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The jester Semar

7 July, 2008 (05:00) | literature/performance/film/music, premodern-modern, southeast asia | By: xensen

the clown semar, a rod puppet from java

Many people are familiar with the shadow puppets that are a popular court art of central Java. Rod puppets (wayang golek) are a puppet form that is popular among nonartistocratic audience in western Java and the northern coast of central Java. The puppets perform tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as other Hindu and Islamic texts.

This figure is Semar, a jester. Jesters are a popular element of rod puppet performances. This puppet is part of a large collection at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The is more information about Indonesian rod pupet jesters at the Museum of Folly (and some more images).

The jester Semar, ca. 1800-1900. Ondonesia; Bandung, West Java. Wood cloth, and mixed media. Asian Art Museum; From the Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.85.29.

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Conical fritware bowl from thirteenth-century Iran

5 May, 2008 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, medieval, west asia | By: xensen

iranian fritware conical bowl

This is a spread from the book I am working on on Persian ceramics from the collection of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (I’m still waiting for final text). The object is a fritware conical bowl painted with “panel style” decoration in underglaze blue and black manganese (The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P1893).

Firt is a ground glasslike substance (I think potash and quartz were the main ingredients) that, added to clay, reduces its firing temperature, which is helpful for applying overglazes. It was used in West Asian pottery to produce a fine white base that imitated the quality of Chinese porcelain.

The bowl dates from the first half of the thirteenth century, and, according to the curators, may be from Kashan in Iran. Poetic verses in white on the black areas express longing for the absence of a beloved.

Photos by Kaz Tsuruta.

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Mu Rui’s medallion

23 April, 2008 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, premodern-modern | By: xensen

gold plaque given mu rui by the yongle emperor, from the najing municipal museum

Recently I’ve been reading Perpetual Happiness by Shihi-Shan Henry Tsai, a biography of Zhu Di, who ruled the Ming dynasty as the Yongle emperor from 1403–1424 (more on this later). Formerly the Prince of Yan, the Yongle emperor usurped the throne from his nephew and moved the Ming capital from Nanjing to his personal power base at Beijing; in 1406 he began construction of what would become the Forbidden City.

This gold medallion, now in the Nanjing Municipal Museum, was buried in the tomb of Ma rui in 1627, during the reign of the Tianqi emperor (1621–1627).; it was discovered during a 1974 excavation near Nanjing. Mu Rui served as the Yongle emperor’s Vice Commissioner-in-Chief, but he was implicated in an attempted revolt. He died in prison in 1609. How did he obtain this plaque? In the forthcoming catalogue of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition of Ming court arts, He Li offers an explanation:

A court record may provide a clue. In 1408, the Yongle emperor held a banquet to celebrate a successful battle against Annam, in which Mu Sheng was the chief commander (see cat. no. 103). The emperor is said to have awarded to the guest of honor, Mu Sheng, items including the emperor’s own handwritten poem, a jade belt, and a golden plaque (Mingshi, chap. 126, p. 7397); the latter was most likely the surviving medallion here. With the commands possibly engraved by Sheng, it must have been passed down as a family heirloom to later generations. Unfortunately, two hundred years later, its orders were sullied by Mu Rui. Eighteen years after his death, the family was able to conduct Mu Rui’s funeral. By burying the prestigious medallion with him, they announced the end of the legendary name of Mu, which had once been glorified for its support of the Ming court.

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Ming bling

21 April, 2008 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, premodern-modern | By: xensen

ming dynasty lotus ornament from nanjing municipal museum

My mind has been on China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644) recently because of the show of Ming dynasty court art that is coming up this summer at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. So let’s look at a few examples from this long-lasting dynasty (the last to be ruled by native Chinese).

Shown here is an ornament of nephrite and gold depicting a lotus pond, from the Nanjing Municipal Museum. Egrets and aquatic plants appear beneath two large lotus leaves. According to He Li, there is some uncertainty whether such ornaments, used as hat knobs during the previous Mongol Yuan dynasty, were repurposed during the Ming as covers for vessels.

