Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2013
Journey through Mountains and Rivers: Chinese Landscapes Ancient and Modern Kansas City, MO: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013.
Exhibition schedule: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, February 8–April 28, 2013
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Attributed to Li Cheng. A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks (Northern Song Dynasty; 960–1127). Hanging scroll, ink, and slight color on silk. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust.

The past several years have seen the increasing incorporation of digital reproductions and mediations of artworks into exhibitions of premodern Chinese art. Perhaps most spectacularly, sculptural fragments removed from Xiangtangshan in the early twentieth century were virtually restored to their places of origin within the “digital cave” included in Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan (click here for review). More recently, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art experimented with intriguing forms of digital mediation in Journey through Mountains and Rivers: Chinese Landscapes Ancient and Modern. This exhibition paired nine of the museum’s greatest masterpieces of Song Dynasty (960–1279) and Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) landscape painting, canonical works of Chinese art, with a selection of artworks by the contemporary ink painter and antiques dealer Xu Longsen (b. 1956). The exhibition pointed to important ways by which digital technology may help to contextualize works far distant from us both temporally and culturally.

The exhibition—a term used rather loosely in this review, as the exhibited works were displayed in three physically discrete spaces within the museum, which compromised the conceptual or visual links that might have united the paintings—began spectacularly in the museum’s Kirkwood Hall, which contained but two works, as well as text panels and a video introducing both premodern and modern Chinese landscape painting. At the museum’s main entrance, the viewer was greeted by a long handscroll case displaying the Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff, a work that was likely painted at the end of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) and is attributed to Qiao Zhongchang (act. late eleventh–early twelfth century). The handscroll illustrates a prose poem written by the famed scholar-official Su Shi (1037–1101), which narrates one of his trips to the Red Cliff, the site of a battle eight centuries earlier. Rendered in relatively spare, dry ink on paper, and meant to be viewed at no more than arm’s length, the work demands close looking, as it is filled with servants, birds, and other small details that are half hidden among the landscape elements, revealing the painter’s personal adaptation of his source text.

Within the colonnade of the hall, the massive The Law of the Dao Is Its Being What It Is, a mural-like landscape made with ink on paper by Xu Longsen, loomed over the small handscroll case. This monumental composition, rendered in almost suffocatingly heavy, wet ink, clearly was chosen to awe viewers and to whet the appetite for the remaining works in the exhibition. Despite its scale and heavy brushwork, the work also rewarded careful viewing, as hidden trees and streams emerged, almost ghost-like, from the ink-laden mountain forms. The hidden elements created a parallel with Red Cliff, made nearly a millennium earlier.

Besides setting up this intriguing visual comparison between works so different in time, technique, and scale, curator Colin Mackenzie and his team also presented a compelling experiment with mediating technologies in their display of Red Cliff. One could simply engage with the original work itself, or one could experience the original scroll through the aid of various supplemental, educational materials. Most conventionally, labels containing translations of the inscriptions on the scroll and a short introduction to viewing handscrolls were placed immediately below the work on the exterior of the case. Several copies of a multipage booklet containing a reproduction of the scroll, translations, and a selection of further annotations were also available to visitors. On Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, museum guides stood in the hall, sharing information about the works and landscape painting more generally.

Most intriguingly, an iPad was placed on rollers directly above the glass of the handscroll case. As one rolled the iPad above the original scroll, it displayed an annotated image of the section of the scroll directly below. The annotations included the same translations of the inscriptions included in the physical labels below the case, as well as further information about collectors’ seals on the scroll, observations about particular visual details, and invitations to the viewer to imagine the narrative more fully. Further, the device allowed viewers to leave short comments—colophons of the Twitter era—in reaction to their experience of viewing the scroll.

Much of the same information, particularly translations of inscriptions, was thus delivered to viewers through three different media—printed, digital, and human guides. The integration of the iPad into the display was one of the most successful attempts to bring technology into an exhibition space that this reviewer has seen. The ability to select the type of additional information that one wished to view and to view previous viewers’ comments, and the physical proximity of the iPad to the original work of art, which allowed one to look back and forth between the original work and the digital reproduction—and to think about the differences between the two—created an unexpectedly fascinating experience. That the museum provided magnifying glasses and rolling stools of a height perfect for viewing the scroll—and that the glass of the case was less than twelve inches from the surface of the work—made the experience all the more pleasing.

