Object of the Week: No. 19

Fang Lijun’s No. 19 depicts five people, all bald and dressed in button-up shirts, looking at something together. In the galleries of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, it’s hard to place these figures and understand exactly what they are doing. The gray shadows on their faces and downturned mouths seem to suggest disapproval, or at least resignation. A sense of amusement gives way to an unsettling sense of curiosity about why they are dressed identically and have gathered together.

Fang Lijun’s paintings and woodblock prints often feature groups of these lookalikes. They tend to communicate a singular emotion by simultaneously donning blank stares, maniacal grins, or awestruck expressions. In 1992, art critic Li Xianting described Fang’s work, as well as that of fellow artists Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, as “Cynical Realism.” This term encompasses works of contemporary Chinese art that, through irony and satire, responded to the societal changes of the 1980s. These artists came of age during the Cultural Revolution, a period marked by uniformity and a staunch ethos of collectivism, only to witness those values fall out of fashion a decade later amidst China’s increasing embrace of free market economics. Reflecting this context, the viewer can see both humor and bleakness in No. 19. In a 2017 interview, Fang remarked that the silly or undignified impressions given off by his figures amounts to “mischievousness, mockery, making fun of people.”1

In this same interview, a quarter century after the term was coined, Fang also voices ambivalence about his work being described as Cynical Realism. But a viewer might interpret No. 19 as commenting on Chinese society in other ways, including the artist’s choice of medium. No. 19 is a woodblock print, which requires carving the negative of an image on a piece of wood, coating the panel with ink, and impressing it onto paper or fabric. Though woodblock printing has been a part of East Asian art for over a thousand years, Chinese artists of the New Woodcut Movement in the 1930s used the art form in a new way: to advocate for social change. These artists committed to “representing the underrepresented,” populating their images with “peasants, beggars, prisoners, rickshaw pullers, boat trackers, famine victims, war refugees, industrial workers, and political protestors.”2 Through easily distributed and visually accessible prints, these artists hoped to give voice to ordinary people and spark political consciousness.

Zheng Yefu, Fight, 1933, woodcut, 19 x 14.5 cm3

Likewise, the group depicted in No. 19—nameless, without distinguishing features—seems to be fairly ordinary as well. But compared to the protestors crying out for change shown in 1930s woodcuts, they seem quieter and more ominous. No. 19 might prompt the viewer to glance over their shoulder—an instinctive reaction to the feeling that they are missing what everyone is seeing. What could it be?

Returning to Li Xianting’s 1992 article, a younger Fang Lijun is quoted as saying, “A fool is someone still trusting after being taken in a hundred times. We’d rather be lost, bored, crisis-ridden misguided punks than be cheated.”4 Considering that this artwork was completed in 1996, these figures seem to exist in the aftermath of the 20th century and at the dawn of the 21st century in China. Representing a generation caught between a “before” and an “after,” Fang Lijun’s figures witnessed how mass mobilization towards one vision of the future could be invalidated or entirely reversed. While there are only five people in No. 19, it’s not hard to imagine the woodcut print being duplicated many times over, producing 10, 15, or 20,000 of these sullen individuals. Their shabby clothes or slack faces may indeed be mocked by other people, especially those rebounding from upheaval by busily forging ahead in the new millennium. But their unwavering stares seem to see things a little more clearly.

Yaoyao Liu, Museum Educator, Seattle Asian Art Museum

Yaoyao develops K-12 programs and resources related to other works of contemporary Asian art at SAM, including the Eyes on Asia video series.


1 Tessa Moldan, “Fang Lijun,” Ocula Magazine, https://ocula.com/magazine/insights/fang-lijun.

2 Xiaobing Tang, “Echoes of Roar, China! On Vision and Voice in Modern Chinese Art” in positions: east asia cultures critique, Fall 2006, pp. 467-494.

3 Chang Yuchen, “From New Woodcut to the No Name Group: Resistance, Medium and Message in 20th-Century China,” Art in Print, vol. 6, no. 1, artinprint.org/article/new-woodcut-no-name-group-resistance-medium-message-20th-century-china. Zheng Yefu print reproduced from Selection of 50 Years of Chinese New Printmaking, Vol. 1, 1931–1949 (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1981).

4 Stephanie Buhmann, “Fang Lijun,” The Brooklyn Rail, https://brooklynrail.org/2004/02/artseen/fang-lijun.

Image: No. 19, 1996, Fang Lijun, various, woodblock print, Gift of Robert M. Arnold, 98.30.1-4 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Virtual Tour with Nana

Next in our series of virtual tours from Suzanne Ragen, aka Nana, we’ll be looking at an ancient Hindu sculpture and a Chinese sculpture from the 14th century. A SAM docent since 1965, Ragen began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren when the Asian Art Museum had to close for the safety of the public in March 2020. She recently started to share these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us and we hope you enjoy them!

Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings

Do you remember our first object, the Indian Story Scroll Cloth that featured the Hindu god Ganesh? He starts the story on that scroll because he is the God of Auspicious Beginnings, which means the story gets off to a good start. 

This stone sculpture of Ganesh was located in a niche of a Hindu temple wall. In Hinduism, there are three main gods: Brahma has four heads and is the creator of pretty much everything; Vishnu often wears a top hat and is blue and comes to earth to help when needed in the form of nine different avatars; and Shiva who is the destroyer and can end the world and then you start all over again.     

This Ganesh is connected to Shiva, we know that because the snake across his round belly is Shiva’s snake. When you look at Ganesh, what’s the first thing you notice? For me, his most striking feature is his elephant head. He also has four arms, a big belly, wears jewelry, and a crown. You might notice his candy dish in his left hand (he loves candy). What do you see near his right foot? That’s Mooshika, his rat sidekick who helps Ganesh trample down or wiggle through obstacles.

Why do you think he has an elephant head? The reason starts with Shiva and his wife Parvati, who live in a big, fancy house. Shiva is gone a lot, destroying things and Parvati misses him. One day when Shiva is gone Parvati makes a child out of clay to keep her company and breathes life into him. Once she goes to take a bath and tells her child, “Don’t let anyone in the house!” But Shiva comes home unexpectedly. Ganesh stops him and says “You can’t come in!” This makes Shiva so angry that he takes his sword and cuts off Ganesh’s head.

