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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Perlman Museum showcases Chinese paintings

<st Friday, the Perlman Teaching Museum gave a scholarly welcome to its latest exhibit, “Preserving China’s Past: Paintings of the Ming-Qing Dynasties.” Professor Kathleen Ryor of the Carleton College Art and Art History department presented a lecture entitled “How to read a Chinese Painting” to a full house in the Weitz Center for Creativity, kicking off the month-long exhibition of pieces on loan from Scripps College.

This public lecture provided a thematic and intellectual introduction of the exhibit and its subject matter to a crowd generally unfamiliar with the cultural grammar of Chinese painting. Grammar, an art history term, refers to the unwritten rules, feelings, and generalities of a culture that foreigners are not privy too. Professor Ryor walked the audience through a basic historicization of the Ming and Qing era pieces while also presenting on the rudimentary poetics of the genre. She was witty, warm, and casual, moving fluidly between the language of expert scholarship and vernacular simile to provide examples of common symbolism and historical context.

After this crash course, the crowd transitioned (with the help of culturally relevant hors d’oeuvres and the phenomenal Carleton Chinese musical ensemble) to the exhibit proper, which will be open through February. The exhibition space continues the theme of the instruction of Chinese cultural literacy set out in Professor Ryor’s introductory lecture. The displayed collection (mostly comprised of hanging scrolls) is divided neatly into the genres of bird and flower paintings, landscapes, Buddhist figures and “talented scholars and beautiful women,” an anachronistic label associated with the secular arts and romance. These divisions allow for easy navigation towards the fundamental significance of each piece.

The curatorial decisions that guide the space (the aforementioned genre divisions, the instructional wall plaques, the lack of formal Western metaphor) all serve to prevent the Western impulse to fetishize Eastern aesthetic practices and, instead, drive the unfamiliar or unaware viewer towards cultural understanding, the true goal of a teaching museum.
Going Straight to the Plum Blossoms (1577) by Chen Jiru stands out as an shining example of the synthesis of these efforts. The ink forms spread over the silk scroll reveal the artist’s hand, as indexical as the Chinese text surrounding the branches; however, the meaning of the piece diverges from the Western aesthetic analogue: Impressionism. As Professor Ryor noted in her lecture, these paintings are, instead, highly symbolic. As to what the subjects are and what their symbolic meanings may be, the museum text is extremely helpful, and I will leave it up to the reader to make a visit and discover their own formal reading.

As nuanced as the exhibition may be, there are still underlying narratives that deserve to be brought to the surface. One of these is the origin of the collection on loan from Scripps College, which was obtained primarily from the collections of General Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864-1935) and Dr. William Bacon Pettus (1912-1945). Far from the poster-children of colonial artistic plundering, these two men were heavily involved in Chinese culture, with General Munhe serving in the Chinese army and government and Dr. Pettus serving as a doctor for civilians during Japanese invasion.

Nevertheless, this does not neutralize conversation about the curatorial ethics of Western museums collecting and benefiting, sometimes illegally, from Eastern art. This is in no way to say that the Perlman Museum or Scripps College have committed any acts of wrongdoing. However, in their goal of promoting a healthy and reciprocal understanding of Chinese cultural and historical practices, the Perlman, it seems, missed an opportunity to explore the cultural impacts of curatorial practices and actions prevalent in the field.

All this aside, the exhibition is breathtaking. The scrolls are beautifully restored and displayed, and the landscapes in particular are sweeping. They truly transport the viewer, both in their overwhelming scale and ephemerality, to locations that many of us will never have the privilege to experience and a time that has long passed.

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