SANTA ANA — A small, elegant and culturally enlightening show is trapped somewhere inside the Bowers Museum's detached and bloated exhibition of 300 Ch'ing dynasty jade objects from private collections in Taiwan.
The object overkill may be due to a face-saving effort on the part of the exhibition organizer, the National Museum of History in Taiwan. After a Bowers employee noticed the original lender's anti-China statement in the catalog, the Taiwan museum asked him to delete his comments. Taiwanese collector Yeh Bor-wen opted instead to remove his jade three months before the show's scheduled opening.
But these events don't let the national museum off the hook. It, or the Bowers, could have done a better job of giving Western viewers a feel for the peaceful and prosperous Ch'ien-lung period (1735-96) of the Ch'ing dynasty, during which the carving of jade reached its technical apogee.
As things stand, viewers have to make their own discoveries of the show's core of exceptionally lovely and intriguing pieces--and must look elsewhere for meaningful context.
Immediately captivating to a Western eye are the Hindustani-style objects, some of which are adorned with inlaid gold and jewels. They range from a tiny, nearly transparent white nephrite cup with fluted walls imitating chrysanthemum petals to a slender teapot shallowly carved with a delicate floral pattern echoing the sinuous curves of the handle and the thrusting bud form on the lid.
Emperor Ch'ien-lung adored jade, which became more plentiful after the Manchus--who conquered China in 1643, ushering in the Ch'ing dynasty--annexed the mineral-rich Xinjiang region. Delighted with the jade he received from the Mogul emperors in India, Ch'ien-lung established a school of artisans to copy the imperial style of the neighboring subcontinent.
His patronage and connoisseurship were complemented by his poetry, some of which was inscribed directly on the jade pieces and picked out in gold paint.
In one poem he summed up the aesthetic paradox of exquisite objects carved in extremely shallow relief: "When I look at it, there are flowers and leaves / But when I stroke the surface, there is no trace."
Other pieces of jade--which in China traditionally meant not only jadeite and nephrite but any mineral fit for for carving--are deeply carved.
Vases frequently are covered with a profusion of curling vines. Table screen landscapes show temples disappearing behind layers of hills and clouds. Incense burners copy the stately look of Han dynasty bronze vessels, with animal-head sculptures and ring-embellished handles.
Figurative pieces--with drapery folds that offered opportunity to camouflage possible flaws in the stone--represent Buddhist deities and characters from folklore such as plump, inebriated Li Bo, who seems to sway groggily in his chair.
Even seemingly minor or ornamental carvings had symbolic meanings: A butterfly signified the spirits of the dead; a duck represented marital affection and fidelity.
But the dutiful wall texts--matching objects with their symbolic meanings, differentiating the Eight Immortals and so forth--don't deal with the cultural sensibility behind the delicate etching of an old man watching smoke rise from a brazier (on a paperweight) or the pun formed by the scepter and chimes held by two small children carved on a vase.
A battery of scholars' writing implements are lined up for inspection without any discussion of the scholar class and its contribution to the culture. Yet the Ch'ien-lung period was an era of intense focus on the acquisition and consolidation of knowledge, when the emperor directed hundreds of scholars to work on a staggering, 36,000-volume edition of the Chinese literary classics.
Bringing up the rear of the seemingly endless parade of objects are scepters, belt buckles, garment hooks, thumb rings and a massive array of . . . snuff bottles.
Why display 72 snuff bottles rather than carefully examine one or two of each variety? The sensibility that engineered this redundant display is precisely the opposite of the exquisite connoisseurship for which Chinese art is renowned.
How much better--and more visually inviting--this show would have been had a smaller group of jades been selected specifically to illuminate aspects of style and meaning.
It is unfortunate that the Bowers' Chinese art curator, Janet Baker, wasn't involved in the planning of the exhibition and the choice of objects. Her sole contribution, a brief handout guide, could easily have been several times as long.
* "Jade: Ch'ing Dynasty Treasures From the National Museum of History, Taiwan," through March 1 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday. $6 general, $4 seniors and students, $2 children. (714) 567-3603.