Parvati comes out and says, “How terrible! You have cut off the head of our child!” Shiva realizes the situation and tells his servant to go to the market and bring back the first head he sees. It is an elephant. Shiva places the elephant head on his child’s body. Ganesh comes back to life and in Hindu mythology, stays as a helper to his father and a good son to his mother.

 Many Hindus pray to Ganesh for good luck when they set a new goal. After hearing this story, what do you think is lucky about Ganesh?

Dragon Tamer Luohan

This Chinese wood sculpture from the 14th century came to the Seattle Art Museum soon after it opened its doors in 1933. How do I know this information? I looked at the label! If you look at the last numbers on any label (no matter what museum you go to), you’ll see there are a series of numbers. The numbers before the first period tell you what year the museum acquired the work, after the period is the number in which the object came into the collection that year. This is called the accession number. The accession number for this object is 36.13. This means that the object was acquired in 1936 and it was the 13th object acquired that year.

For the past 84 years this object was titled Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment. While the museum was closed for a recent renovation and expansion, our Chinese curator was able to examine it very carefully, using medical equipment like x-rays and CT scans, as well as looking closely. We can do that, too.

What we discovered from the scans is that the figure is hollow, made up of five different pieces of wood, held together with long iron pins, and was painted in reds and greens with a topcoat of gold, most of which has worn off. The curator was able to remove a panel in his back and found a single Chinese character inscribed inside that the museum had never seen before! It is part of the name for the Dragon Tamer Luohan. Luohans are Buddhist monks and this one’s particular job was to control the Dragon King. The Chinese believed that rainfall was controlled from the clouds by the Dragon King, so farmers would pray to this Luohan for the right amount of rain for their crops. Because of his size  (more than three feet) and quality, it is thought that he was originally in a temple in Beijing.

The other big surprise that was found inside him was a mud wasp nest in his head! It must have been there for 800 years. A fragment of a wasp was sent to a UW entomologist, who was able to determine its species. 

He is sitting on a tree stump, his body is twisted, legs with one foot touching the ground and the other crossed over that knee. He is grasping his robe in one hand and probably held a pail or a pearl in his other hand.  He is looking upward at the sky, communicating with the Dragon King for more or less rain to fall. He seems totally animated with his swirling robes and vigorous body language. Notice his elongated pierced ear lobes, a symbol of the Buddha, who began life so wealthy that he wore heavy gold earring which stretched his ears.

Many years ago I was leading a high school group on a tour and we were talking about enlightenment and what it is? (This was when he had his first title). I suggested that it might be what happens when you are puzzling over a math problem and the symbols and numbers are just making no sense. You keep looking at them and suddenly they fall into place. Eureka! Enlightenment! When I said that, I snapped my fingers, and at that moment there was a minor Seattle earthquake. The guards came and rushed us into a doorway. I did feel a certain odd sense of power.

– Suzanne Regan, SAM Docent

Image: Dragon Tamer Luohan, ca. 14th century, Chinese, wood with polychrome decoration, 41 x 30 x 22 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.13. Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings, ca. late 10th to early 11th century, Indian , Odisha, possibly Bhubanesvara, sandstone, 18 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.33.

SAM Creates: Rubbings Revealed from Wu Liang Shrine

Located in present-day Jiaxiang in Shandong province, the Wu Family Ancestral Shrine built during the 2nd century in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220) is among the best-known works in Chinese art history. Take a virtual tour of the shrine.

The simple graphic images you see from the Wu Liang Shrine were made from laying paper against the stone carvings that are inside the shrine and rubbing with ink to transfer the images onto paper. Learn more about this rubbing in our Object of the Week series.

The center line in this image depicts the story of a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Qin Shi Huang by Jing Ke. The figures, mostly in silhouette, move across the page presenting many parts of the story in one frame. This is an example of simultaneous illustration. Listen to a lecture on Telling a Story with Pictures to learn more about the differences between Eastern and Western visual narratives.

Create your own rubbing!

What you will need

  • Paper: A few sheets of lighter weight paper, along with some heavier paper or light cardboard (think drawing paper or cereal box).
  • Scissors or exacto knife
  • Pencil, crayon, chalk, or pastel

Warm up: Layer a small piece of the heavier paper under your lightweight paper. Take your pencil or crayon and rub over it, where the edges of the heavy paper sit, the crayon will be darker revealing the shape. Keep this in mind as you make a larger work. 

Next, start with something easy as you consider what story you want to tell with your rubbing. What are you currently watching or reading? Who is the main character? Follow the lead of the artists who carved the stone of the Wu family shrines and use simple shapes to depict your protagonist on the heavier paper. Draw each limb or clothing article as a separate shape, and draw their head in profile. You don’t need any detail, just flat non-dimensional shapes, like a paper doll.

Once you have these basic shapes, cut them out of your paper, and layer them together to make your character. Lay the thinner paper over them and rub with your pencil. You can add interesting textures by adding cuts to your figure’s shapes or by layering materials around the house like bubble wrap, or sandpaper.

Reuse the cutouts to animate your character across the page. What is your character doing? Think about an action that helps tell a story. For each move your character makes rearrange the paper cut outs and lay the lighter weight paper on top. Rub your crayon or pencil over the paper to make an impression, then move the cut outs for the next action and rub again.

We’d love to see your artwork—share it with us while #StayHomeWithSAM.

– Lynda Harwood-Swenson, SAM Assistant Manager for Studio Programs  

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Wu Liang Shrine: Chinese History and Mythology, ca. 1920s, Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, ink rubbing on paper, 35.587.2

Muse/News: Chiyo’s goodbye, the art of hom bows, and Earth’s mini moon

SAM News

Last week, we announced that Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, will retire this summer after 30 years with the museum. The Seattle Times, KUOW, Artforum, Artnet, ARTnews, Artdaily, and Hyperallergic all shared the news. In Crosscut’s Arts & Culture newsletter, Brangien Davis spoke for everyone when she wrote, “Beloved in the Seattle arts community for her insight, approachability and très chic personal style, Ishikawa will be missed.”