According to Terese Tse Bartholomew, the combination of lotus and egret is a rebus, or visual pun, signifying a wish for advancement in the governmental meritocracy. This is because “egret” is pronounced lu and “lotus” lian; together the two words suggest yilu lianke, or “May you pass your [civil service] exams all the way.”

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Torei Enji enso

19 March, 2008 (05:00) | japan, paintings, premodern-modern | By: xensen

enso, or zen circle, by torei enji

Here’s another enso, or Zen circle, by Torei Enji (1721-1792). Compare this to the Torei enso posted 12 March. Here his brush is more unevenly inked, creating a range of grays, with the darkest areas either on the inside or outside of the line. As the brush approaches the top of the circle its pressure is lightened, then reapplied for the swooping downward motion. For this enso Torei adds a dot in the center.

The calligraphy is translated by Stephen Addis as “The images presents itself, nothing more.” This work, from the Gitter-Yelen Collection, appeared in an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum.

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Torei Enji enso

12 March, 2008 (05:00) | japan, paintings, premodern-modern | By: xensen

zen circle by torei enji (1721-1792)

This enso is by Torei Enji (1721-1792), who excelled at the Zen circle. Torei began this one by pressing his brush down hard at the lower left and swiftly continuing around the circle while lifting the brush.

The calligraphy says “In heaven and on the earth, I alone am worthy of honor,” lines attributed at birth to the historical Buddha.

Yoko Woodson, curator of Japanese art at the Asian Art Museum, thinks that the curious smudgy echo of the enso at the lower left represents a shell.

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Chinese botanical motifs: narcissus

3 March, 2008 (05:00) | china, paintings, premodern-modern | By: xensen

narcissus by shitao

This image of a narcissus is from an album of twelve paintings and twelve caligraphic verses by Shitao (Zhu Ruoji; 1642–1707), a member of the Ming dynasty royal family, who became a monk-painter following the Manchu conquest of China in 1644. The painting, from the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Family Collection, Gift of Wen and Constance Fong, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Dillon, 1976 (1976.280), is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The album alternates landscapes and flowers, with verses in a similar brush style on facing pages.

I’d like to spend a few posts discussing botanical motifs in Chinese art. An authority, and my guide, on this subject is Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of the Asian Art Museum. According to Bartholomew, the narcissus, which was imported to southern China from Europe at least by the Tang dynasty (618-906), is known as the “immortal of water” (shuixianhua). The xian in its name is the character that means “immortal,” so a clump of narcissus may be used to signify a group of immortals. For example, since the word for bamboo is a punfor “congratualte,” a clump of narcissus together with bamboo may signify “immortals congratulate you” (on a birthday, perhaps).

In the accompanying verse the narcissus is here associated with plum blossoms. Plums are a symbol of longevity, and the two plants together may suggest “May the immortals honor you with longevity.” Following is a free translation of the verse; for another versions, see the Met’s website.

Narcissus and plum blossoms,
enjoyable together,
vie for glory in winter;
I sit by my bright window,
holding my brush in my hand,
while my thoughts wander freely
far beyond the boundless shores

The narcissus is also a symbol of purity, good fortune, and prosperity. Because it is such an auspicious symbol, it is encouraged to bloom around the new year, and is often featured in new year’s celebrations.

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Nakahara Nantenbo Daruma

28 February, 2008 (05:00) | 20th c, japan, paintings | By: xensen

nakahara nantenbo daruma zen painting, 1912

Seven Junipers continues Daruma week with this bold image by Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925), which is more than five feet tall. The work was painted ni 1912. The thin lines outlining Bodhidharma’s face (which lacks a nose) contrast with the broad arc that suggests his robe in the most minimalist manner possible, as well as with the rough, energetic calligraphy. The arc of the robe is drawn with such force that it has splashed ink over Bodhidharma’s left ear, from which an earring hangs.

Nantenbo, the artist’s priest name — he was abbot of the Zen monastery of Myoshinji in Kyoto — derives from bo (staff) and nanten (a kind of tree), alluding to the staff with which he struck practitioners whose attention faltered.

The epigraph reads “A flower opens five petals and bears fruit — all in its nature.”

