Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei

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Emily S. Mendel
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A splendid exhibition of almost 150 of the finest art from Taiwan’s National Palace Museum in Taipei, half of which have never before been seen in the U.S., now graces San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and will travel to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts this fall. It’s an exquisite collection spanning 800 years, four dynasties, and nine rulers, from the years 960 to 1911.

The show’s educational framework, more obvious from its Chinese title, “Emperors’ Tastes,” is to provide an intimate encounter with eight emperors and one empress by displaying objects that surrounded them and reflected their individual private tastes. For example, Emperor Gaozong’s (1107-1187) calligraphic poem, Emperor Chenghua’s (1465-1487) priceless (recently valued at about $36 Million) porcelain “Cup with chicken design” and the ultra-long copper and gold “Fingernail guards with openwork ‘bat’ and ‘longevity’ characters” worn by the last empress, Emperor Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), express the rulers’ personal styles.

China’s longstanding love of jade translates into many beautiful jade objects being included in “Emperors’ Treasures” exhibit, as well as an excellent video, which explains the complicated process of turning the hard jade stone into the delicate silky-smooth finished product. Don’t miss the gorgeous nephrite jade “Belt ornament set of fish-dragons and flowers” from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Not only do the twenty individual belt plaques have a lovely translucent quality, but they also have subtle designs, as well as openwork that is most easily visible in the plaques’ shadows.

Many rare paintings and woodblocks printed in traditional Chinese styles are on display and it’s interesting to compare the diverse styles of the scenic and tranquil “Spring Fragrance, Clearing After Rain” from the 12th century to the bold-colored “Kublai Khan as the first Yuan emperor, Shizu” (1271-1368).

The objects also provide a glimpse into China’s interaction with the rest of the world. For example, the 15th century “Cup with chicken design” uses Iranian cobalt for its blue undercolor, while other pieces emulate European styles, such as the Cloisonné technique used in the beautiful “Square plate with foreign decoration” made during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722).

One of the recurring design characteristics in “Emperors’ Treasures” is the small size of many of the objects cherished by the emperors, which they handled and played with for relaxation. The “Rectangular lacquered wood treasure box with forty-four objects” used by Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) is comprised of miniature objects made out of porcelain, bronze, agate, fruit seeds and ivory. A personal favorite of mine is the diminutive exquisite enameled green glass and copper “Snuff box in the shape of a bamboo stalk” from the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735).

One of the most popular objects in the National Palace Museum, Taipei is the famous realistic 19th century Qing dynasty “Meat-shaped stone” made from the semi-precious stone jasper, with a reddish-brown dyed top, sitting on a gold stand. It mimics the classic Chinese dish, braised pork belly with rind marinated in soy sauce (“dongpo rou”). To celebrate the arrival of the “Meat-shaped stone” in San Francisco, the Asian Museum’s café and a number of Chinese restaurants in the area will be serving braised pork belly. There is also a video on the museum’s website that explains how to make the time-consuming recipe at home.

Wondering why all these Imperial Chinese artworks are in the National Palace Museum, Taipei on the island of Taiwan? The collection has a fascinating history about which the Asian Art Museum is completely silent. The National Palace Museum was originally established as the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1925, after the expulsion of the last emperor. In 1931, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government ordered the museum to evacuate its most valuable pieces to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army as it invaded China. The crated collection was moved several times to avoid the Japanese incursion during World War II. After the surrender of the Japanese, and during the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and Nationalists that followed, the artwork was evacuated to Taiwan along with prized items from five other institutions. The 2,972 crates of artifacts from the Forbidden City museum that moved to Taiwan accounted for 22% of the crates originally relocated out of Beijing. But it’s a world-class collection, nevertheless.

When I visited “Emperors’ Treasures” with the press, I was very fortunate to have Jay Xu, director of Asian Art Museum, guide us through the exhibit. If, like me, you are less knowledgeable about Asian art than about western art, using an audio tour or taking a docent tour would be an informative and interesting way to appreciate the show a bit more. You’ll enjoy learning about the cultural context of the artworks, and the Chinese emperors, many of whom appreciated art and were creative themselves, as well as admiring the superb examples of Chinese Imperial art.


Emily S. Mendel 2016 © All Rights Reserved.

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