In the remaining spaces of the exhibition on the second floor of the museum, premodern and modern paintings were separated into discrete spaces. Two galleries were filled with Xu Longsen’s works, as well as pieces of premodern furniture and scholarly accoutrements—rocks, ink cakes, porcelains, etc.—from his private collection and from the museum’s collection. In the smaller gallery, Xu’s own studio had been recreated, and for a limited period of time following the exhibition’s opening, the artist himself gave ink painting demonstrations in the space. After this initial period, Xu’s demonstrations were replaced by a video documenting his travels to Huangshan and his creation of monumental works like The Way of the Dao in a hangar-like studio in Beijing. The majority of the works in these galleries were small works on gold paper that were framed rather than mounted on traditional silk mounts. No contextualization of the works was given, leading one to wonder why this particular artist, one of so many contemporary practitioners of ink painting in China, had been chosen as the subject of the exhibition.

Separated from Xu’s works by a long hallway was the sanctum sanctorum of the exhibition—a small gallery containing eight of the finest Song and Yuan Dynasty paintings belonging to the Nelson-Atkins. Most of these works had been exhibited at the Shanghai Museum in the fall of 2012 in Hanmo huicui (Masterpieces of Early Chinese Painting and Calligraphy in American Collections), a blockbuster exhibition of Chinese paintings in U.S. collections. No particular thematic or conceptual logic seemed to govern the selection or placement of the scrolls; these are the museum’s greatest hits and were simply meant to be enjoyed as such. The viewer was greeted by an unsigned Winter Landscape from the late Northern Song and Enjoying Fresh Air in a Mountain Retreat by Sheng Mao (act. fourteenth century). Unfortunately, these works were hung so far from the glass of their cases, and the lighting was so dim, that it was nearly impossible to admire them. Happily, all of the other works in the gallery were displayed beautifully. A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks, traditionally attributed to Li Cheng (919–67), was hung on a panel mere inches from the glass, and the five handscrolls in the gallery—Fishermen’s Evening Song, attributed to Xu Daoning (970–1052); Jiang Shen’s (ca. 1090–1138) Verdant Mountains; Xia Gui’s (ca. 1180–1224) Twelve Views of Landscape; Taigu Yimin’s (act. early–mid-thirteenth century?) Traveling Among Streams and Mountains; and Composing Poetry on a Spring Outing, attributed to Ma Yuan (before 1190–after 1225)—were displayed in intimate cases similar to that employed for Red Cliff (though, regrettably, they lacked the iPad enhancement).

The introductions to each scroll in this gallery were kept exceedingly short. While all of the handscrolls were accompanied by small labels directing the viewer’s attention to certain pictorial details, the labels gave no sense of the importance of or connections among the works. Nevertheless, it appeared that docents had been instructed to present the scrolls in a generally chronological manner, drawing visitors’ attention to certain broad differences between the painting of the Northern and Southern Song. Surprisingly, yet delightfully, on one wall of the gallery, a film produced for the 1980 exhibition Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, introducing the basic materials and techniques of Chinese ink painting, was played in a constant loop, together with a digital film with close-up details of the works on display and an introduction to the exhibition by Director Emeritus Marc Wilson (which also was played in Kirkwood Hall). Despite its age, the 1980 film held its own as a particularly effective piece of contextual material.

Although I would have preferred that the premodern and modern works be brought into more consistent and contextualized dialogue throughout the exhibition, the quality of the Song and Yuan paintings on display, and the brilliant incorporation of both printed and digital media into the display of Red Cliff, filled me with a distinct joy. It was a pleasure to see so many Kansas City residents taking the time to look closely at the works on display.

Phillip E. Bloom
Assistant Professor, Indiana University

Chinese Art Field Editor for caa.reviews

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.