August 23, 2013

Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting at BAM/PFA, Berkeley, California

Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting 
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive - BAM / PFA 
September 25 - December 22, 2013 

Beauty About to Bathe, China, 18th century 
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; 61 x 34 ¼ in. 
Private collection: Ferdinand M. Bertholet, Amsterdam 
Photo courstesy BAM / PFA 

Featuring nearly thirty works, Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting is the first to bring together a genre of Chinese painting known as meiren hua, or paintings of beautiful women. Situating the works within the social and economic contexts of the High Qing period (midseventeenth to the late eighteenth century), the exhibition challenges the prevailing opinion that these subjects are high status women—either members of the court or other privileged women. By reading the visual codes embedded in the images, Beauty Revealed instead makes the case that these women are courtesans.

Borrowing seldom-before-utilized techniques from the West, including one-point perspective and heavy opaque colors, the artists, many of them unknown professional painters who painted on demand and for a fee, pursue a realism not previously seen in Chinese painting. Rather than the willowy beauty shown in a garden setting or surrounded by family among luxurious furnishings typical of earlier periods, these paintings generally feature a single, near life-size figure, often in a brazenly unladylike posture. Their garments tend to be low cut and transparent, and their bound feet exposed. 

For example, the direct gaze of the woman in Putting out the Lamp, addressed to the (presumably male) intended viewer, offers a suggestive undercurrent of greater intimacy, one of the hallmarks of this genre. Other codes of accessibility include the woman’s relaxed posture with right leg drawn up under left, the open sleeves that reveal her arms, and the highly stylized extension of her right hand in a controlled gesture reaching to snuff out the light. Her expression engages the audience in a way never before seen in Chinese figure painting. 

Putting Out the Lamp, China, late 18th century (detail) 
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper; 65 x 24-5/8 in. 
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
Gift of James Cahill and Hsingyuan Tsao 
Photo courstesy BAM / PFA 

The backdrops further draw viewers into the women’s world, conveying significant information about their wealth, taste, learning, and accomplishments. The women are depicted surrounded by everyday objects packed with erotic symbolism. The art has an immediate impact, inviting viewers to enter and enjoy another world, one perhaps longed for and unattainable. 

In addition to several paintings from BAM/PFA’s own collection, Beauty Revealed features loans from institutions and private collections from around the US and Europe. It is organized into distinct sections that explore the intimate life of women within the garden, home, bath, and brothel. Curated by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White in collaboration with UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus James Cahill, the exhibition is accompanied by an exquisitely illustrated catalog with essays by Cahill, White, and noted historian Sarah Handler. The catalog entries are by Chen Fongfong, with contributions by Nancy Berliner and White. Published by UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Distributed by D.A.P. , 126 pages; 67 color illustrations.

Colloquium, November 22, 2013: In tribute to James Cahill's fundamental insights regarding Chinese experiments with perspectival representation during the late-imperial period, the Institute for East  Asian Studies will host a symposium on perspective in Chinese painting to accompany Beauty Revealed. Participants will include Eugene Wang, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art, History of Art & Architecture, Harvard University; Richard Vinograd, Christensen Fund Professor in Asian Art, Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University; and Nancy Berliner, Curator of Chinese Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive - BAM / PFA
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