Companions in Solitude –

The 16th-century painting (part) by Qian Gu depicts Wang Xizhi’s famous gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, where guests were to drink wine and compose poems. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Living with the pandemic led a museum curator to reflect on how the ancient Chinese approached the idea of ​​isolation, embrace it rather than fight it.

To be alone or together? This question, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous Hamlet, was posed to itself by Joseph Scheier-Dolberg one of those days last year when the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was confined to his home with his wife and young son, in a city ravaged by the pandemic.

While outings were largely confined to hasty walks to the nearby grocery store, interactions with family and friends, including those with whom the Curator had not been in active contact before, increased by unexpectedly. Sitting in his dimly lit study room in Manhattan, across from his homeschooled son’s desk, he contemplated his own state of being, just as a former Chinese scholar might have done years ago. hundreds of years, even millennia.

And while the ancient Chinese searched for answers deep in the wooded mountain or in their own backyards that often amounted to “a simulation of nature” to quote Scheier-Dolberg, the curator, in his own effort, turned to himself. turned to what these literary men have invented over the ages in ink-soaked pieces of painting, calligraphy and poetry, often three in one.

And now he’s sharing his findings with museum visitors through an exhibition called Companions in Solitude - Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art, on display at the Metropolitan Museum until next August.

“For more than 2,000 years, seclusion (the act of withdrawing from society) has been presented in Chinese culture as an ideal state for cultivating the mind and transcending world affairs,” Scheier-Dolberg explains in the wall texts accompanying the exhibition. At the same time, fellowship with like-minded people has been celebrated as essential to the human experience. Images of people pursuing one path or the other, or combining them in complex and surprising ways, abound.

In these images (around 60 of them are visible), we see a lot of mountain scenes, although the men who appear in them often appear to be walking around rather than climbing. The arduous nature of rock climbing is replaced by a genre-inherent soothing touch, which envelops the figure (usually a scholar-gentleman) as he walks through the board, adding “an extra layer of meaning” to what would otherwise be a landscape painting as seen in the artistic traditions of the West.

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