“A Place for Meaningful Cultural Conversations” declared the headline for art critic Lee Lawrence’s thoughtful review of the reimagined Asian Art Museum, which appeared in the February 25 print edition of the Wall Street Journal.

“These 19th-century bululs, or rice deities, from the Philippines once watched over terraced paddies, and they’re among the museum’s most modest yet most powerful works. Given the nature and small size of its Philippine holdings, the Seattle Asian Art Museum probably would have kept them in storage had it opted for a traditional installation. But in another benefit of thematic groupings, they—and other long-warehoused treasures in the museum’s collection—now have a role, enriching the new installation not just with their stories but with their spirit.”

Local News

Seattle-based artist Susie J. Lee is making a short video about what makes a museum “interesting and cool.” The Seattle Times’ Alan Berner captured photos of the recent shoot at the Asian Art Museum.

Crosscut’s new video series, Art Seen, explores “the hidden art of the everyday”; they recently showed us how Mee Sum Pastry makes all those hom bows, day in and day out.

The Seattle Times’ Crystal Paul reviews the new collection of stories by Zora Neale Hurston, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick.

“As a trained anthropologist, Hurston traveled down the East Coast and sat on stoops and corners, the storytelling stages and communal gathering spaces of Black communities, where, with academic rigor and a loving gaze, she listened, studied and collected the stories Black folk tell.”

Inter/National News

Tara Bahrampour for the Washington Post on the Phillips Collection’s Creative Aging program, which helps seniors connect and make art.

Holland Cotter of the New York Times on MoMA’s Donald Judd survey that opens on Sunday, noting that his work “can now be seen to offer pleasures, visual and conceptual, that any audience with open eyes, can relate to.”

Hyperallergic’s Kealey Boyd reviews the exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China; its national tour has now brought it to the Smart Museum of Art and Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, before it heads to SAM this summer.

“It is not often a new category of art historical research is proposed as a solution to these persistent problems, but The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China makes a compelling case for the usefulness of a new analytical structure around Chinese art.” 

And Finally

Earth can have a mini moon (as a treat).

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Scott Areman

Object of the Week: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119

Object of the Week: Couplet

Oracle-bone script (jiaguwen) is a form of Chinese writing that emerged during the Shang Dynasty—dating from the 14th–11th century BCE—and is considered the earliest known form of systematic Chinese script.

Some of the oldest oracle-bone inscriptions were short texts inscribed on the flat shoulder blade bones of oxen and shells of tortoises. Such bones were used for divination, a process which involved the inscription of a question with a bronze pin—lending the script its characteristic angularity—and then heating the bone to reveal cracks, which would be divined for answers.

The symbols used eventually became words, which were later developed into a Chinese script that is recognized today as part of China’s long tradition of calligraphic arts. This work by Rao Zongyi, titled Couplet, utilizes the ancient script, brought to life for a contemporary audience.

Rao—a poet, calligrapher, painter, and scholar of the humanities—produced the couplet in 1971 while a visiting professor at Yale University. Composed by Rao, the poem describes in red ink a kun-style operatic performance by Chang Ch’ung. Together the two scrolls read: The wind makes the snow dance amidst the sunlight, the music hangs like clouds on her garments.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Couplet, 1971, Rao Zongyi, red ink on paper, 74 5/16 x 14 3/16 in., Gift of Chang Ch’ung-ho and Hans Frankel from their collection, 2010.9.6.1-.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Birdcage

In a scene from the 2008 Disney animated movie, Mulan, Mulan’s grandmother holds a caged cricket, closes her eyes, and crosses a bustling street in China. Like the pet cricket in Mulan, the practice of domesticating and keeping animals in cages such as crickets and birds traces back to China’s earliest records.

This birdcage in SAM’s collection, pictured here, was likely created during the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) or Republican period (1850-1920). In China, a pronounced appreciation for bird keeping arose during the Qing dynasty. During this period, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) particularly enjoyed raising pet birds, and the emperor’s fascination subsequently permeated China. As aviculture spread throughout the country, many men would stroll through the early morning streets, swinging their birdcages back and forth like a pendulum. To this day, Chinese bird keepers swing cages to encourage birds to grip to their perch, an exercise which prevents birds’ feathers from falling off.

As much as aviculturists value their birds, they equally value the craftsmanship of the birdcages. The maker of this birdcage remains unknown. Crafted from hardwood, ivory, and metal, intricate carvings and patterns are etched into the wood. Ivory insets depict beautiful landscapes, evoking scenes of the world where the bird once flew free. Also notable is the cage’s design, which reflects recognizable architectural features of a pagoda, such as steps trailing up to the door and the two-storied structure. Pagodas originated as sacred places to preserve Buddhist relics, and this distinct structure can be found throughout China’s built environment.

While intricately handcrafted birdcages have diminished recently due to industrialization, the cage markets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong continue to thrive, allowing this rich artistic tradition to live on. See this work on view at SAM in Pure Amusements: Wealth, Leisure, and Culture in Late Imperial China.

Lauren Farris, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Image: Birdcage, 1850-1920, Chinese, wood, metal, ivory, 26 x 12 1/2 x 12 1/2in., Gift of Henry and Mary Ann James, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.11.

Object of the Week: Disc with dragon motif

From some of the first recorded dragons found in Mesopotamian art, to the dragons found snarling onscreen and in books, numerous cultures have fostered their own myths and beliefs about dragons. Still, most of the dragons we encounter today are the fearsome fire-breathing creatures of the European tradition who lay waste to cities and hoard mounds of gold.

In Chinese culture, however, the dragon is highly revered and a symbol of good fortune. Originally associated with the stars and constellations that appear in the spring, dragons began to represent the seasons of rain and the coming of summer.1 Instead of bringing fire and destruction, Chinese dragons brought rain for crops and livestock.

In many areas of China, the dragon symbolizes harmony and prosperity. The number nine has long been associated with heaven and dragons have often been described in nines—leading to this number being deemed particularly auspicious. Later, dragons even began to be equated to the imperial throne and the reigning emperor through architecture and garments.

