The artworks and objects on display at the Tokyo National Museum’s latest show, “Treasured Masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taipei,” have had something of checkered history. A large part of this was due to the efforts of the Japanese Imperial Army to get their hands on the collection, which moved from Beijing to several other cities, as it advanced following the invasion of China in 1937.
Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, the collection was stored in Nanjing on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalists, from where the best items were ultimately sent to Taiwan in 1948 when the Communists won the Chinese Civil War. The remainder of the collection returned to Beijing to form the National Palace Museum.
So, you could say that the Japanese have been trying to get their hands on these works for a long time. Two years ago, an excellent exhibition sourced from Beijing’s Palace Museum was held at the same venue, but the present show has been more anticipated, despite a mix-up over the museum’s name on promotion material. The controversy was caused by dropping the word “National” from the museum’s title, a serious sticking point for Taiwan, an island state that has seen its right to nationality increasingly undermined by the inexorable rise of China, which claims it as part of its territory.
If nothing else, the works in this exhibition are politically supercharged. A visitor, however, might wonder what all the fuss is about, as the main impression the show gives is of slightly musty elegance. There are plenty of scrolls of Chinese calligraphy, which may be of interest to older visitors, but which paradoxically had a soporific effect on me while also quickening my pace.
It was also difficult to appreciate the subtleties of much of the art, having chosen to visit an exhibition of 19th-century French art the same day. It was a little like dining on tofu after truffles — yes, the order in which you “consume” art can be just as important as the order in which you have dishes.
One of the problems with Oriental painting is that it was never really separated from literary art. This is evident at the exhibition, as much of the art is by literati, or “scholar-officials” as they are tagged. While European artists were a professional class who focused outward to an audience, in China the artists and the audience tended to be the same group — namely literate and artistic gentry and bureaucrats seeking to impress each other with expressions of how cultivated they were. This placed a premium on subtlety and arcane erudition. It also meant that the visual and literary arts were conflated — a few lines of poetry, for example, with a delicate ink sketch of a related location.
The enjoyment of Western art is, of course, enhanced by knowledge of the back story, but such background knowledge is absolutely essential to a reasonable enjoyment of traditional Chinese art. A good example is “Lady Wenji’s Return to Her Homeland” (12th century) by Chen Juzhong. The painting, which is on silk, has a twee quality and, like much Chinese art, is faded. But what seems most remarkable is that the artist has barely highlighted the central character.
She is a miniscule figure amid much empty space. She is even painted to one side, with the artist giving her as little detail and attention as the horses and camels waiting in other parts of the picture. The only visual sign of her importance is the larger pinkish rug on which she sits.
This lack of a center is characteristic of Chinese painting. It may look simple-minded to Western viewers, but it has certain affinities with Zen thought, which teaches a generalized awareness without a particular focus. In this particular work, however, these elements seem to serve the story. This is about the daughter of a scholar abducted by Tartars, taken “far away to Heaven’s edge,” as one poem has it, where she is married to a Tartar chief, and finally ransomed after 12 years. Whether wittingly or not, the spaced-out composition emphasizes the elements of separation of the lady’s tale and her muted joy, as reunion with her family means leaving the two sons she has had in exile.
While much of the painting depends on this kind of detailed knowledge, the three-dimensional art has a more instant appeal, in particular some impressive jade carvings with lace-like patterns created through countless hours of skilled labor, and the brilliantly colored Qing Dynasty silk embroideries showing West Lake, a site of natural beauty that has long inspired poets and artists.
The main criticism of the exhibition, however, must be that it has too many stories to tell, and it whispers most of those it does.
“Treasured Masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” at the Tokyo National Museum runs till Sept. 15. 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m., Sat. Sun. and holidays till 6 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed on irregular dates; for more information, visit www.tnm.jp.