The most enchanting show of the summer is tucked away in the Chinese paintings gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“Faces From China’s Past” is a walk-in album of charming portraits from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Their subjects — imposing matrons and fetching young women, stately ancestors and learned men — seem remote from us in customs and dress, yet seeing them enjoy their pets and favorite pastimes in lovely gardens and elegant interiors, one immediately feels a sense of kinship.
And there’s just enough of a “boy meets girl” theme to keep things interesting.
That notion gets quite an airing in a series of exquisite illustrations for an erotic novel, “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” chronicling the amorous adventures of a rich merchant, Master Ximen. He’s a randy and at times cruel character, not above climbing a garden wall to have a tryst with his brother’s wife or punishing a wayward concubine with a whip.
Nearby, “Listening to the Qin by Candlelight,” a 17th-century piece showing a man playing the ancient stringed instrument for a female companion, presents a much more civilized approach to romance.
Drawn from the collections of the Nelson and the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, the artworks in this show were made for enjoyment and commemoration by mostly unknown artists. And many of the works have languished in storage for years.
“Scholars weren’t interested in this type of painting; it’s not what Chinese consider mainstream,” said Colin Mackenzie, the Nelson’s senior curator of Chinese painting. The mainstream is landscape painting, he said, “created by the educated elite to express a philosophical view of art.”
One impetus to the exhibit was a new book by noted Chinese art authority James Cahill.
In “Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China,” Cahill argues for the aesthetic and cultural importance of paintings made for everyday use by artists who did not belong to the literati class and were thus excluded from the canon.
“Chinese painting as it survives today has been, in effect, severely censored by this same elite, the Chinese male educated class,” Cahill contends.
Conceived by Marsha Haufler, professor of later Chinese art at the University of Kansas, “Faces From China’s Past” counters centuries of censorship with a rich sampling of neglected vernacular works. The exhibit was curated by KU graduate students in art history under the guidance of Haufler and Ling-en Lu, the Nelson’s assistant curator of Chinese art.
“Lady Embroidering,” an 18th-century hanging scroll of a sweet-faced young woman lost in reverie over her embroidery, offers a decidedly more suggestive approach to affairs of the heart than “The Plum in the Golden Vase.”
The erotic aspects of this portrait are all conveyed through symbols. The accompanying label explains that in Chinese poetry, embroidery was a way to pass time while waiting for a lover. The text also draws attention to the finger citron that appears on the table in the background. Known also as “Buddha’s hand,” the fruit symbolizes female sexuality, while the orchid that appears in a pot in the foreground is a reference to courtesans.
Young and beautiful like the demure embroiderer, the “Palace Beauty With a Sword” portrayed in another 18th-century hanging scroll is no shrinking violet.
Shown with her weapon behind her and wearing mesh armor under her robe, this girl is a murderer. After the emperor massacred her family, she slipped into the palace and killed him.
Lu notes that “there are many women warriors in Chinese stories.” Mackenzie sees this piece as “ the archetype of all the kung fu movies in which women take part.”
The organizers made a point of including portraits of real women, which are unusual, Lu said, in addition to the images of idealized young beauties.
Symbols of longevity and good fortune — cranes, a deer, a rooster, hen and chicks, a bowl of peaches — surround the contented matriarch portrayed in “Lady in Garden.”
“She’s confident sitting there,” Lu observed. “She probably had several sons and is of high social status.” Furthermore, the composition shows both her hands and her feet, which are not bound, an indication that she’s Manchu, Lu said. (Foot-binding was a Han tradition, not practiced by the Manchus, who were the rulers of the Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911).
The composition contains a wealth of information about the woman’s status and cultural origins, including her Manchu-style robe and expensive furniture and accoutrements. Mother-of-pearl inlay adorns her chair, and the table behind her holds objects of red lacquer and blue and white porcelain.
This picture, like many in the exhibit, includes a landscape screen.
“There’s always a reference to landscape,” Mackenzie said. “It’s a way of signifying that you’re cultured.”
Images of strong women dominate a selection of ancestor portraits.
None is more imposing than “Ancestor Portrait of a Court Lady,” a formal, symmetrical presentation of a massive seated figure enveloped in a ceremonial robe. The gold phoenix design on the fabric, along with a red lacquer cosmetic box and lion-shaped incense burner, convey her high status, while her kindly, but serious, expression gives her the aspect of a wise judge.
The most curious section of this show comprises a 19th-century album of 74 portrait heads displayed in a long horizontal case along the gallery’s east wall.
“We don’t know their function,” Lu said. “They were probably sketches in the artist’s studio.” She surmises that clients commissioning ancestor portraits might have sought likenesses among the different faces portrayed — young, old, nearly all of them male.
The shading and detail suggest photography to Mackenzie.
“I don’t think these could have been done before the invention of photography,” he said.
Most of the works in this show were made following the arrival in China of Jesuits from Italy, who introduced Western art and science to the Chinese court beginning in the 16th century.
The Western influence is apparent in the use of perspective in several works, as well as in the shading and modeling employed in the large “Portrait of Yinli, Prince Guo (1697-1738),” who poses with a scepter called a “ruyi,” an auspicious object, popular at court.
The prince appears in an outdoor setting, as do the male subjects of two other portraits, including the winsomely titled “Portrait of Gao Shiqi Whiling Away the Summer” (1696).
Enjoying nature was seen as a means to self-cultivation in Chinese culture.
Seated in a pavilion set in nature, accompanied by his musical instrument and books, the subject of “Surveillance Commissioner Zhang Listens to Wind and Rain on the Paulownia Tree” exemplifies the male ideal of a scholar, Mackenzie said.
In contrast, girls just wanna have fun, judging from the delightful hand scroll “Feminine Pursuits of the Four Seasons.” Kris Ercums, the Spencer’s curator of global contemporary and Asian art, discovered this 19th-century treasure in the museum’s storage, and the current exhibit marks the first time it has been shown.
The work joins a long tradition of portraying court beauties, Mackenzie said.
Beginning with spring, successive scenes capture the young women riding horses and flying kites. In summer they swim nude; in autumn they sweep leaves and sew, preparing for winter. At one point a little cat joins the fray, with a girl in pursuit after it knocked over a vase.
Lu was amused to see how these young and beautiful women “dressed up to do laundry.”
“It’s a romanticized version,” she said.
Despite such liberties with the facts, the works in this show offer rich insights into Chinese attitudes and values. And in many ways, the ongoing rehabilitation of these Chinese vernacular works parallels the broadening of the Western canon that has occurred with postmodernism.