The Unconventional Truth — At Met

A Statue of a Scribe in Fourth Century BC from Met
A Statue of a Scribe in Fourth Century BC from Met

It was crowded as usual when I visited Metropolitan Museum of Art last Saturday. At one point, the gallery of Amarna Art had two guided tours at the same time. I walked to the galleries of late period instead. Most of the visitors would get tired by the time they reach there if they have followed the chronologically ordered exhibition. Or they tend to walk faster through the dimly lit galleries. Thus even the main corridor can once a while be filled with silent wonders.

It was there that I found a head-and-bust statue of a scribe attributed to the fourth century. The lack of back pillar and the remnants of the right arm suggests a squatting scribe-type gesture. But what is unusual is his face, candid and soulful that my eyes couldn’t move away from it after the first glance.

In the book “Egyptian Art”  by the great art historian Cyril Aldred, he commented that the sculpture in late period became modified by a less materialistic view of man’s fate. The sombre expression in the presence of the god reflects the external and internal affairs in Egypt must have given rise to much doubt and questioning. Such a pessimistic view can be vividly seen from the face of the scribe. The naturalistic furrows between his eyebrows are deep but subtle (in that the grooves are non-symmetrical). His eyes, although staring straightforward, are vaguely diffused and seem to retreat into his thought.  The downward eyebrows on the other hand, are stunningly stylized to emphasize the ordeals which he has undergone have probably drained him mentally and physically. The flesh folds above his nose (more subtle) and mouth (more pronounced) are bold but realistic. Then the sternness is further evidenced in the downward mouth and haggard eye socket, which reminds me that of Senwosret.

To some degree, I have found that the aesthetics of the late period resonates with my personal taste. There are as much of the details that are captured and represented as that are chosen to be omitted. Quite often the craftsmen of this period like the unknown artist behind this statue, reduced the rest of the body features to simplified volumes and shapes, thus forcing the viewers to focus on the likeness and characters. In this case, the wig lacks all the texture, although through assured hands it was gracefully rounded into perfection. It is the fact that the expressive face out of this abstract form that has a long lasting haunting effect on me like a magic spell. All human imperfection of furrows, skin folds and wrinkles on this well-nutritious face, either nuanced or mannered, yearns to tell the viewers there is a higher degree of expressiveness out of personal or national concerns that demands a less-than-ideal representation, a true reflection of the individual.

The Forest in Winter at Sunset by Théodore Rousseau at Met

With the American Wing still under renovation, I went to the European galleries on the second floor after “communicating” long enough with the scribe. To my surprise, I didn’t find my favorite painting “The Forest in Winter at Sunset” by Théodore Rousseau. The galleries are interconnected like a maze but I could not miss such a monumental work. Fortunately, Metropolitan Museum of Art is filled with surprises and wonders.  At the corner for the room dedicated to Jean-François Millet and Honoré Daumier, I came upon another treasure.

“Retreat from the Storm” was painted by Millet around 1846. It was fairly small (18 1/4 x 15 in) and dark. But it has an irresistible charm and stirring emotional depth that demands an intensive search of the cohesion between the forms and feelings.

Retreat from the Storm by Jean-François Millet at Met

To use the word of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Millet painted a decisive moment that both empathizes and dignifies the peasants.  The bodies are twisted in great tension as if the retreat is more than from a coming storm. The young child, possibly frozen from her unnatural greenish face, languid and wasted, is dragged along the trail while the mother clenches the sticks as if holding her baby.

Millet’s color pallet and brush strokes have a sculptural potency. Out the mysterious stormy darkness these two persons almost rushed out of the canvas surface, partially because of the lighter-toned human flesh, partially, I think because he arranged the figures leaning in one diagonal direction while the wind and cloud move against them in the contrasting diagonal. A close examination shows that although the flesh tone is in harmony of the surrounding, it nevertheless bear an uneasy hue as if the nature has eroded their body. The movement lines have a graphic fluency that brings out the beauty of the moment: It is not glossy, not polished, but  perhaps the richness of life can be better experienced through the struggles for the survival.

PS: The accession number shows that the painting came to Met in 2002. Although a late-comer to the collection, apparently the curator did not have any hesitation to put this little gem for the pubic.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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