“Flowers to Frost” exhibit explores significance of the seasons in East Asian art.
“Flowers to Frost,” on view in the Chinese paintings gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, is the kind of poetic, revelatory exhibit we have come to expect from Ling-en Lu, the museum’s associate curator of Chinese art.
Filled with beguiling paintings, prints, textiles, and works in other media from China, Korea and Japan, the show explores the importance of the seasons in East Asian art and culture. To enter the gallery is to embark on a nature walk past rivers and mountains, flowers, shrubs and trees.
Who could not be charmed by Wang Gai’s series of woodblock prints, created as a how-to guide for artists, depicting a blossoming fruit tree, a grasshopper poised on a stem, a nodding chrysanthemum and a snowy branch of plum blossoms? All convey the artist’s delight in these emblems of the changing seasons.
The same joy fires the images in Yun Shouping’s Album of Flowers, which includes his depiction of Three Friends of Winter (oleander, winter sweet and heavenly bamboo), with the artist’s annotation: “Though battered by snow and sleet, their complexions never fail, nor beauty fades.”
It’s a surprise to discover that the delicately rendered image of a leafy stalk of bamboo reproduced on the show’s title wall is a finger painting. Gao Qipei (1660-1734) was a master of the medium.
Amid this gathering of historical works from the museum’s collection, the inclusion of a mesmerizing video by contemporary South Korean artist Lee Lee Nam, known for his digital animations of traditional masterpieces, brings the seasons concept up to date.
Lee’s Early Spring digitally reinterprets a famous Northern Song masterwork by Guo Xi housed in National Palace Museum, Taipei. Guo Xi’s painting, also titled Early Spring, depicts a mountain landscape with craggy trees and a waterfall that cascades into a foreground pool.
Lee ‘s video sets Guo Xi’s landscape in motion as he chronicles the effect of the changing seasons in a six-minute loop.
The brown landscape assumes brilliant colors with the arrival of spring: flowers bloom, birds sing and water rushes. Then there’s the drama of a rain storm with thunder and lightning, followed by a refreshed, tranquil atmosphere.
The trees turn orange as fall arrives; next, winter comes. The pool and the waterfall freeze, large fluffy clumps of snow drift down, and in an ingenious touch by Lee, catch on the traditional Chinese inscription and seal.
East Asians feel a close kinship with nature, Ling-en said during a recent tour the show. The seasons are a primary inspiration, not just in the visual arts, but also in poetry and literature.
As a child, she recounted, she had to memorize Tao Qian’s famous story, The Peach Blossom Spring, about a utopian community that lived in harmony with nature, removed from contact with the outside world.
Her exhibit includes several works that allude to the poem, including Zha Shibiao’s scroll depicting The Peach Blossom Spring story of a fisherman who discovers the hidden village, which he enters through a grotto.
Although the villagers asked him not to, the fisherman shared his discovery after he returned home. Nonetheless, no one was able to find the village again.
Written at a time of political chaos, the story has many layers of meaning, Ling-en said. In Chinese art, the peach is a symbol of a peaceful organized state.
Unexpectedly, “Flowers to Frost” includes a set of what today’s viewers would term “readymades.”
Four works, with fetching titles including Many Wonders of Summer Clouds and Winter Peaks Hoard the Snow, are not paintings, as one might think at first glance, but slabs of marble. The unknown artist selected each piece for its natural patterns, and assigned a season to each based on their evocations of clouds and snow, water and moonlight.
In China, the seasons carry auspicious meanings. Displayed in the home, works such as a pair of 19th-century embroidered silk table covers evoking fall and winter conveyed the owner’s desire for a smooth transition from one season to the next and a peaceful happy life.
“Autumn is the most popular season,” Ling-en said. “When the leaves fall and the flowers fade, they remind the poet and painter of the transience of life.”
Zhang Fu’s 16th-century hanging scroll, Visiting a Hermit in the Autumn Mountains combines that concept with the Chinese reverence for the hermit as moral exemplar.
In China, autumn brings the Autumn Moon Festival, a time to celebrate the harvest and gather with family and friends. Xiang Shengmo’s Village in Mountains with Fishermen Returning to Shore portrays autumn moon activities including eating and drinking and composing poetry outdoors.
The work provides a moment to “slow down,” Ling-en said. The figures are so tiny, it is necessary to use a magnifying glass, hanging nearby, to view them.
Like Wang Gai’s how-to woodblocks and the embroidered table covers, the inclusion of Xiang Shengmo’s Village in Mountains reflects Ling-en’s interest in showing works that fall outside the canon of masterworks.
A small Southern Song Dynasty painting by Li Song of a Tang emperor watching a cockfight is another eye-catching example.
“These works are original and excellent in their own right,” Ling-en said. “They are beautiful to see, and worthwhile to display in the gallery so they can tell their stories to a wide audience.”
Japan has its own season-related traditions. Viewing maple leaves is a favorite autumn pastime, as seen in Ando Hiroshige’s Maple Leaves at Tsutenkyo (ca. 1834), from his Famous Places of Kyoto series. (ca. 1834).
It’s a charming scene of people seated outdoors enjoying the cooler weather beside a brilliant blue stream dotted with floating leaves. Just as striking is an adjacent print, The Cool of Evening at Shijo, showing dozens of people dining riverside, seated on low platforms lit by glowing lanterns.
Perhaps the most compelling thing about “Flowers to Frost” is the sense of vicarious participation engendered by all this dining and conversing, strolling down paths and sitting beside rushing water—being renewed by nature the East Asian way. o
“Flowers to Frost: Four Seasons in East Asian Art” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through July 17. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission is free. For more information, 816-751-1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.