this story; the figures of the barbarians and the Chinese, executed in minute detail and brilliant color, contrast with the drab tones of the barren steppes that form the background to the narrative. Qiu Ying’s depiction of this story is not only one of the finest Chinese narrative handscrolls in existence, at forty-four feet it is also one of the longest.

The rarity and high quality of these paintings is reflected in the fact that a number of them were formerly in the Chinese imperial collections and bear the seals and inscriptions of emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).

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Gui (grain vessel). Chinese, Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1030–771 B.C.E.), 10th century B.C.E. Bronze. Private Collection.

Chinese ritual bronzes, distinguished by their striking forms and mysterious decoration, rank among the finest creations in the history of metalworking. During the Shang (c. 1500–c.1030 B.C.E) and Zhou (c.1030–256 B.C.E) dynasties, they were used for offering sacrifices of food and alcohol to the ancestors of the rulers and aristocracy who were believed to control the fate not just of individuals but also of the state and society. The shapes of the vessels originated in practical usage, but developed into elaborate sculptural forms that were designed more for their visual impact and ritual power than for ease of use. Music also played an important role in these rituals, and large sets of bronze bells also developed that were as impressive for their visual as their musical qualities. This exhibition features outstanding examples of vessels, including a gui grain container with a design of peacocks, a you wine container decorated with a compelling monster mask termed “taotie,” and one of the finest set of bells in an American collection.

This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of William S. Youngman (1907–1994), P ’64, GP ’87, ’90, Trustee of Middlebury College, 1962–1977.

In conjunction with the exhibition the Museum will offer a school program for grades 6–12. There will be a teacher workshop on Thurs., Sept. 25, from 3–5:30 p.m., and guided tours for school groups will be available from Oct. 7–Dec. 5. For further information or to register for the teacher workshop and school programs, please contact Sandi Olivo, curator of education, at (802) 443-2248 or olivo@middlebury.edu.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art, located on Route 30 on the southern edge of campus, 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 museum.middlebury.edu.