Descended From the Ancients

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

China claims the only continuing civilization originating in the ancient world. One critical reason for the longevity: the development a thousand years ago of an extremely literate--even hyperliterate--ruling class, with deep knowledge of (and passionate affection for) painting, history, poetry and prose.

An administrative government like that is a long way from what you'd find these days in our neck of the woods. But, in the lovely new galleries for Chinese art just opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the breadth and depth of China's long-standing cultural and intellectual refinement is evident at every turn.

It's there where you'd expect it--say, in the dramatic stylization of a funerary sculpture of a horse, made from molded earthenware in Sichuan province during the Han dynasty (25-220). Rituals associated with burial are among the most important in traditional Chinese life, so the remarkable care lavished on this exquisite, prancing beast--part lifelike idiosyncrasy, part boundless idealization--is not surprising.

However, extraordinarily acute refinement is also evident in the small things, where you wouldn't necessarily think to find it. Look at the little stand on which a Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1912) dynasty scholar would lay his wet ink brush, to keep it clean while he went about his work. The brush rest, carved from an exquisite chunk of vibrant lapus lazuli, takes the form of a lofty mountain range, dwelling place of elevated thoughts and higher spirits. Where else but on a metaphorical mountaintop would a hyperliterate person want to lay his trusty calligraphy tool?

The new galleries at LACMA contain a variety of wonderful objects such as these, dating from the past several thousand years. Overall, and despite areas of unusual strength, this holding does not rank in the highest tier among American museum collections of Chinese art, commensurate to those in San Francisco, Cleveland or Boston. Yet, the new installation, much larger and more copious than LACMA has ever before provided for this work, is nonetheless something of a revelation.

The 10 galleries are on the lower level of the Ahmanson Building, flanking two sides of the atrium. These have always been among the most awkward and inhospitable spaces in the museum, but Keith Wilson, curator of Far Eastern art, and his staff have transformed them into comfortable, nicely proportioned and welcoming galleries. Several even have windows facing Wilshire Boulevard, which relieves the old feeling of being in an underground bunker.

The galleries are installed chronologically, beginning with early Chinese bronze vessels, earthenware figures, funerary sculptures, wheel-thrown pottery and a small selection of carved stone Buddhas. Next comes an array of trade wares and ceramics of Southeast Asia, demonstrating the competitive interaction of the pottery trade in the region that arose around the 11th century and flourished for hundreds of years.

At the corner, though, is where you'll find the pivot of the new installation: a careful re-creation of a scholar's studio, typical of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The simple room, built on a raised platform, is spare, symmetrical and harmoniously balanced, with a place for everything and everything in its place.

A tall cabinet in the center, flanked by a pair of floral plaques, holds a variety of wood and lacquer boxes and ceramic vessels. A vitrine adjacent to the room displays the objects you might find in the cabinet's drawers or in the boxes: a fly whisk of carved bamboo, a spotted bamboo ink brush, a variety of seals, the lapis "mountain" brush rest and more.

To the left, a small gallery displays a remarkable, well-preserved clay model of a Chinese double-courtyard house, partially painted and glazed and originally made for a burial site. Because effigies of worldly possessions were typically buried with the dead, funerary objects such as this one are the source of much of our knowledge about Chinese history. It's easy to imagine that a prosperous household like the one represented in the clay model would have been occupied by a member of the scholar-gentry, and that he would have used a studio like the one set up in the gallery adjacent.

China's scholar-gentry is a fascinating subject, and its proliferation is responsible for much of the exquisitely refined art produced over the centuries. Mostly they were civil servants in government administration of the far-flung empire; appointed for life, they came to their posts through a rigorous system of examinations open to anyone. The tests focused on classical Chinese history and arts and--especially--on the pragmatic lessons that could be learned from them.

This exam system had many beneficial ramifications. First, the slowly but steadily changing class of scholars ensured a continuity of educated governance. Second, its members claimed a measure of independence, rather than being strictly beholden to hereditary power. And third, their pragmatism was partly manifested in the design of ordinary useful objects--from brush rests to lacquerware, fabric design to calligraphy. Even the concept of painting, which does not require a functional use, was not separated from the commonly informed discourse of a generally educated class.

At LACMA, the functional objects that sustain the highest level of interest are probably the lacquered boxes, dishes, bowls and cups, most of them in red or black but occasionally in green and gold. More than 60 are displayed. Lacquers are made by coating wood with layers of pigmented resin, which preserves the wood inside and can also be carved or inlaid. A number of beautiful examples are on view, and several provocative comparisons can be made.

One dish from the early Ming dynasty (1340-1450) is carved in a traditional, intricate pattern of naturalistic chrysanthemums. Nearby, another dish from the same period is carved in a pattern that seems abstract, but whose radiating scrolls in fact represent the pommel of a sword, thus imparting an aura of power. And yet, looked at in another way, the radiating pommel pattern also suggests the radiating petals of a single chrysanthemum.

If the selection of lacquers is large and often intriguing, the display of paintings is rather small and conservative; the examples tend to emphasize academic links to the long tradition of Chinese painting. The horizontal hand scrolls and vertical hanging scrolls take your eye on an extended voyage through time and space; sort of like film strips, this visual, sometimes visionary journey is radically different from the scenic narrative traditions of Western landscape painting.

Although the permanent collection is the lifeblood of any museum, it usually gets upstaged by temporary and traveling shows, which can be important but are finally here today and gone tomorrow. The new galleries for Chinese art are the latest in an ongoing reorganization and reinstallation of LACMA's permanent collection throughout the Ahmanson Building, which so far has included American painting, sculpture and decorative arts and European painting. Simply put, while there's room for growth and expansion of these holdings, Chinese art at LACMA has never looked better.

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CHINESE GALLERIES, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Dates: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.; Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. Admission: $6 adults, $4 seniors and students with identification. Phone: (213) 857-6000.

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