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Barbarians Tamed: The Met's Timid "Khubilai Khan" Exhibition

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Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell and Asian art chairman James C.Y. Watt at press preview for "The World of Khubilai Khan"

The Metropolitan Museum's new exhibition of art in China during the period of occupation by Mongol invaders -- "The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty" -- is a typically brilliant exercise in object-wrangling. Although drawn from a wide variety of international sources, the bulk of the loans come from China, including many recent archaeological finds and some other treasures that never before left their homeland.

One of the latter is a stone post embellished with writhing dragons, a monument from Khubilai Khan's celebrated "stately pleasure dome" in Xanadu:

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Where this assemblage of impressive objects falls short, though, is in incisive curatorial analysis. Even the label for the star object above seems to shortchange its significance. The description consigns "Xanadu" to parentheses and fails to mention that this monumental carving belonged to the fabled structure immortalized in Coleridge's poem. You would never know from its label that this imposing, evocative decoration had never previously budged from its original site:

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This missed opportunity to engage general audiences is the least of this show's underachievements, however. More astonishingly, the exhibition sanitized this difficult period in Chinese history, 1215-1368, which, as Sherman Lee, the Cleveland Museum's late, legendary director observed in his catalogue essay for the museum's sweeping 1968 show, Chinese Art under the Mongols, was too brief in duration for "the usual Chinese sequences of innovation, development, and gradual absorption so characteristic of the great classic periods." Perhaps more crucially, it was "a time politically dominated by foreign barbarians."

The B-word, typically associated with the invading Mongols, is largely eschewed by the Metropolitan in both its exhibition and its catalogue -- with one notable exception, discussed later.

As the photos below demonstrate, the objects are far more dynamic and compelling than the text in the show's interpretive panels and labels or the mostly turgid prose of its catalogue:

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At center: Roof-ridge ornament with mythical beast, glazed pottery, Shanxi Museum

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"Arhat," wood with traces of pigment, Victoria and Albert Museum

Perhaps a key to why this turbulent era has given birth to a surprisingly tame exhibition can be found in the decision to consign the Met catalogue's forward -- customarily written by the organizing curator -- to Shan Jixiang, director of the Cultural Property Promotion Association, People's Republic of China.

Here's an excerpt from this property promoter's promotional prose:

Unification under the Yuan dyanasty... led to a new phase of exchange and harmony among various ethnic groups.... An environment characterized by ethnic harmony and cultural eclecticism gave rise to artistic invention and diversity.

Contrast this with Cleveland curator Wai-kam Ho's contribution to his museum's 1968 catalogue:

Under the Mongolian policy of racial discrimination and institutionalized double standards, the Chinese most painfully affected were obviously the Confucian scholar-gentry, the pillar of the traditional society prior to the foreign conquest.

It is no exaggeration to say that the most unique and decisive single factor that substantially altered the entire cultural scene of the 14th century, especially the arts and crafts, was the universal humiliation and frustration of these scholars and the various forms of their reactions.

So much for Shan Jixiang's "new phase of exchange and harmony."

Only Met curator Maxwell Hearn deviates significantly from People's Republic-style political correctness at his institution. In his illuminating catalogue essay on Chinese painting, Hearn describes the causes of a "stylistic shift" during the period, as well as the influence of "dynastic change" on the format of paintings.

He even dares to invoke the B-word -- albeit in quotation marks:

Those who had held office under the Song...suddenly out of work, turned to art to express their enduring loyalty to the Song and their opposition to they new order of "barbaric" conquerors....Yuan figurative art often evokes ancient cultural paradigms that might serve as emblems of moral courage and survival in the face of adversity.

And in his own companion exhibition to the loan show, "Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change," drawn largely from the Met's own collection, Hearn forthrightly analyzes the period, pulling no punches.

Was the Met constrained in its scholarship by a need to kowtow to its Chinese lenders? We'll probably never know. But there should have been a way to present an analysis of the material that gives viewers a fuller understanding of specific stylistic and substantive changes, demonstrating how Chinese art was influenced by the incursion of foreigner rulers and the interactions of the various cultures that were brought together by the unification of diverse geographical areas under Mongol rule.

Cleveland's Lee called this tumultuous period "a true watershed in Chinese cultural and social life." That's a concept should have informed the Met's presentation, using the show's well-chosen objects to elucidate it.

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Mongol Dancer, Jin or Yuan dynasty, 13th century, Henan Museum
Excavated in 1973 from a tomb in Henan Province