The work is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

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Zhan Wang reflections

20 February, 2008 (05:00) | china, contemporary, sculpture | By: xensen

Now that the Zhan Wang exhibit has opened at the Asian Art Museum, I amused myself by photographing reflected colors on the stainless steel surfaces of his massive artificial scholar’s rock. The stainless steel of the constructed rock itself has almost no color, but it reflects colors from its surroundings. Oddly, the metalic surface takes on some of the qualities of water. Here are small versions of several images.

zhan wang reflections

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Pots-and-pans-orama

11 February, 2008 (05:00) | china, contemporary, sculpture | By: xensen

zhan wang urban landscape, san francisco, in progress

At San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Chinese artist Zhan Wang is constructing a replica of the city by the bay out of pots and pans. The shiny utensils, stacked by the artist on equally shiny platforms artfully constructed by the museum’s preparators to his specifications, are being arranged to represent the city down to a close level of detail. Here you can see the Transamerica pyramid constructed from cheese grates and salad tongs.

This photo shows the work in progress. It will be completed within the next day or so, and the exhibition, entitled On Gold Mountain: Sculptures from the Sierra by Zhan Wang, will open to the public on Friday, February 15. The title alludes to the Chinese immigrant experience of mining in the Sierra during the Frisco gold rush; the city, called Gold Mountain by the Chinese, was the staging area for the trek to the Sierra.

At this writing a detail of a stainless steel scholar’s rock by Zhan Wang can be seen in the right sidebar.

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The Samurai are coming

24 January, 2008 (05:00) | japan, medieval | By: xensen

medieval samurair armor (yoroi) from the metropolitan museum, new york

2008-2009 is shaping up as the year of the Samurai in U.S. museums. The Met will show the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the arts of the samurai from October 21, 2008, through January 11, 2009. The exhibition is being co-organized with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan.

Then, in June, on the left coast, the Asian Art Museum will host its own Samurai show. This show will feature objects drawn from the collections of the Hosokawa family, including works from the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo, the Kumamoto Municipal Museum, and the Kumamoto Castle in Kyushu.

Companion books will accompany both shows. It will be interesting to see how the two exhibitions complement each other.

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Shown: Armor (yoroi), early 14th century. Japan, Late Kamakura period. Lacquered iron and leather, silk, stenciled leather, gilt copper; H. (as mounted) 37 1/2 in. (95.25 cm) W. 22 in. (55.88 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Bashford Dean, 1914 (14.100.121b–e)

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Buddhist painting demonstration in San Francisco

16 January, 2008 (05:00) | contemporary, korea, paintings | By: xensen

korean buddhist painting demonstration at the asian art museum of san francisco

At San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum a group of Korean monks has been in residency, producing large paintings and also block prints (visitors can take home freshly printed copies of the heart sutra or other prints). The monks (seunim, a gender-neutral term) include two men, Myung Chun-seunim and Sung Ryun-seunim, and a woman, Seol Min-seunim.

The program will culminate on January 20 with a sacred eye-opening ceremony of two hanging scrolls — the Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara by Seol Min seunim and a guardian figure painting by Myung Chung seunim — that the monks are donating to the museum. During the ceremony, the guardian king’s spirit enters the painting through the eyes, which are the last elements completed. The monks chant invocations to all the Buddhas in the universe to witness the event.

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The Shimmering of Heated Air

8 January, 2008 (05:00) | 20th c, japan | By: xensen

shimmering of heated air, japanese bamboo basket by shono shounsai

That’s the title of this famous bamboo flower basket by Shono Shounsai.

Flower Basket, Shimmering of Heated Air, approx. 1969, by Shono Shounsai (1904-1974, named Living National Treasure in 1967, Kyushu: active in Shiraki, Oita Prefecture). Bamboo (madake), rattan, and copper alloy. Thousand-line construction. H. 13 3/4 in x Diam. 14 in. Asian Art Museum, Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Bamboo Basket Collection, 2006.3.836 (B-1095). Photograph by Kaz Tsuruta.

From the catalogue Masters of Bamboo. This book is out of stock as I write but will be reprinted soon.

