If, according to a director of a New York art institution, the first thing that curators should study is the neighborhood’s demography, then a collection in San Antonio will seem out of place. If an emphasis on Latino culture, with a vast selection from pre-Columbia, Spanish Colonial to contemporary, matches the city’s dominant Hispanic population, the museum’s surprisingly vast holdings of Asian Art over-represent the city’s three percent Asian population.
In most American art museums with an encyclopedic collections, Asian Art is seldom the focus point. But SAMA’s Asian Art collection is not only the largest in Texas, but also one of the most prominent in the South or Midwest. I can only think of Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City whose breadth, not depth of the collection, may surpass the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA). Much of the collection can be credited to a generous trustee member, Walter Brown, whose donation of more than 500 superlative Chinese porcelain contributed to one of the finest holdings in the country. The effort to expand the Asian Art Wing to house the collection in 2005 showed the museum’s dedication in the field.
The galleries are arranged loosely based on chronological order and subjects and themes. One of the interesting installations is two rooms with in-situ display. Besides a scholar’s studio, which has been a favorite for showing Chinese decorative art and furniture in many museums, the other side of the hall has a room set up as a woman’s bedroom. The furnishing is not only orderly and spacious, but also projects sense of authority within the private space. It is an interesting curatorial perspective to confront the traditional views that Chinese women had limited rights in the ancient time. It is always interesting that scholars treated such subjects like half-empty or half-full bottles of water; but here it is clearly indicated that women had great, if not equal, amount of freedom within their own domestic territory.
Porcelains from Song Dynasty are displayed in a small gallery. Small, refined and reserved, they speak of an authentic royal aesthetic of the Han people. Porcelain from this period has always been my favorite. Unlike blue and white porcelain that has the immediate appeal through the striking contrast, the curved form or impressed decorations on Ding wares or the jade-like glaze of LongQuan celadon achieve superb elegance through subtlety and balance. “Nothing should be noticed,” Bunny Mellon once commented on her philosophy of decoration. She would have lived comfortably well in Song Dynasty.
The pursuit of injecting the extraordinary into seemingly ordinary forms was revised in the Qing Dynasty, especially in Kangxi, Yunzheng and Qianlong period. In the main gallery, a bowl of pale blue glaze, in the style of Song Dynasty, bears the label of Yongzhen. Its jade-like luminosity may have surpassed the predecessor, yet the exactness and perfection (the rim, the color and the glaze) speak more of exemplary craftsmanship than spiritual cultivation.
Displayed next to it is a plate with overglazed enamels. The subject is traditional – bats and peaches are both symbols of longevity. The enamels were painted over the rim so that branches continue sprawling to the opposite side of the eggshell plate. What distinguishes it from the rest is the subtle gradation from greenish yellow to deep red, used to depict the tenderness of peaches. The naturalistic style is restrained with succinctness of Chinese paintings – more than half of the space is blank, leaving bats hovering high in the air. Such reserved delicacy was lost within one generation. The porcelain made in Qianlong show consistent tendency toward grand size, complicated compositions, multiple techniques and strong coloration.
The center gallery has a surprising large number of blue and white porcelain made in Yuan and Ming Dynasty, the earliest of this kind in Chinese history. The fullness of the design is not only demonstrated in the size, but also shown in the Persian motifs such as vines and flowers. One particular large plate (from Yongle period) has three rings of motifs with the center one depicting a pair of Mandarin ducks (yuan yang) playing in a lotus pond. The cobalt blue, possibly imported through the silk road, is distinctly purplish and uneven compared to the domestic blue material used in Qing Dynasty. The drawing is rather crude – the feather of ducks was only suggested with outer lines while the lotus leaves are painted solidly with no details. Yet it preserves a stunning degree of vivacity and expressiveness through stylistic curves. Within the overall roundness filled with echoing arches, the invisible water presents a sense of moment as if every object is about to move coherently. Strangely, it seems that it is the female duck that is chasing the male duck. It made me laugh.
Just as one walks out of the main gallery and steps down to the lower floor, a collection of Liao Dynasty ceramics is presented separately before Arts of Japan and Korea. I have never seen such a strong presentation for one particular (short) period (12th century) in Chinese history. Its official website claims it has the largest collection from this period outside China. Seldom is the art of the period extensively exhibited, even in China. (Liao ceramics is also out of the mainstream of collecting in China because of the scarcity.) We didn’t spend too much time there but will come back to check out this collection next time.