Khubilai Khan at the Met
The Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) knew how to live. Today, we could say they had a talent for "living large," enjoying all the arts in this life and the next. If there is a message in the Met's new show, "The World of Khubilai Khan, Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty," it is that during the roughly 100 years of the Yuan, there was a new artistic awakening and a flourishing of all the arts including architecture, textiles, calligraphy, painting, and porcelain. According to the curators, the Yuan world laid the foundation of what today we think of as traditional Chinese art.
The first great Khan was Genghis (1167-1227). His grandson, Khubilai (1215-1294) was the first non-Chinese emperor of a unified China, The Mongol Empire under his rule extended from the Pacific to the Urals, from Siberia to Afghanistan, and was probably the largest contiguous empire in history. Throughout the dynamic Yuan (which means "beginning"] artisans from all over Central and Western Asia worked along side Chinese skilled craftsmen exchanging ideas in just about everything from art to architecture.
The Met's exhibition begins with a section on daily life. The portraits are striking, especially those of two women wearing the typical Mongol "gugu," tall cylindrical headdresses for elite court women. These chubby-faced, double-chinned ladies are obviously living the upscale life wearing beautiful silk jackets which are dead ringers for contemporary chic. But in this first gallery, it is the men's belt buckles and robes which were meant to dazzle. Now a faded tan, they were woven in silk with overall patterns of gold, gifts from the Khan ("ruler"] to his nobles. The Mongols loved gold and in almost every gallery, there are beautifully crafted gold vessels and textiles, According to scholar Thomas Allsen, the Mongol affinity for gold was not just its glitz and glitter, but a color with deep meaning "representing at the very least, the male principle, the sun, and the heavens." The quote is from the show's beautifully illustrated catalog, "The World of Khubilai Khan, Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty."
One of the most intriguing galleries in this Yuan treasure trove consists of statues of animated dancers and a huge model of a stage with five actors. People of the Yuan Dynasty, rich and poor alike, were great fans of any type of theater. At Dadu (Beijing), the capital of the empire which Marco Polo may have visited, residents enjoyed all sorts of entertainments, festivals, and parades. According to the exhibition catalog, one parade for a Buddhist festival involved 120 drummers, 500 mounted imperial guards, 500 soldiers, 150 women performers, and 150 acrobats. Small pottery figures of musicians, dancers, and actors still bare traces of their makeup. A beguiling figure of a Mongol dancer as well as the other exhibits in this gallery are evidence that Chinese theater, really multi-media shows, reached their full maturing during the Yuan.
It's the small details in this show that are most intriguing, For example, lions were not well known in China, so in one gallery you see lion statues that are almost cute and cuddly. The Mongols also revered dragons. One of the most striking architectural artifacts is a large roof ornament, a green-glazed pottery dragon with a wide open mouth and bulbous black eyes.
One gallery in this show is devoted to Buddhist art. The standouts here are two stunning silk tapestry mandalas. Another section of this show is devoted to paintings and sculptures related to the other religions --- Daoism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Manichaeism, and Hinduism --- which were practiced in Yuan China. Blue-and-white porcelain, red lacquer ware, and luxurious textiles also have pride of place. On view through January 2, 2011;www.metmuseum.org