The genre of narrative painting in China reached full maturity as early as the fourth century and continues to thrive today. The exhibition Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Painting—on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through August 6, 2017—explores how Chinese painters have told stories that promote political and cultural agendas or communicate personal thoughts. Presenting more than 60 paintings and prints dated from the 12th century to the present, this exhibition demonstrates the continuing vitality and relevance of the genre.
Show and Tell is organized into three sections, with each featuring a different type of narrative. The most familiar of these is the long handscroll format used to illustrate a story in multiple scenes. As each of the handscrolls unrolls section by section from right to left, either in a continuous landscape setting or in scenes punctuated by corresponding texts, the viewer is transported through time and space. Measuring more than 39 feet in length, Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji (fig. 1) depicts the traumatic experience of Lady Wenji (Cai Yan), who was abducted by Mongolian nomads in 195 A.D. and returned to China 12 years later. The recurring sight of south-flying geese alludes to her homesickness, while intimate scenes of Wenji with her chieftain husband and their children deepen the pathos of the farewell scene as she is forced to leave them behind. Although this work was created in the early 15th century, this historical story resonates deeply with the issues of ethnicity and displacement of our own time.
Without any explanatory texts, Searching the Mountains for Demons by Zheng Zhong (active ca. 1612–1648) (fig. 2) depicts a demigod and his ghostly entourage ridding the landscape of demonic creatures. The exorcist operation zigzags through a series of vignettes featuring demons in the form of wild beasts or charming women, whose true identities are revealed by their claws and tails. The dynamic composition conveys the frenzied pace of the hunt as disturbing images of violence are balanced by humorous encounters and the exertions of the hunters.
The second type of narrative highlighted in the exhibition relies on a single iconic scene—usually the climax—to evoke an entire story in the viewer's mind. A painting by the monk-artist Liang Kai (active early 13th century) exemplifies this style. In Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank (fig. 3), a lone figure lingers by a marshy bank under a massive, mist-enshrouded boulder. The work hauntingly depicts the final moments in the life of Qu Yuan (ca. 340–ca. 278 B.C.), a falsely slandered minister who took his own life by drowning in order to prove his devotion to the king, without showing any other biographical detail. The looming rock, a metaphor for the psychological weight sustained by the man below, is key to identifying the subject matter.
The third type of storytelling is represented by landscapes, still lifes, and flower-and-bird paintings that contain no narrative imagery but tell stories in their appended inscriptions. A typical example is a painting of deer antlers (fig. 4) by Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–95). An otherwise simple still life, the picture is followed by the emperor's long inscription that relates when and where the deer was hunted down by his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, and reflects upon Kangxi's prowess and the martial values in his Manchu tradition. This type of storytelling is an important and distinctively Chinese practice, one that has never been recognized in exhibitions exploring narrative subjects.
Most of the objects in the exhibition are taken from The Met collection; some are new acquisitions on view for the first time, while others have not been seen for many years. A few works that had been shown in partial view in past shows now enjoy a complete display, such as Wang Jun's (1816–after 1883) album on select sites in Yangzhou and Hangzhou (fig. 5), which serves as a pictorial biography of the eminent scholar-official Ruan Yuan (1764–1849). This new display of all 10 pictures in the album, rearranged in chronological order, enables a comprehensive and evolving view of the man's life.
Further showcasing The Met's ability to draw on its own holdings for a multicultural exhibition is a gallery on military narrative, the objects of which represent the collaboration of three curatorial departments. The subject of the gallery is Emperor Qianlong's East Turkestan campaign from 1755 to 1759, which ended with the annexation of Xinjiang (New Territories). The centerpiece, from the Department of Drawings and Prints, is a suite of sixteen copperplate engravings that illustrate ten battles and six ceremonies (fig. 6). Designed in the Western naturalistic style by European missionary-artists at Qianlong's court, more than 200 sets of prints were produced at the imperial workshop of Louis XV (r. 1715–74) in Paris.
The large full-length portrait of a general (fig. 7), one of 100 commissioned by Qianlong for those who made significant contributions to the campaign, belongs to the Department of Asian Art. A dozen 18th-century Chinese weapons and horse fittings from the Department of Arms and Armor, selected by Curator Donald LaRocca, evoke a physical sense of warfare. It is notable how close some pieces look to those represented in the prints and the portrait. The helmet with a feather crest for a high-ranking military officer (fig. 8), for instance, is worn by the commander on horseback in the center foreground of the print hung on the opposite wall (fig. 6).
In addition, there are works on view by contemporary artists addressing current issues raised by technological advancements and government land policy, or revealing personal creative processes—subjects not in the classical repertory. The exhibition presents a most comprehensive view of Chinese pictorial storytelling with many illuminating and engaging samples.
Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Painting, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through August 6, 2017
Now at The Met: "A Reunion after Sixty Years: The Lin Yutang Family Collection" (June 26, 2015)
82nd & Fifth: "Metaphorical" by Shi-yee Liu
Liu, Shi-yee. "Containing the West in the Manchu Realm? Emperor Qianlong's Deer-Antler Scrolls." Orientations 46, no. 6 (September 2015): 58–69.
Liu, Shi-yee. "'Show and Tell': The Art of Storytelling in Chinese Painting." Orientations 47, no. 8 (November/December 2016): 44–53.