Far more sinuous and twisting than their Western European counterparts, Chinese dragons had bird-like wings with long plumes and whiskers. In this jade disc from the 8th century B.C., two dragons intertwine and almost chase each other across the mossy green stone. Each deeply abstracted line flows through one another. If one looks close enough, one can glimpse the dragon’s long coiling snout, the orb-like eye, and the curving jaw. Tangled with their bodies and tails, these two creatures’ plumes function as the outer ring of the disk.

These stone rings, or bi disks, were often carved with sky imagery and buried with the dead. There, dragons signified heaven, harmony, and balance within the natural order of life.2 Rather than functioning as harbingers of doom and destruction, the dragon in Chinese culture and mythology continues to be a symbol of luck and prosperity, hoping to bring balance to many.

  – Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Wilson, J. Keith. “Powerful Form and Potent Symbol: The Dragon in Asia.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77, no. 8 (1990): 286-323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161297.

2 Lopes, Rui Oliveira. “Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes.” Asian Perspectives 53, no. 2 (2014): 195-225. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24569921.

Image: Disc with dragon motif, 10th  – 8th century B.C., Chinese, Nephrite, Diameter: 9 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.11.

Object of the Week: A Feast

As we continue through summer, a season known for family dinners, picnics, and midnight feasts, food becomes a large figure in our lives. Many are connected to it on an intimate level through memories and desires. Painted on a massive sixty-foot scroll, A Feast (2001) by Li Jin dramatizes this deeply important role that food plays in everyday life, specifically in Chinese life and culture. The scroll begins and ends with an essay in light ink calligraphy, written by the artist’s friend, detailing the cultural significance of food. He bookends both essay halves with the declaration that you must “eat as much as you can.”

Juxtaposing this essay, Li Jin offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes with many paintings of dishes and ingredients. He not only gives us plates of steamed crab, sandwiches, and hotpot, but he also presents pig and chicken heads with whole onions and skewers of radish. Combining raw ingredients with more gourmet dishes, he fashions a work that at once showcases the relationship between the Chinese people and food alongside a dazzling display of the consumption of food.

Surrounding these loosely painted images in bold colors, simplified Chinese characters march through the space detailing many different recipes of foods not depicted. Through this unconstrained method of painting, paired with calligraphy, the scroll becomes more alive with action and realism. In the words of the artist, “the scroll could have been lengthened indefinitely. The continuous presentation of food simulates a real feast, where tables can be added to accommodate more dishes.”[1]

Born in 1958 in Tianjin, China, Li Jin’s work has continually evolved as he reflects upon the ways in which people connect to nature and his attempts to represent life in an honest and lifelike manner.[2] His work in A Feast capitalizes upon these enthusiastic and unapologetic qualities as he crafts a world where everyone is invited to the table to join together and eat as much as they can, a philosophy fitting for the possibilities and simple joys of summertime.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] “A Feast,” SAM Collection Online, last updated December 2012, http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/30404/a-feast?ctx=a1efcea2-91cb-470f-a4a4-d9d18c33d912&idx=0
[2] “Li Jin,” Inkstudio, last updated 2019, https://www.inkstudio.com.cn/artists/63-li-jin/overview/
Image: A Feast, 2001, Li Jin, ink on Xuan paper, 33 x 708 5/8 in., Partial gift of Meg Maggio and the Courtyard Gallery, Beijing and partial purchase with funds from Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, John and Shari Behnke, and the Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2003.119 © Li Jin

Object of the Week: Xing ware-type

Sometimes I find myself struck by the contemporaneity of ancient objects, how something made hundreds or thousands of years ago can embody an aesthetic or message relevant to today. Take this Chinese Xing ware-type ewer, for example. Created during the 10th century, the porcelain vessel—with its white glaze and spontaneously placed markings—feels, to me at least, like it could have been made this past century, alongside works by artists such as Lucy Rie or Mary Heilmann.

Ceramics have no doubt made a comeback in the art world, a trend which suggests that the once rigid division between art and craft (and therefore ceramics) is no more. As art critic Roberta Smith rightly articulated in 2009, “It can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers, or artisans.”[1]

Though today we might be less inclined to differentiate between artists and artisans, in 10th-century China there would have certainly been a distinction between makers commissioned by imperial courts and those who produced commercially. Xing ware, produced in what would today be China’s Hebei province, caught the attention of the Tang imperial court and epitomizes Tang-era porcelain: the purity of its clay was unusually low in iron and titanium oxides (contaminants) and very fine grained. Fired in the kiln at 1250 degrees Celsius or higher, this porcelain was unparalleled in its sturdiness, translucence, and pure white color.

Similar in form to late Tang dynasty ceramic ware, this ewer is especially unique due to the greenish-brown splashes of glaze on its porcelain-white body. Used as a wine bottle, this vessel bears similarities to many late Tang wares, though it was unlikely to have been produced in a Xing kiln.[2] Perhaps it is the simplicity of form and coloration that makes this work feel so modern, or, conversely, that so many contemporary ceramicists find (for good reason) inspiration in the rich ceramic traditions of China, where porcelain was perfected and produced exclusively for centuries.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Roberta Smith, “Crucible of Creativity, Stoking Earth Into Art,” New York Times, March 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/arts/design/20dirt.html.
[2] The shape and glaze of this ewer is similar to Xing porcelain, but the clay texture is not nearly as fine. For more on this work and Chinese porcelain more broadly, see Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates (Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 38.
Image: Xing ware-type, 10th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze on white slip, green-brown stripes, 5 1/2 x 2 13/16 in., Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection, 51.122

Object of the Week: Scholar’s rock on stand

Wander into a Chinese scholar’s studio at the Seattle Art Museum to find treasures like a masterfully carved brush pot and a tiny cage to house a lucky cricket. This display of Pure Amusements brings together objects and furnishings collected by scholars as a display of learning, a claim to social status, and an inspiration for reflective thinking.

The Qing period Scholar’s rock on stand, a craggy piece of limestone mounted to a carved wooden base, rewards our contemplation, too. Interesting examples of the scholarly collecting impulse, scholars’ rocks were “favored stones that the Chinese literati and their followers displayed and appreciated indoors, in the rarefied atmosphere of their studios.”¹

A very human desire lies at the heart of this tradition. Who, as a kid, does not build their own killer rock collection? In China, too, people have been gathering rocks for a long time. The Chinese practice of decorating gardens with rocks was in place by the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). The specific tradition of the scholar’s rock has been traced back to the Song dynasty (960–1279), and it continued through the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644–1911) periods.

