Two new and fascinating exhibitions are appearing at San Francisco’s distinguished Asian Art Museum, the largest museum in the U. S. devoted exclusively to the arts of Asia. “China at the Center,” brings together two massive, renowned and rare 17th century world maps to explore, both of which have China at their centers. “Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art” presents approximately 50 artworks that feature gold in varied artistic uses. Together, the two shows make for a very intriguing and engaging visit.
“China at the Center” presents two maps that were each created in China by a Jesuit missionary who traveled there to spread Christianity. When Matteo Ricci settled in China in 1583, he hung a European model world map in his house. By European model, I mean that the Atlantic Ocean is in the center of the map, with the Europe on one side of it and the Americas on the other. The map was of interest to Ricci’s Chinese visitors, so in 1602, he and his Chinese colleagues completed “A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World,” a large six-paneled, woodblock-printed world map in Chinese, with Asia at its center. It combined information and drawings from both European and Chinese maps of the time.
The second map, by the Flemish astronomer and mathematician Ferdinand Verbiest, entitled “A Complete Map of the World” was drawn in 1674 and is equally fascinating to examine, both for the areas in which it is largely accurate and those in which it is completely wrong. For example, although Ricci correctly identified California as being part of the North American continent, Verbiest, 72 years later, showed California as an island. The Verbiest maps have detailed drawings of sea creatures and large animals, many not native to China, some invented. The rhinoceros, likely copied from a print by Albrecht Dürer, is as complete as it is attractive. There are extremely helpful touch-screen versions of the maps that provide translations of the Chinese into English, as well as smaller atlases and books to view.
“Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art” is a gorgeous grouping of pan-Asian objects from the Asian Art Museum’s own collection, all of which use gold in one form or another. Gold’s material qualities — its gleaming tarnish-free patina and its ductility (its ability to be hammered out thinly) — make the metal uniquely suitable for artistic purposes. The show, spanning 1,500 years, is divided into three self-explanatory sections: “Home and Family,” “Palace and Power,” and “Precincts of the Sacred.”
Since gold was often used to represent unity and eternity, it’s not surprising that the show contains several pieces relating to marriage. The exquisite “Korean Bridal Robe” (2002) is made of silk and embroidered with gold thread. Its red and blue colors are associated with the cosmos. The forms coming out of waves at the bottom of the robe signify the creation of new life. The lustrous ‘Gold Bowl” with mythical Hindu and Buddhist figures (1920–1921) has family, political and religious implications, because King Rama VI of Siam (now Thailand) gave the gold bowl to the daughter of Hamilton King, a U.S. diplomat, as a wedding present. Don’t miss the petite and delicate “Seated Buddha,” (1400-1500), from Hot, Thailand, made from rock crystal with gold and rubies, three substances considered sacred at the time.
The exhibits, “China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps” and “Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art” are intimate and engrossing. The more time one spends reading the panels and exploring the artworks, the more one will appreciate these two captivating shows.
Since the Asian moved from Golden Gate Park to the Civic Center thirteen years ago, it has been lacking space for grand art shows. But soon the Museum will be creating a 12,000 square-foot special exhibition pavilion to accommodate large gallery offerings. Ground-breaking is scheduled for 2017. That’s great news.
Emily S. Mendel
Emily S. Mendel 2016 © All Rights Reserved.