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Descended From the Ancients

New galleries at LACMA depict China's artistic legacy, passed along by a ruling class appreciative of culture.

June 14, 1998|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

China claims the only continuing civilization originating in the ancient world. One critical reason for the longevity: the development a thousand years ago of an extremely literate--even hyperliterate--ruling class, with deep knowledge of (and passionate affection for) painting, history, poetry and prose.

An administrative government like that is a long way from what you'd find these days in our neck of the woods. But, in the lovely new galleries for Chinese art just opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the breadth and depth of China's long-standing cultural and intellectual refinement is evident at every turn.

It's there where you'd expect it--say, in the dramatic stylization of a funerary sculpture of a horse, made from molded earthenware in Sichuan province during the Han dynasty (25-220). Rituals associated with burial are among the most important in traditional Chinese life, so the remarkable care lavished on this exquisite, prancing beast--part lifelike idiosyncrasy, part boundless idealization--is not surprising.

However, extraordinarily acute refinement is also evident in the small things, where you wouldn't necessarily think to find it. Look at the little stand on which a Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1912) dynasty scholar would lay his wet ink brush, to keep it clean while he went about his work. The brush rest, carved from an exquisite chunk of vibrant lapus lazuli, takes the form of a lofty mountain range, dwelling place of elevated thoughts and higher spirits. Where else but on a metaphorical mountaintop would a hyperliterate person want to lay his trusty calligraphy tool?

The new galleries at LACMA contain a variety of wonderful objects such as these, dating from the past several thousand years. Overall, and despite areas of unusual strength, this holding does not rank in the highest tier among American museum collections of Chinese art, commensurate to those in San Francisco, Cleveland or Boston. Yet, the new installation, much larger and more copious than LACMA has ever before provided for this work, is nonetheless something of a revelation.

The 10 galleries are on the lower level of the Ahmanson Building, flanking two sides of the atrium. These have always been among the most awkward and inhospitable spaces in the museum, but Keith Wilson, curator of Far Eastern art, and his staff have transformed them into comfortable, nicely proportioned and welcoming galleries. Several even have windows facing Wilshire Boulevard, which relieves the old feeling of being in an underground bunker.

The galleries are installed chronologically, beginning with early Chinese bronze vessels, earthenware figures, funerary sculptures, wheel-thrown pottery and a small selection of carved stone Buddhas. Next comes an array of trade wares and ceramics of Southeast Asia, demonstrating the competitive interaction of the pottery trade in the region that arose around the 11th century and flourished for hundreds of years.

At the corner, though, is where you'll find the pivot of the new installation: a careful re-creation of a scholar's studio, typical of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The simple room, built on a raised platform, is spare, symmetrical and harmoniously balanced, with a place for everything and everything in its place.

A tall cabinet in the center, flanked by a pair of floral plaques, holds a variety of wood and lacquer boxes and ceramic vessels. A vitrine adjacent to the room displays the objects you might find in the cabinet's drawers or in the boxes: a fly whisk of carved bamboo, a spotted bamboo ink brush, a variety of seals, the lapis "mountain" brush rest and more.

To the left, a small gallery displays a remarkable, well-preserved clay model of a Chinese double-courtyard house, partially painted and glazed and originally made for a burial site. Because effigies of worldly possessions were typically buried with the dead, funerary objects such as this one are the source of much of our knowledge about Chinese history. It's easy to imagine that a prosperous household like the one represented in the clay model would have been occupied by a member of the scholar-gentry, and that he would have used a studio like the one set up in the gallery adjacent.

China's scholar-gentry is a fascinating subject, and its proliferation is responsible for much of the exquisitely refined art produced over the centuries. Mostly they were civil servants in government administration of the far-flung empire; appointed for life, they came to their posts through a rigorous system of examinations open to anyone. The tests focused on classical Chinese history and arts and--especially--on the pragmatic lessons that could be learned from them.

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