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Beauty Revealed is the first exhibition dedicated to Chinese paintings of meiren (beautiful women), a subject that is as complex and fraught as the English translation. Consisting of twenty-eight paintings drawn from eleven private and institutional collections in the United States, Canada, and Europe, it explores a genre of painting that appeared during the late Ming and continued in the Qing dynasty (seventeenth-to-late eighteenth century). Organized by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White, in collaboration with University of California, Berkeley, Professor Emeritus James Cahill, the exhibition occupies the larger galleries in the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive building and is separated onto two floors. Many of the paintings are wonderfully detailed, well executed, and provide a wealth of information. This is easy to miss in the two large galleries where they are exhibited. By necessity, the works are presented under Plexiglas and at low light levels. The exposed concrete walls and floors of the galleries and the lack of flexibility of the lighting system detract from the presentation.
The works are divided into sections in order to fit into the galleries’ layout. While the sections are not introduced by didactic panels, they are clearly thematic, not art historical, and follow along the same lines as the themes explored in the exhibition catalogue. They include: women waiting, women reading, women in a garden setting, and intimate scenes. Although it is not expressly indicated, there is also a section of works in which women in a brothel is a main subject. A thematic approach is both appropriate and necessary; many of the works are not signed, and when they are, very little is known about the artist. Dating, other than the broad range of seventeenth-to-late eighteenth century, remains a challenge, and issues of stylistic development and biographical information on the artists cannot be presented in any depth.
Information on the nature of the works’ patrons is equally scarce. As Cahill points out in his catalogue essay, these paintings
were not in themselves the kinds of things that dealers could sell and collectors wanted to own, [they] have survived only through being furnished with fake signatures or attributions and wrong identification of subject, aimed at turning them from undesirable merchandise into desirable, and these misleading accretions need to be stripped away before the paintings can be considered for what they are. Proper Chinese literature on painting is virtually devoid of information about them. One must search in Chinese fiction for descriptions of them hanging on walls, including the walls of women’s rooms. (16)
This exhibition is innovative in discussing these paintings at all. Discourses on Chinese painting and calligraphy have traditionally focused on the arts created by and for the scholarly elite. This is valid but leaves out many forms of pictorial arts, including the paintings of beautiful women featured in this exhibition.
The artists supplied their patrons with surprisingly detailed representations of women in interior or garden settings, often accompanied by symbols of sexual accessibility. The introductory wall text for the exhibition states: “By decoding the visual cues in the paintings, we have discovered that the subjects are courtesans, rather than high-status women as has previously been asserted.” Many of these paintings were clearly intended for the male gaze. Yet the question remains, which ones were, and which were intended for a female clientele? Is it possible to determine the difference? And are they mutually exclusive? The majority of these paintings do not have titles written on them and do not present recognizable images from literature. With the context now largely lost, the intent of the artist must be interpreted by the viewer. The titles in the catalogue and on the labels are in fact designations provided either by tradition or by Cahill. The intent of the artist and the original function of the painting must be deduced from visual clues presented in the work. For some examples, the reading of these clues is quite convincing, while others seem more tenuous. In general, both the designations given and the accompanying explanations indicate these works were meant for a male clientele.
An exploration of the hidden meanings to be found in meiren paintings is overdue. The Buddha’s hand citron, which appears in many of these paintings, is an example. A favorite of the empress dowager Cizi, it was appreciated for its scent. In decorative arts such as jades, it is seen as a visual pun, a rebus with the Chinese pronunciation foushou having the same basic pronunciation and carrying the meaning of the characters meaning “long life” and “blessings.” It was also used as an altar offering. In this exhibition, the fruit is associated visually with the woman’s vulva and is given a direct sexual reading. These meanings are not mutually exclusive, and the context might give a clue as to which should be emphasized, but does the appearance of this fruit in a painting of a woman necessarily indicate that the theme is sexual in nature?
While physical and societal boundaries kept many women locked away during the time period in which these paintings were created, in their own environment women had great economic power and must have been among the primary consumers of many types of objects, including paintings. A strong economy and expanding numbers of wealthy merchants and others outside the norm of the educated elite meant an even greater number of consumers with expendable income. Women played an important role as consumers; fashion statements are important in the popular literature of the time, as were how-to books, some intended for a literate female audience. Some of these images possibly may have been the equivalent of fashion magazines of the time.
Missing in the catalogue and in the exhibition labels is a discussion of the wonderful fabrics and clothing worn by the subjects of these paintings. These are not the rank badges, dragon robes, and court-related garments found in most museum collections and seen in most exhibitions. Many are stunningly elegant robes with elaborate designs and sumptuous fabrics. Certain of the paintings are associated with regional styles, such as Suzhou, Yangzhou, and the capital. One wonders if the same regional styles might be seen in the garments.
Also missing is an exploration of the techniques in which these wonderful figures are rendered. While relatively little is known about the artists who created these works, they were remarkably skilled and employed many of the most current techniques of their day. A focus on a single figure, one-point perspective, and viewpoints through open windows and doors offer evidence of an awareness of Western styles and techniques. These technical aspects and the reasons for them are not fully explored by the exhibition.
This exhibition focuses on paintings and does not discuss the role of meiren in other pictorial arts created during the late Ming and Qing dynasties. By doing so, it misses opportunities to place these paintings in a broader context and to explore other clues concerning the role of women as patrons and subjects. The meiren theme permeates many of the Chinese arts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, appearing in bamboo, textile, lacquer, enamel on metal, and many other media. Large lacquer screens, some with images of beautiful women or of the women’s quarters, competed with these paintings in terms of size and were vastly more expensive. These images can be as compelling as those in paintings and in some instances are remarkably similar. As with paintings, the settings for these meiren-themed works consist of interior scenes or walled gardens—the world of the wealthy woman of the late Ming and high Qing dynasties. An example is a porcelain vase with images of beautiful women painted in overglaze enamels in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (B60P61). As with the meiren paintings in the exhibition, this presents the domestic scene of a wealthy Chinese woman of the seventeenth-to-eighteenth century. On one side a woman with transparent clothing is seated at a table. Many of the same conventions used here are seen in the paintings: suggestive poses, a similar type of ideal beauty, upper body visible through fabric, arms uncovered, tips of shoes showing under robe, fingers to lips, books on table, maid servant behind, a pensive look, and a single volume closed, pages turned down, spine up. On the reverse side are women with fans. Was such a work intended for the male gaze as is suggested for many of the meiren paintings? If so, how?
Other themes have been identified on this type of porcelain that support the contention that educated women were patrons for some of these works. For example, stories about the twelfth-century women warriors of the Yang family were popular in pictorial ceramics and other art forms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition the popularity of the theme of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu) and other female immortals in paintings, textiles, screens, and certain forms of furniture is another possible indication of the power of women patrons.
It is rare to find an exhibition that explores a largely unstudied theme. Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting does just that. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue provide an intriguing introduction to an important theme in Chinese visual arts. By necessity the focus is on broad social issues and matters of sexuality in paintings of beautiful women. It is an appropriate close to the long career of James Cahill, an intrepid pioneer in the field.
Asian Art Museum Foundation Curator Emeritus
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