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Discovering Hidden Meaning in Classical Chinese Paintings

An interview with Met curator Joseph Scheier-Dolberg.

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As the Oscar Tang and Agnes Hsu-Tang associate curator of Chinese paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), Joseph Scheier-Dolberg spends every day in the presence of artistic excellence. His work gives him a profound connection to the past.

He says he still remembers the first time he unrolled a painting that was close to one millennia old. The piece had been passed down through the hands of many important people whom he’d read about in history books, and he realized that perhaps they’d once sat down at a table just as he did and unrolled it with the same sense of wonder and enthusiasm he had.

“I felt almost like a shock through my body to become a part of that historical lineage. Maybe not everybody feels that way when they contact an object from the past, but for me it was like a portal through which I could connect to the past. It’s almost like a time machine. You would probably find the same for most of my colleagues. I think it’s why we’re drawn to museum work,” Scheier-Dolberg says.

That connection persists for him whenever he unravels another painting from Met’s extensive collection of Chinese paintings and calligraphy—one of the greatest collections in the world.

Scheier-Dolberg recently sat down with Magnifissance to discuss the deeper meaning and symbolism behind some of the Met’s bird-and-flower Chinese painting collections (known as Huaniaohua).

Windblown bamboo by Yang Han, 1686.

Resilient bamboo

Throughout history, bamboo has always played an important role in Chinese culture. It was particularly favoured by the literati as a symbol of a superior man who is strong yet flexible. “It can withstand adversity,” Scheier-Dolberg says. “That’s the key symbolism of bamboo that people identify with. Even during difficult times, it’s able to grow and survive.”

One of the signature pieces featured in the Met’s Noble Virtues: Nature as Symbol in Chinese Art exhibition was a massive bamboo ink painting that required a gallery with a 20-foot ceiling to display.

“It was painted in 1686, about 40 years into the Qing Dynasty,” Scheier-Dolberg says. “The painter lived through the fall of the Ming Dynasty (which preceded the Qing). A lot of people at that time remained loyal to the Ming and felt that the Qing were invaders. In that kind of context, an image of bamboo being blown about in the wind and still surviving the adversity could be very powerful, but also safe. That’s because they could always say it’s just bamboo.”

Orchids by Ma Lin, second quarter of the 13th century.

Soft-spoken orchid

Subtle yet distinct, the fragrance of orchids has inspired Chinese writers and painters for thousands of years. Although these flowers appear delicate, they can thrive in unforgiving environments. Like hermits, orchids often live in seclusion on a cliff or in a swamp. Even when there’s no one around to praise them or take notice, they never stop emitting their fragrance.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 119

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