Before the 20th century collectors referred to them in terms that mean “fantastic rocks.” The type of rock, as well as its texture, form, and color, were all important elements for the collector to consider. Different rocks were most treasured at different moments in history, so the look of these rocks has allowed new scholarship to date them, and also to think about changing tastes in collecting over time. Generally, the darker the color, the more prized the scholar’s rock: black and slate grey were at the top. Limestone came first among rock types not only for its look but also for its sound. Due to its density, it would ring like a bell when struck.²

Scholars’ rocks were used in several senses of the word. Functionally, they might serve as brushrests, inkstones, or censers. But their primary function was to inspire. The form of the rock suggested a mountainous landscape, and like a landscape painting, a scholar’s rock acted as a microcosm of the universe—a small piece of an infinite, natural puzzle—an object on which to meditate and to gain cosmic perspective.³ They would be displayed indoors on a desk, on a table or bookshelf, or perhaps on the floor if they were especially large. Traditionally, a scholar displayed his choice rock on a finely carved wooden stand, both to support the irregular form, and to designate the rock as a special item, like a piece of sculpture.

And sculpted they were. Once chosen from nature, scholars’ rocks were frequently carved, weathered, and burnished to suit their owner’s aesthetic. Collecting a scholar’s rock involved both selection—the finest rock would inherently resemble a painting by the powers of nature—and manipulation—as the scholar imprinted their aesthetic onto the rock form by carving or treating it in some way. There is a fascinating give-and-take here, a loop of influence whose beginning and end is hard to identify. As much as the natural forms of rock, and the mountainscapes they represented, informed styles of scholarly painting, the Chinese literati also made natural rock conform to their vision of a painterly landscape, molding it into their idea of beauty.

I’m reminded of David B. Williams’s reflection in Too High and Too Steep, his account of man-made changes to Seattle’s topography: “We shape the land, and the land shapes us.”⁴

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Scholar’s rock on stand, Chinese, Qing period (1644-1912), limestone, 15 ¾ x 8 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.326
¹Robert D. Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks: An Overview,” in Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars’ Rocks. Exh. Cat. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997; 19.
²Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 20.
³Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 21.
⁴David B. Williams, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.

Object of the Week: Large Plate

A Harvard-educated scholar with impressive curatorial experience, Henry Trubner came to SAM in July, 1968 to lead its Chinese art department. Sometime later, Trubner selected this Chinese Yuan dynasty Large Plate to present to the museum as a gift in honor of the retiring Dr. Fuller, who celebrated his 75th birthday in 1973, the same year he stepped down after 40 years at the helm of SAM. As they say, the best laid plans . . .

The Large Plate, purchased from a notable Tokyo dealer, arrived at SAM in February of 1973. But Trubner then struggled to gather the funds to make the purchase. Delays and negotiations ensued. Dr. Fuller’s June 1 birthday came and went, though not without art aplenty. It wasn’t until May of 1974 that Trubner and SAM could complete the acquisition of the Large Plate that had been in Seattle for some 15 months.1

From Trubner’s description of the piece in a 1983 publication, we see that much of his interest was related to its look: the swirling decorative pattern and rich red hue.

The museum’s tray shows alternating layers of thin red and thick black lacquer, with a fourth black or highly polished dark brown layer on top. The decoration consists of a cloud scroll pattern (ruyi) on the interior, around a central quatrefoil medallion. The same cloud scroll pattern is repeated on the underside of the cavetto. The base is lacquered a deep blackish brown within a low foot rim. This significant example of Yuan lacquer was acquired from Jean-Pierre Dubosc, noted collector and connoisseur of Chinese and Japanese lacquer.2

We can also confidently say that Trubner chose the Large Plate partly for the relationship it would establish with the many lacquer pieces that Dr. Fuller had collected in the early years of the museum, like this very sculptural snuff bottle. Trubner’s strategic vision for growing the collection was a new thing. Dr. Fuller, as director and his own chief curator, had added to the collection by pursuing what caught his eye, happy to be led by instinct and impulse. While visiting a gallery or museum, Fuller would come upon something that struck him, and in his excitement, would learn a lot about it, and maybe buy something for the museum.

Trubner’s entry to the scene initiated a new collecting era at SAM, one marked by taking careful inventories of the art market, addressing collection gaps, and courting generous donors to support acquisitions. In other words, the collecting program began to look a lot more like it does today. Our Lacquer Plate can serve as a reminder of that transition to intentional growth.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China: Chinese Art in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 151-154.
2 Henry Trubner, Asian Art in the Seattle Art Museum: Fifty Years of Collecting, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1983; 12.
Image: Large Plate, 1280-1368, Chinese, lacquer, Diam.: 13 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 74.21.

Object of the Week: Black pottery vase in shape of hu

SAM’s remarkable Black pottery vase in shape of hu is among the museum’s earliest acquisitions. The vase’s object number, 33.6, communicates that it was the sixth piece formally accessioned in the museum’s inaugural year of 1933, and of the objects added to the collection that year, the vase is the first to survive deaccessioning; sadly, 33.1 through 33.5 are no longer with us.

Dr. Fuller purchased this Warring States period ceramic jar for $150 from a New York dealer named Roland Moore. Roland, the son of a Chinese dealer named Rufus, continued in the family business, selling mainly snuff bottles and ceramics.1  The vase is just one of 259 items that Fuller purchased from Moore, and though not every one of these selections was a home run, Fuller did benefit from the connection, establishing the beginnings of a strong Asian ceramics collection that we enjoy today.

Dr. Fuller, who has been proven over time a very successful collector, was still developing his taste at this early stage. He landed on the Black pottery vase in shape of hu at a moment when he was moving beyond his initial collecting interest—snuff bottles—and looking to jades and ceramics. While expanding the art forms he considered for acquisition, he simultaneously became interested in adding Chinese works from various dynasties to increase the breadth of the collection. This vase, with its intriguing decorative designs, and its 3rd-century B.C. date, added new dimensions to SAM’s Chinese collection.

