Sunday, September 26, 2010

The World of Khubilai Khan at the Met

Membership has its privileges and, being members of the Met, the wife and I had the pleasure of catching an advance preview of the new Khubilai Kahn exhibit that officially opens tomorrow. And I strongly suggest you see it ASAP (it runs through January 2).

Called The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, this show examines the impact that the Mongol emperor's dynasty had on the art and culture of China in the 13th century. Unlike other leaders named Khan (Ghengis, the guy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of ...), Khan was what you might call an enlightened despot: he provided religious freedom to Doaists and Buddists, created paper currency and postal services, built roads and waterways, and even established aid agencies (he would probably be viewed by today's Republican Party as a socialist). He also moved the capital of China to what is modern day Beijing and was the emperor that Marco Polo met with (introducing the young Italian to, amongst other things, the noodle).

The art of this period and in this exhibit is fascinating and it is totally unlike Chinese art that I've seen in other exhibits. There are lots of beautiful, long silk scrolls that chronicle the lives of powerful Mongols, jade and golden cups and bowls, and beautiful, gorgeously hand carved statues (including an amazing column that was excavated from Khubilai's "pleasure-dome" Xanadu). What I didn't see was a lot of porcelain pottery and watercolor paintings that you usually see in Chinese art. This art (which, remember, is more Mongolian than Chinese) is very colorful and more formal than most Chinese art. The coolest thing I saw is something that the Mongols put on their front doors called "passports": metal pendants with Mongolian words that must be uttered in order to come into people's homes. We even saw a headstone from this period that was partially in Arabic! (Go figure.)

As a ruler, Khubilai was way, way ahead of his time (by about, oh, six to seven hundred years). And the art in this exhibit demonstrates it: as old as this art is, there is something almost modern and contemporary about it. None of this stuff would feel out of place in an exhibit at a modern art. It goes to show you that art and politics do not necessary progress in a straight line, that there are periods of progress and enlightenment and innovation leavened with periods of regression and ignorance and fear (see Barack Obama vs. Sarah Palin 2010).

The great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Khubilai and composed a poem, the opening lines of which have become very famous (enshrined forever in Citizen Kane):

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

1 comment:

  1. Even though some "scholars" believe that Marco Polo may have never reached China and that his account is hearsay that he cobbled together from the accounts of other travelers. I believe ( having spent two years retracing his entire route from Venice to Asia and back ) his account to be overwhelingly true ! And it is without question that a great deal of what we know about Khubiliai Khan and his court comes from Marco Polo's Book ! Francis O'Donnell
    " In the footsteps of Marco Polo "


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