The Oriental Expressed

The Oriental Expressed

Is the Pacific Rim invading Nashville? While TPAC uncorked the bubbly Miss Saigon, with its 700-pound helicopter, its statue of Uncle Ho, and its cast of thousands of other props, the Fine Arts Gallery at Vanderbilt recently opened “Looking East,” a very modest but rousing exhibition of Asian art. While TPAC’s East-meets-West soap opera is certain to please the spectacle-seeking playgoer in each of us, the Vandy show will just as certainly please our secret Taoist.

This special exhibition honors professor Milan Mihal, who will be retiring in May after serving for 29 years as Vanderbilt’s resident expert in the Asian art field. Though he and gallery curator Joseph Mella chose but 112 objects from a diverse collection numbering well over 2,500, “Looking East” provides a rich selection of Oriental art rarely seen or collected in these parts. The show is elegantly presented in a most unassuming space. As a result, the viewer’s appetite for Asian art will likely be whetted for much, much more—I doubt the same could be said of Miss Saigon.

This exhibition deserves more than one visit: There are subtle intimacies here that only begin to reveal themselves after moments of silent study and thought, or after conversation with friends. Yet it’s also an exhibition that any viewer should find rewarding, regardless of his educational background. One can readily see the many superficial resemblances among the art forms of Japan, Korea, and China. Given China’s historical (and ancient) trade with the neighboring two countries, the influences are logical.

Asian art also reflects a deep respect for the creation of utilitarian objects, an attitude mirrored in the culture’s traditional respect for the creations of nature. There are abstractions of line and shape in this exhibit that could only have been made by artists trained in the principles of economy and expressiveness found in nature. Especially striking in this regard is the bold emphasis on open space in certain works and a feeling for the ambiguity between recognizable and abstract forms.

This latter style is best captured in the “Winter Landscape” by Naonubu Kano, a 17th-century Japanese artist working poetically with ink washes and brushwork on a silk scroll. One might easily overlook this painting, with its tiny outcropping of trees, rocks, and a hut amidst vast, empty snowfields, as a gray-stained cloth marked by a small blotch. Kano’s is only one of dozens of related works in the show that exhibit a unique feeling for the emptiness and proportion associated with the philosophy of the Tao-te-ching. Kano’s work could also be regarded as an example of the influence of Zen in Japanese art and design. Whichever interpretation one chooses, the forceful simplicity of Kano’s piece stuns the eye.

Most of the functional pieces on view are ordinary possessions once owned by the wealthy and the middle-class, although there are a few objects of special religious significance. Particularly alluring are the teacups, bowls, and plates that show signs of wear and age. The chips and flaws suggest not just time’s patina and the touch of those who used them, but also the survival of the ordinary. Equally noticeable is the emphasis on sensitive craftsmanship—regardless of the humbleness of the object—and the incorporation of accidental marks and patterns in the glazing or firing of ceramics, quite noticeable in the three 20th-century “bizen-ware” vessels.

Among the most visually powerful of the religious works is a Chinese carving of a seated Lohan (a disciple of Buddha) from the 15th century. Its slight wooden form must have once graced a temple niche or table; now cracked and broken in places, and stripped of its original gilding and painted decoration, it has fallen into noble ruin. Yet the face retains its original expression, both austere and illuminated, while the slender proportions and gesture of the torso evoke the life of strict discipline expected of such monks. It’s worth noting how the Lohan’s face and body are so similar to countless examples of western Christian saints—a trait that somehow makes it doubly appealing and accessible.

Speaking of carved objects, nothing in Cheekwood’s fine collection of Oriental snuff bottles compares with several huge pieces of nephrite (a hard form of jade) on view at Vanderbilt. Most remarkable is a luminous “pilgrim’s bottle” done in so-called muttonfat jade, which resembles the color and sheen of lamb fat. This 10-inch vessel was once in the possession of the Dowager Empress Ts’u Hsi of China, which only adds to its cachet.

Unlike Western artists who’ve made a fetish of originality, Japanese and Chinese artists for centuries repeatedly copied the works of earlier masters, doing so out of respect for the perfect qualities of line, shape, or image. It’s impressive to see a 20th-century ink painting on silk that conveys the same controlled-but-explosive brushwork of an 11th-century Zen artist, or to view woodblocks that have recreated the same delicacy of line and complexity of pattern for several generations of viewers. The influence of woodblocks on 19th-century Western art is immense, and seeing examples by masters such as Hokusai and Utagawa is reason enough to visit the gallery.

This respect for artistic tradition runs counter to much taste in our contemporary arts, and it is surely one of the reasons that Asian art remains so appealing. On this basis, one could even justify the superior beauty of Oriental tatoo designs, taken from time-honored woodblock subjects, over the crasser Western versions, most of which are cribbed from pop culture and executed by untrained hands.

At the opening reception, the line of visitors waiting to enter the jammed gallery was a fitting tribute to Mihal’s popularity in the community. Well known for his gentle personality, his erudite style, and his encyclopedic command of Asian art forms, Mihal made enduring contributions to the understanding and appreciation of Eastern art by thousands of students. He proudly describes this collection as “the best of Asian art in the Southeast,” with “special strengths in the area of Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics.” He notes Vanderbilt’s indebtedness to “the generosity of all the donors,” who contributed a staggering 95 percent of the works since Mihal arrived nearly three decades ago. This, despite the lack of a facility to display or store the work in the manner it deserves.

This as-yet unnamed collection (among others held by the school) must be considered a vital educational resource for the area, particularly for schoolchildren. It is a major blemish, if not a disgrace, that Vanderbilt University—which touts itself as one of the best universities in the nation—cannot see fit to establish and support its own fine arts museum. Of the top 25 American universities, none lacks at least one first-class museum, and most have several collections available to the public. This conspicuous absence at Vanderbilt is just one symptom of the skewed thinking that has for decades thwarted respect for the visual arts in Nashville. Until the school recognizes its obligation to bring itself up to par in this area, all that PR about Top Twenty-Five status is just pretentious nonsense.

The beautiful irony of this exhibit is that Joseph Mella’s immaculate gallery installation is so in accordance with the delicacy of the objects that one could easily overlook Vanderbilt’s larger failing. Let’s hope the powers in Kirkland Hall and the financial elite of Nashville see this exhibition and realize what great undeveloped potential there still remains at the “Harvard of the South.” Sayonara, and good wishes, Professor Mihal.


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