For me, the vase is a tour de force in imitation. Though ceramic, it imitates bronze by its burnished shade of brown-black, echoing patina. The taotie mask that adorns two sides of the vase is a typically bronze decorative motif, but here it is, carefully worked onto the body of an earthenware piece. At the historical moment when the vase was made, ceramic offered an economic alternative to costlier bronze; hence we see a ceramic dressed up as a bronze.

Fascinating geometric and animal designs adorn the vase. As our eye scans it, we notice that horizontal ridges attempt to organize the decoration into separate registers. On the neck and on the largest register of the body, scaly beasts look backward toward curling tails. Jagged vertical lines mark the first register below the neck; the second register features nesting triangles interspersed with sawtooth serrations; in another register beneath that, irregular diamonds run across the vase, linked together by script-like horizontal lines.

Throughout the vase, an interesting dialogue occurs between the potter and the decorator—maybe a conflict between a regimented and more freeform approach to artistic decoration. The indented bands that separate the vase into its various registers would have been formed when the vase was initially thrown, probably on a potter’s wheel; the incised decoration was added later. On the middle of the vase, notice how the legs and feet of the dragon creatures transgress the boundaries of their register, creeping over the horizontal bands. I liken this decoration to coloring outside the lines. It’s as if the dragon, mysterious and powerful, refused to be contained by the space allotted to it. Elsewhere, too, we see incised design overlapping the structuring horizontal bands and playfully interacting with the form of the vase, creating a final impression of an artwork that is, itself, a conversation.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Black pottery vase in shape of hu, ca. 3rd century B.C., Chinese, Warring States period (481-256 B.C.), black earthenware with incised decoration, 13 13/16 in.; girth: 31 1/4 in.; diam. top: 4 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.6, Photo: Paul Macapia.
1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 36-37.

Object of the Week: Camel

Of the nearly 24,000 objects in SAM’s collection, two sculptures have probably had the broadest impact on visitors’ experience of the museum since it opened in 1933. They have proven a popular attraction for visitors of all ages, newcomers and regulars alike. For a long time, though, they weren’t even physically in the museum. They’re the greeters, the guardians. They are: the camels.

Writing in 1968—35 years after the arrival of our Chinese camels and the opening of our doors—SAM founding director Dr. Richard Fuller proclaimed the camels “unquestionably the most popular items” in the museum’s collection. No doubt this was partly because he enthusiastically encouraged kids to have a go at riding them.

Riding the Camel

Kids on the Camel

Standing on the Camel

Chosen specifically by Dr. Fuller and his mother, SAM co-founder Margaret MacTavish Fuller, to be the symbolic guardians of the museum, they were installed on either side of the front entrance. Former SAM curator and historian Josh Yiu reflected on their significance: “They were the first works of art that children and adults alike experienced at the Seattle Art Museum. The camels achieved an iconic status because they introduced art, the museum, and China to the general public.”1

Asian Art Museum Exterior in 1933

Dr. Fuller also clearly saw in the pair of marble bactrians an impressive aesthetic achievement, one that complemented the striking Art Deco design of SAM’s original building in Volunteer Park and echoed the cultural focus of its artworks. In his personal correspondence from 1933, Fuller wrote the following justification:

“Granting that the sculptor had made no attempt to achieve lifelike forms, I think that there is no question but that his results are great works of art…Viewed purely from the view-point of artistry, I personally think that it would be almost impossible to have modern sculpture designed that could have coincided more perfectly with the spirit that we endeavored to attain in the design of the building, and it seems especially fortunate that they should, at the same time, emphasize our interest in Oriental art.”

Camel

In 1986 conservation concerns won out, and the camel-riding tradition came to a sad, but necessary end (hundreds-of-years-old marble sculptures, folks). We no longer sanction it, at least! The Chinese camels journeyed downtown for the inaugural installation here in 1991, and today replicas flank the front doors to the Asian Art Museum.

Camel replica being installed

You can still see (not ride) the originals in our grand stairway.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 46.

IMAGES: Camel, Chinese, late 14th-mid-17th century, marble, each 101 1/2 x 56 x 36 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.814.1, 33.814.2, Photo: Jasmine Boothroyd. Photos: SAM Archive.

Object of the Week: Colored Vases

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” –Ai Weiwei1

“At different times I’ve worked in different mediums. For me, the variation is not an artistic judgment, but a necessary choice. It’s just as normal to eat with chopsticks, as it is to eat with forks or hands. Different circumstances call for different tools. I try to express ideas with the most appropriate available materials and forms.” –Ai Weiwei2

“Making choices is how the artist comes to understand himself. These choices are correlated to one’s spiritual predicament, and the goal is a return to the self, the pursuit of spiritual values, and the summoning of spirits. These choices are inherently philosophical.” –Ai Weiwei3

Ai Weiwei is super active in the world of contemporary art, posting to his Instagram, posing as a drowned Syrian refugeedecorating Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets. Not all of the commentary about him is positive, and I’m sure that’s as he would like it. He’s stated in the past that he desires uneasiness; that he deliberately moves away from the self-indulgent comfort of creating things to use his skills or to get praise. He wants to think critically and to act on his convictions. He wants to unsettle and to motivate. Definitely from his own perspective, he is a conceptual artist, a political activist, and an advocate for self-discovery.

Ai’s art still depends—in a really essential way—on its visual impact. The striking visuals he’s able to concoct are the rhetoric he uses to promote his provocative agenda. He may not think of art as a “highly aesthetic practice,” but the work speaks for itself. Just think of his Sunflower Seeds. The work is less than compelling as a printed phrase: “One hundred million hand-sculpted, hand-painted porcelain beads, made to look like sunflower seeds.” As a realized artwork, it captivated people.

Ai thinks about the forms as a means to an end—his end is pointing others to self-consciousness, sparking in us a challenge to accepted systems of belief, provoking critical responses and inspiring action—but they’re still necessary means. They are his way of communicating. He can’t even be sure that his art will communicate what he wants it to do. All he can be sure of is that viewers will experience the physical artwork. Many of us who look at his works will come away with different conclusions; such is the open-endedness of art, politically-driven or otherwise. All we have is the thing, so I say, let’s look closely at it.

