Objects of beauty and mystery from the cradle of Eastern civilization

A rare occasion to marvel at cultural relics from Asia’s cradle of civilization is being offered by «Imperial Treasures from China,» an exhibition currently on display at the National Gallery of Athens in collaboration with the Chinese Republic. The exhibition – which is curated by Yu Ping, Jiang QiQi, Yuan Shankai and, from the Greek side, Zina Kaloudi – includes 100 holdings, ranging from bronze, gold and silver items, jade, ceramic, paintings and calligraphies that originate from three of Beijing’s museums: the Capital Museum, Beijing Art Museum and the Ming Tomb Museum. Tracing centuries of Chinese history from neolithic times until the decline of Imperial China in the early 20th century, the exhibition is, like most broad-ranging, survey exhibitions, dense with information on history, culture and religion as captured in art, as well as elegant objects that can also be enjoyed for their aesthetic value alone. Bronze vessels bearing inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty (16th century BC – 1050 BC) are among the earliest holdings. Besides bronze, working with jade and porcelain was also developed at the time, although it seems that it was during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) that jade carving in particular became more prominent. Three-color glazed ware – more typically tomb figurines – from the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) stand out from that period and as do silk fabrics that spread nationwide along with its processing technologies. The most familiar items to the Western public are the blue and white porcelains of the Yuan and Ming dynasties in the 14th and 15th centuries. As with other objects, one finds here elaborate work, care for detail and opulence in combination with a sense of restraint. A russet-colored enamel vase, decorated with flower motifs and dating from the Qing Dynasty (1611 – 1911), shows the exquisite feeling for shape that the Chinese seemed to have throughout their civilization. The exhibition also includes various items that show the influence of religion on art. Sculptures of seated Buddhas are abundant and show the gradual expansion of Buddhism, which was first introduced in China during the Han Dynasty, roughly around 6 BC. Painting is given a separate section, with Buddhist and Taoist paintings among them, but also beautiful specimens of Chinese calligraphy. For us Westerners, this art seems like a coded visual language, filled with mystery, an art that to a large extent is incomprehensible but engaging and visually beguiling nevertheless. Held in conjunction with the Olympic Games and heralding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, «Imperial Treasures from China» is sponsored by the Beijing Municipal Government, the Beijing Administrative Bureau of Cultural Relics and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. National Gallery, 50 Vas. Constantinou, to October 11.