Feature

Exhibit of the week: The World of Khubilai Khan

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled paintings, sculpture, porcelain, and other treasures that were created mostly during the 100 years after the Mongol conqueror united China, in 1271.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkThrough Jan. 2, 2011

“Two towering men of stone” guard the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum’s new tour through the dazzling world of Khubilai Khan, said Ula Ilnytzky in the Associated Press. The figures are part of a vast collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries, porcelain, and other treasures—“many never before exhibited” in the West—that were created mostly during the 100 years after the Mongol conqueror united China, in 1271. History often views this grandson of Genghis Khan as the epitome of the foreign-born ruler who adopts the culture of his vanquished subjects, said Dan Bischoff in the Bergen County, N.J., Record. But that’s an oversimplification. The Mongols were traders foremost and looked for value in every culture within their sprawling empire. The great works of the period are thus products of “cross-pollination.”

Some of this cultural mixing produces amusing results, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. In the figures of two sages depicted on a Taoist scroll, we see a Chinese artist coming to grips with the empire’s new overlords: One sage is dressed traditionally, while the other “is loosely robed, dark-skinned, with an unkempt beard, all of which signaled ‘barbarian.’” It’s also striking to compare the restrained simplicity of these figures with the Mongols’ more “flamboyant aesthetic.” Their “flair for visual histrionics” is evident in an ornamental dragon head nearby. “Standing 5 feet high, painted flame orange and sea green, and snarling like a ravenous Muppet,” the carving absolutely demands attention.

Such sights could make a viewer long to lay eyes on Xanadu, Khubilai Khan’s legendary private retreat, said Christopher Benfey in Slate.com. Yet almost all that remains of the walled city is the “wonderful” carved stone post that’s displayed here. Nearly 7 feet tall, it’s “decorated on two sides with feisty dragons, mirror images of one another, meant to radiate imperial authority.” Still, for every larger-than-life wonder in this exhibit, there are dozens of smaller, subtler ones, such as a pale porcelain bottle “splashed with an abstract swath of copper underglaze.” Though the snake-like splash looks a bit like one of the Xanadu dragons, the piece itself retains a kind of Zen austerity. One of the marvels of Khubilai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty is that the era’s collision of cultures produced, “like diamonds out of coal,” work after work of such astonishing aesthetic intensity.

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