SAM’s one work by Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, is on view at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It delivers what it promises. Nine ceramic vases are arranged in a pattern much like a bowling pin setup—there are three rows, with four vases in the back row, three in the middle row, and two in the front row—only the headpin is missing. The artist has applied a base coat of industrial paint in a bold hue—such as yellow, pink, lime green, or plum—to each vase. A second color in high contrast to the base layer covers the lips and shoulder of the vase, then drips down the body. Some vases have long drips like the tendrils of a plant, while others are shorter, like polychrome stalactites. The paint drips are irregular, and they seem natural.

Contrast is especially important to this work: there’s contrast between the traditional form of the ceramic vases and the bright and contemporary paint colors applied to them; contrast between the two colors on one vase, and contrast in the range of colors among the whole group; contrast between the normally grainy texture of a ceramic pot and the flatness of industrial paint. There’s probably contrast, too, between what Ai Weiwei thought of and what you take away.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Sources:

“Reconsidering Reality: An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” In Ai Weiwei: According to What? Edited by Deborah E. Horowitz. Prestel Verlag: Munich, London and New York, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in association with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2012-February 24, 2013; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5-July 28, 2013; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, August 31-October 27, 2013; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami, Florida, November 28, 2013-March 16, 2014; and Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, April 18-August 10, 2014.

“Making Choices.” Translated by Philip Tinari, from The Grey Book, November, 1997. Reproduced in Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press: New York, 2009.


i. According to What, 38
ii. According to What, 39
iii. Ai Weiwei, “Making Choices,” 128

Image: Colored Vases, 2010, Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), ceramic with industrial paint, approx. 17 x 22 in. each. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from the Estate of Robert M. Shields, 2013.33, Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Object of the Week: Qing Dynasty Robe

In the States, fashion seems like a primarily European product. Italian and French designers command the most respect here. Television and print ads cause us to marvel at how good folks look while just strolling the streets of Paris and Milan.

The Eurocentric focus of today’s fashion culture can make us forget that other cultures of lookin’ really good have existed all over the globe for thousands of years. Traditional China is one of those places where clothing communicates a lot about the wearer.

Qing Dynasty Robe

In this late Qing dynasty (1644-1912) robe at SAM, the wealth and style of the owner shines. The budding flora and curving tendrils of the embroidery blanket the surface of the robe, covering every inch of its fabric with beautiful, precise ornamentation. The sumptuous silk and embroidery in gold-wrapped thread tell us straight away that the owner of the robe was a person of means and importance. This rich purple hue has a visual impact recognized around the world, as in Europe, where, for a long, long time, purple has been the color most associated with royalty.

To be sure, the owner of the robe wanted respect as someone with high social status. History shows us that it’s a very human desire to show off, to draw attention to ourselves, and to set ourselves apart with luxury. That’s nothing new.

Qing Dynasty Robe

Interestingly, clothing in traditional China was also thought to express the internal state of the wearer. Symbols adorning the robe could convey positive traits and blessings of fortune on the person who donned them. Looking at this robe, the large white cuffs feature the shou character—a symbol for the Chinese blessing of longevity— directly at the center. The shou also signals this as a burial robe. Those Qing dynasty elites—always on fleek, even in the grave!

The robe is one of over 900 works that joined SAM’s collection around the 75th anniversary of the museum, an era when the collection grew significantly in size and importance. Come check it out soon at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Robe, late 19th century, silk with gold embroidery, Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

Donate Legos to Ai Weiwei

We have a unique opportunity to help contemporary Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei create commissioned artworks that will be a part of an Australian exhibition starting this month. How can we help him, you might be thinking? By sharing our LEGOs!

The Danish toy company LEGO refused Ai Weiwei Studio’s request for a bulk order of LEGOs to create artwork to be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria as “they cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” This triggered a flood of responses on social media criticizing LEGO for “censorship and discrimination” by refusing Ai’s order. Since then, thousands of anonymous supporters have offered to donate their used LEGOs to Ai.

The tiny toy bricks Ai receives will be part of two works for an exhibition titled Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei, which will explore the concept of freedom of speech and be on view through April 24, 2016 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. According to The New York Times, one piece will re-envision his 1995 photo triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” and the other will feature 20 LEGO portraits of Australian proponents of Internet freedom and human rights.

BMW Car LEGO Collection Point at the Asian Art Museum

To participate in this site-specific project and show our support, the Seattle Art Museum has signed up as an official Lego collection point for local and visiting art enthusiasts to drop LEGO bricks through the sunroofs of a secondhand BMW. Our collection point is parked right in front of the Asian Art Museum, and the roof will be open during museum open hours now through January 10, 2016.

Want to check out some of Weiwei’s work in person? Visit his installation Colored Vases, Ai’s first work acquired by the SAM, at the Asian Art Museum.

Object of the Week: Gui

Imagine cooking up some morning oatmeal over the stove, and then using a ladle to serve it up from this 13th-century B.C. Chinese food vessel. Culture swag.

The form of the vessel is known as a gui, and it was developed in the Shang period (which lasted from roughly 1600 to about 1100 B.C.). At this time in Chinese history, the invention of bronze casting precipitated a higher level of artistry than was possible before, with materials like clay, stone, and wood. The strength of bronze meant it had great versatility in terms of its shape and also held great possibility for decoration. Structural integrity became less of a concern, so the makers focused more on aesthetics. The precision of line and extravagant detail available to artisans when working in bronze encouraged the experimentation and advancement that leaves us with stunning examples like SAM’s gui, on view at the Asian Art Museum.

The decorative scheme, covering the entire surface of the vessel, is repeated on both sides of the bowl. Abstract patterns and beast-like figures meld together and create an impressive total visual effect. The ornament breaks down into three registers: the lip, the foot, and the main, central register. The spiral designs we see used all over the vessel as filler ornament are known as leiwen. The upper register features pairs of beasts known as kui dragons that face a pretty intimidating head in the middle. The central register features a creature known as a taotie—a widely used and important design element for the period. The flange right in the middle forms a kind of nose or beak; the eyes are about halfway up the register and equidistant from the flange on either side; scythe-like horns rise up on either side. This and the other beast-like creatures in the upper and lower registers show a remarkable vision that blends representation and design. The ram heads that crown the handles show how both can play into function, too.