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Buddha’s-hand citron

17 December, 2007 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, medieval, premodern-modern | By: xensen

jade buddha;s hand citron

This nephrite object from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) may be my favorite jade from the collections of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (the image is from the “search the collection” feature on the AAM website).

This lemonlike citron (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus) is not usually eaten (although the rind may be candied and is sometimes used for zest), but it’s fragrant and said to have some medical qualities. It is said that the fragrance of a single fruit can perfume a room for weeks.

According to Flavor and Fortune, “Gary Palm of The Mission Inn in Riverside, California chops up pieces of rind to add a slightly bitter citrus tinge to fish marinades. Lindsey Shere, pastry chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California uses the candied peel in Italian desserts, such as pane forte. Allan Susser of Chef Allen’s in Adventura, Florida bakes pieces of candied rind in biscotti; it adds flavor that he describes as “kumquat-tangerine,” distinct from the more lemony flavor of regular citrus.”

Traditionally, the fruit was prized by the Chinese for its resemblance to a hand with the fingers outstretched. The buddha’s-hand citron was a popular plant motif in the art of the Ming dynasty. Besides its association with the Buddha the plant suggested wealth because of its resemblance to an outstretched hand. It remains popular at New Year’s and is said to bestow good fortune. Below are some thumbnails of images.

buddha's hand citron thumbnailsbuddha's hand citron thumbnails

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Dancing Ganesha

11 December, 2007 (05:00) | medieval, sculpture, south asia | By: xensen

dancing ganesha from the State Archaeology Museum of IndiaHere’s an interesting dancing Ganesha for comparison with the one from the Asian Art Museum shown at right. Both works are from the tenth century. This one, now in the State Archaeology Museum of India, comes from Padhawal, Morena. The Ganeshas wear similar crowns, are surrounded by similar implements, and hold similar poses. The most obvious difference is in the positions of the legs. While the Asian Art Museum Ganesha leans at a jaunty sideways angle, this one is coiled in a complicated, dynamic pose, his weight more centered.

Ganesha is generally considered to be the son of Shiva and Parvati. There are several stories of how he got his elephant head. Most commonly, it is said that he was beheaded by Shiva, who then in remorse replaced his head with that of an elephant.

Despite his stocky form and big belly, Ganesha often dances. He is carefree and cheerful, yet he is also a patron of scholars and students. It is not difficult to image lively music inspiring this Ganesha to dance.

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Prajnaparamita

5 December, 2007 (05:00) | medieval, sculpture, southeast asia | By: xensen

prajnaparamita of java

Yestersay I attended a lecture by Natasha Reichle, the Asian Art Museum’s associate curator of southeast Asian art, on the subject of this beautiful 13th-century stone sculpture from Singhasari, East Java. Prajnaparamita is a term meaning wisdom or learning, one might almost say scholarship. The goddess is the embodiment of of transcendental wisdom.

The sculpture is nearly symmetrical, except for the lotus at the right in the image, which holds a book of sutras, and the hands in the center, which are in the form of the gesture of “wheel-turning,” that is, the turning of the wheel of the dharma, representing the Buddha’s teachings.

Most Javanese view the sculpture as a representation not of Prajnaparamita but of Ken Dedes, the beautiful woman who gave birth to the fateful Singhasari (1222–1292) and Majapahit (1293–1500) dynasties.

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Two ewers

23 November, 2007 (07:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, medieval, west asia | By: xensen

two ewers

These two bird-headed ewers are both in the collections of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. I found them by searching the museum’s on-line collection database. Both ewers are currently on display in the museum’s loggia, but they will be taken down in a few weeks to make way for a display of Chinese ceramics.

On the left is a glazed earthenware object from China’s Tang dynasty (618-906). The glazed earthenware object on the right was produced in present-day Iran several centuries later (1200-1250). A lively trade along the Silk Road resulted in artistic influences being carried in both directions between East Asia and West Asia.

The museum will publish a catalogue of its Persian ceramics in June 2008.

Photos by Kaz Tsuruta.

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Friday Roundup

23 November, 2007 (05:00) | links | By: xensen

“Take advantage of what exists.” — Laozi

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