I have posted before on the joys and necessity of art. Being with art is a way of practicing a level of communication with what is inside and what is outside of yourself that is necessary, rewarding, sensuous, and nurturing, and I think anyone who has read this blog is aware of my feelings on practice. (LOL, sometimes things just have to happen, so I took a break, got some coffee, and wrote “Practice“, as of yet unpublished.)
Due to things totally outside of my control, a relative who died before I was aware of her existence, bequeathed to the Art Institute in Chicago, many objects from her extended time living in China in the early 20th century. They are truly beautiful objects, photographs and descriptions of the time, and while I never knew her, her presence has been a feature of my life since I was first aware. I am currently sitting at her Mandarin desk and in her chair as I type and have many small object d’art from that place and time.
What this gave me last week was an “IN”. There was a published photo purported to be of this relative that was incorrect. We had communicated this and that contact had resulted in a lengthy and very friendly exchange with the curator of Chinese Art at the Institute. Since I was going to Chicago anyway, I had the opportunity to give to her the original of the photo in question and have the most exquisite day wandering the back storage rooms of one of the finest art museums in the world.
I learned the most astounding things about art, the problems of dating, and the manor of creation in times long past, the most significant being that Jade, an almost iconic art material of China, can not be carved. We hear of carved jade, we see jade in the most beautiful and delicate of shapes, but it can not be carved or chipped. It has to be worn. In the modern day it is done rather easily with high speed electric tools with diamond bits. But these are very modern tools. I was casually handed an oval piece and told to take it to a bright light. It was “carved” in the shape of a sleeping swan. Each feather, each mark of the curled, webbed feet, the curve of the neck and line of beak, the small point of the eye, was worn down with sand and rope and hand. I asked why it was not on display and was told that the work was so delicate that, if in a glass case at any distance, it could not be lit well enough to see. And here I was, holding it in my hand.
I saw painted pottery hundreds of years old, a Japanese wooden cabinet taller than my 6′ 7″, which took the word “gaudy” to a level far beyond anything created today, I was casually given permission to open cabinets and handle artifacts that would be displayed under the strictest of security and handled objects and paintings of overwhelming beauty.
Later in the day, and it was a full day, both before and after lunch, (by the way, for those Chicagoans in the area, check out Toni’s just up Washington from “The Bean“. It was a delight.) I was allowed to handle and look at some art scrolls, up to a thousand years old, if I remember correctly, and so long that when they are on display, only a small fraction of its length could be viewed. Two stay in my mind, one commemorating the meeting of a poet and a Buddhest monk, unfortunately an event that would go unnoticed today. I think the scroll was called “The Tea Warmer.” The delicacy of the structure and beauty coming from this simple garden scene created a moment I long to sit with. Thinking of it now creates a joyous smile on my face as I write.
The other was an incredibly long depiction of street life of the time. It was unique because it was simply the people with their animals and possessions, singly or gathered in groups, but without any form of background, almost like a photo album. Booths selling all manor of wear, people transporting goods, performers displaying martial arts, puppeteers, fortune tellers, calligraphers and people reading for others who could not, sellers of alcohol and others who had far too much. We kept sliding the scroll down the long table, rolling up one end and rolling out the other.
I even made a discovery of which the curator was unaware. There was one character carrying baskets of what looked like sticks. We thought it might be just firewood, but each stick ended in a bit of a knob. No one in the room had an explanation, but we all knew that such details were not just happenstance. It was not until far down the scroll that I saw a character practicing with a bow at targets that I noticed his “arrow” was a stick of the same length ending with a slight knob. Good for target practice in a crowded street, eh?
Did I make a significant discovery in ancient Chinese art for a major international museum? Most decidedly not, but the concept is enjoyable, so I choose to accept it. Why not? It is an enjoyable practice.
The day was a gift of which I can not claim worth, and it was a beginning to a week of continued gifts. Tomorrow I will talk about company, both casual and otherwise, and more truly great food, before getting to the meat of the week, my demo’s and the astoundingly beautiful woman who willingly volunteered. Whew.