Gui (detail)

The scheme is perfectly symmetric—a mirror image on either side—which makes it especially interesting that the maker formed it from a ceramic piece, (mold composed of three parts). Like most bronze vessels of the early Bronze Age in China, the gui was designed for serving food in the rituals of the aristocracy. Today we can’t make use of its function, but we can definitely still admire its craftsmanship. Gorge with your eyes!

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Gui (vessel for serving grain), Chinese, 13th c. B.C., bronze, 5 3/8 x 10 3/4 x 7 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 56.34.

SAM Art: Halloweeeeeeeeeen Edition!

Seated demon figure, 14th century, Chinese, bronze with gilt, 3 1/4 x 2 x 1 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.45. Currently on view at the Asian Art Museum.

Seated demon figure, 14th century, Chinese, bronze with gilt, 3 1/4 x 2 x 1 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.45. Currently on view at the Asian Art Museum.

‘Tis the season… for ghosts and ghouls and demons!

Supernatural beings appear in artwork spanning centuries and continents, and play distinct roles in different cultures. Even within individual cultures, these creatures have different attributes that can mean different things. It has been suggested that this demon is shivering from cold, suffering that is being imposed upon him.

SAM celebrates Halloween this week with the help of Nancy Guppy and New Day Northwest (KING 5, 11 am). Nancy will be in SAM’s galleries on Thursday, October 30, in full costume inspired by Pop Departures. Join her, and SAM, for a little Halloween inspiration!

SAM Art: Enter the Horse

Happy Lunar New Year, and best wishes for the Year of the Horse, from all of us at SAM!

Shadow puppet of a horse, 20th century, Chinese, donkey skin and paint, height 18 in., Gift of Wellwood E. Beall, 48.85.10. Not currently on view, but viewable online.

SAM Art: Seasons

As Seattle oscillates between winter and spring, take a moment to consider four clearly defined seasons—as seen on this Chinese bowl, now on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Poetic inscriptions caption the four seasons depicted from frame to frame around the bowl. Each season has its own defining text, and its own imagery:

“Green trees abound in village after village,” in summer;

“Withering branches sit silent in the depth of night,” in autumn;

“Bending low, the snow-covered bamboo still glints a cool emerald-jade green,” in winter;

and spring sees “Sprouting willows appear in the scattering mist.”

Guyuexuan type bowl, early 18th century, Chinese, Qing period, Yongzheng reign, porcelain with decoration in overglaze-enamels, 3 x 6 ¼ in. overall, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.55, photo: Paul Macapia. Currently on view in the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park.

 

Not Your Ordinary Screen Savers

Apropos the fabulous Golden “Bamboo and Poppies” Kanō school screens, and the other famous and beloved screens currently displayed in Luminous: The Art of Asia, the Seattle Art Museum’s collection of approximately 70 Asian screens, has been recently rehoused in the best state-of-the-art storage cabinets available thanks to a generous federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

SAM’s significant collection of Asian screens includes paintings of singular artistic and cultural importance. The screens range in date from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century. Together with our collection of hanging scrolls, they convey to visitors an experience of splendid art and vivid impressions of the story of painting in Japan, China and Korea.

Although SAM’s collection has a handful of Chinese wood, lacquered and cinnabar panel screens, the bulk of the collection is comprised of Japanese and Korean painted screens. The Japanese screens at SAM fall into two categories, the byōbu, or folding screens (from two up to eight panels) and the fusuma, or sliding screens, typical partitions used to divide large rooms in temples or castles. Both of these styles are represented in Luminous.

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A SAM Intern’s First Visit to the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Monks from Gaden Shartse Monastery in Fuller Room of Seattle Asian Art Museum for Mandala Demonstration

Within the Fuller room, visiting monks from the Gaden Shartse monastery were creating a mandala and will do so over the next few days. Mandalas are a Buddhist form of sacred art that carry spiritual significance. They are made by layering colored sands in an intricate design which usually relates to the dwelling of a diety. The monks vigorously run one chakpur (a bronze funnel that holds colored sand) over the ridges of another chakpur in order to direct the sand into the design.

Gaden Shartse monk making mandala as part of Seattle Asian Art Museum and Dechenling collaboration

Monk prepping chakpur for mandala making.

Once the design is complete, the monks will sweep the sand into a container which will be placed in moving  water such as a river or ocean. So four days of concentrated, intricate work gone in about thirty minutes. Quite a reminder of beauty and its impermanence.

Gaden Shartse monks using chakpurs and colored sands to make a mandala at Seattle Asian Art Museum in collaboration with Dechenling

Continuing through the museum, I repeatedly viewed objects made of nephrite. Upon later research, I learned that nephrite is one of two kinds of jade and usually comes in shades of green, grey, and brown with varying degrees of translucence. My favorite object was a dragon and tiger plaque, made of nephrite in the Ming period (1368-1644). It’s a decorative object, and it made me think about how there was a time that anything functional was expected to be beautiful, that functionality and beauty are not mutually exclusive.

Dragon and tiger nephrite plaque from Ming period at Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Dragon and tiger nephrite plaque.

The displays of ceramics, sculptures, and scrolls were lovely and accessible. The labels gave clarity to the objects they described but still left me with room to interpret and understand the works on my own. I most appreciated this when admiring a woman’s robe from China, ca. 1875-1908. The label mentioned that garments in this era were seen as descriptors of one’s true nature as well as indicative of socioeconomic status. I found this idea inspiring and refreshing as much of what I’ve studied with fashion discusses garments as an act of display of wealth or a purposeful effort to control how others’ interpret us, not necessarily as an indication of our nature.

Chinese, woman's robe from 1875-1908 at Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Woman’s robe.

I definitely enjoyed my time at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It’s a manageable museum with space that facilitates easy movement from exhibition to exhibition and that contains a diverse range of work characterized by unique perspectives. I enjoyed something in each exhibition: plaques, robes, kimonos, prints, ceramics, and contemporary prints juxtaposed with sculptures and paintings. I plan on going back there and taking some people I know that will likely enjoy it as well.

Front entrance of Seattle Asian Art Museum with camels and art deco doors.

Seattle Asian Art Museum

 

 

Top photo: First camel ride ever.
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