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Magazine Volume 2, Issue 3 (October 2000)
  Table of Contents

Daoist Art in the Making



Lennert Gesterkamp
Ph.D. Candidate
Leiden University, the Netherlands



Versions with images and Chinese-language annotations are also available.

From 4 November 2000 to 7 January 2001, the Art Institute of Chicago is the venue for the first comprehensive exhibition on Daoist art ever. Visitors are led through thirteen rooms with an astonishing number of art objects on display, 151 in total coming from collections all over the world, many of which shown to the public for the first time.

As the title indicates -- Taoism and the Arts of China -- the exhibition is loosely defined and serves the purpose of introducing a "new" art form to the public. Allotted with this important task, the organizers of the exhibition have opted for a thematic approach assigning to each of the rooms a theme that illustrates a specific aspect of the Daoist religion, rather than sticking to a chronological order or a (Western) model of classification into sculpture, painting, and decorative arts. It is the great accomplishment of the organizers that they, confronted with such a diversity and wealth of material, have been able to find a balance between the religious and artistic value of the objects included in the exhibition. It would have been easy to go either way, either focusing on the esoteric aspects of Daoism for which it is best known among the public or staying within the boundaries of well-defined art historical concepts. Stephen Little, principal organizer of the exhibition and curator of Asian art at the Art Institute of Chicago, was assisted by a committee of accomplished scholars in the field, including Nathan Sivin, Kristofer Schipper, Lothar Ledderose, Erik Z�rcher, Wu Hung, Terry Kleeman and Charles Hartman, and was able to combine the many aspects into a whole.

Each room makes an interesting tour through the history of Daoist religion. Visitors have the opportunity to begin with a video introduction on Daoism and China. The first room, painted entirely red, opens the exhibition with a Tang (618-907) limestone statue of the deified Laozi (Figure 1) bathed in the rays of a few dimmed spotlights. In each of the following rooms a different topic is dealt with, beginning with images of Laozi and Zhuangzi, spiritual founders of Daoism, and Daoist cosmology and sacred mountain cults, guiding the visitor further through the first stages of Daoist religion, its ritual objects and a pantheon of its most important deities, and finally acquaints the viewer with popular religion, female deities with Xiwangmu (Figure 2) as their main representative, Zhenwu (Figure 3), who is an imperially sponsored deity of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), important Daoist immortals, texts and illustrations of inner alchemy, and the sacred landscape as visualized in landscape painting. Each room has its highlights. An exquisite bronze "money tree" (Figure 4), the Osaka handscroll of The Five Planets and the Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions (Figure 5), a Han (206 BC - AD 220) stele (Figure 6), Dunhuang manuscripts, the sketch of the Procession of Immortals (Figure 7) attributed to Wu Zongyuan (d. 1050), and the several ritual paintings of Daoist deities (Figures 8-9) from Baiyuan Guan (White Cloud Monastery) in Beijing that are on display for the first time, are only a small sample of the wonderful objects the exhibition has to offer.

Important is also what the exhibition does not offer. One important archaeological site, for example, is Mawangdui, and one would almost naturally expect to find a Mawangdui banner or silk scroll. There is none. Another important aspect of Daoist art lacking in the exhibition is what is normally termed as "folk art," and one could think of theater and "popular" carving and drawing that are also closely linked to Daoist religion. Although there may have been practical reasons for not obtaining the Mawangdui banner or expanding the exhibition even further with more objects, not including these objects is however a clear indication of the demarcations set for this exhibitions and therefore for the definition of Daoist art. It is repeatedly stated that Daoist religion evolved from Daoist philosophy and begins in the Later Han dynasty in the second century AD with the establishment of the Tianshidao (Celestial Masters Movement) and the worship of Laozi. Finds from Mawangdui dating to the second century BC are controversial in this respect, and so are other forms of Daoist religion that not have been sanctioned by Chinese emperors or the Daoist church or ecclesia. The exhibition portrays a loosely defined concept of Daoist art, but in its definition of Daoism it closely adheres to the established views.

The exhibition has much to offer for the person interested in Daoism. However, the art historian might sometimes be puzzled by the question why some objects are termed Daoist, and moreover feel bereaved by the incoherence of the grouping of objects with sculpture and painting next to each other, all dating to a different period. For instance, what is so Daoist about the beautiful painting of The Seven Junipers (The Seven Stars) (Figure 10) by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), while all what is depicted are gnarled tree branches? The only relationship is the name, referring to the Big Dipper. One would however feel hard pressed to see any stylistic or iconographic characteristics to label it Daoist. The definition of Daoist art was also the problem posed by Nancy Steinhardt in her article in the catalogue, and she typifies Daoist architecture as "mainstream." Only the name of a building or other attributes such as statues or stele inscriptions can indicate if a structure is Daoist or not. Worth noting in this respect is an enlightening article by Erik Z�rcher, "Buddhist Art in Medieval China: The Ecclesiastical View" (in Karel van Kooij, Function and Meaning in Buddhist Art, Groningen, 1995), that deals with the opposing views of the Buddhist clergy and Chinese literati. While the former is horrified by an incomplete or broken Buddha statue which duly needs to be covered and repaired, the latter may find great pleasure in the subtle carving of the drapery on a torso or the sensitive lips on the face of a Buddha. Religion and art often trace their inspiration to the same mystical source, but interpretations vary greatly.

The Chicago exhibition on Daoist art is a wonderful event. Being the first of its kind, it is wide in scope and will set a standard for future exhibitions and studies on Daoist art. Its greatest merit is introducing a fine selection of Daoist objects to both a general and specialist public. In one exhibition, the main deities, their iconography, the most important objects, as well as ritual and history of the Daoist religion are aptly introduced, as many of them were previously unknown or not known as such. The exhibition, as well as the detailed and full-color accompanying catalogue, will hopefully incite curators and collectors to check their basements for indefinable pieces, challenge scholars to write articles on the definition of Daoist art, and eventually invite the public to visit more exhibitions on Daoist art in the future.

The exhibition reopens at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, where it will be on display from 21 February to 13 May 2001. All images above come from the exhibition catalogue, available through Chinese-artbooks.com.

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