JIM LEHRER: Now for The Splendors of Imperial China, an exhibition that is touring America. It's now at the Art Institute of Chicago, having already received great reviews in New York City. Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston, our economics correspondent, who also knows a thing or two about art, reports.
PAUL SOLMAN: In Taiwan, an unusual protest--over an art show. Treasures from the Imperial Collection, the emperor's personal stash, collected over centuries and shown only sparingly at home, were leaving to tour America. It didn't sit well with budding Taiwanese and eventually several works stayed behind.
But the Imperial Collection has been on the road before, packed on trucks back in 1931 by President Chiang Kai-Shek and taken inland away from the invading Japanese. After World War II, before the Communists took over, the collection made its final trek offshore to Taiwan. Now, it's barnstorming America.
The U.S. tours started this spring at New York's Metropolitan Museum, which is where we were introduced to The Splendors of Imperial China, a chance, amid the anxiety over China these days, to breathe easy for a few minutes and maybe get a clue about the Chinese by looking long and hard at their art.
Much of this show is instantly likeable, and once you read the labels understandable. This is a good luck pillow for a would-be mother to ensure she has a boy. There are depths to plumb, however, of a very different culture.
WEN FONG, Metropolitan Museum of Art: The mentality indicates that this is a religious icon, so now--
PAUL SOLMAN: This is really art historian Wen Fong's exhibit since it was he who coaxed these rare delicacies out of Taiwan.
WEN FONG: This is the portrait of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
PAUL SOLMAN: To Wen Fong, there are basically two styles in Chinese art, and this is one of them, the Imperial style, pretty as a picture, colorful, decorative. It's symbolic, Fong says, of a civil, courtly, orderly world. The key symbol, the emperor, portrayed as the great stabilizer of society. In the Imperial style, it turns out, the ruler is literally a mountain lording it over the earth, and that's the way the artist must portray him.
WEN FONG: Everything is monumentalized--the body, the way it sits there. It sits like a mountain, not just any mountain, a cosmic mountain.
PAUL SOLMAN: Fully five feet tall, this monumental scroll in the year 1100 or so mirrors the portrait, says Fong. The host mountain, symbolizing the emperor, sits atop a harmonious, hierarchical world of descending scale and status. This, it seems, is the Confusian view of order, from top to bottom, from landscapes to portraiture.
Now for all the symbolism, Fong says the artist captured the likeness of Tai Tsu here pretty well. In the Imperial style, though, the artist plays second fiddle to politics. The whole point of portraits like this is to convince his subjects of the emperor's absolute authority.
WEN FONG: The brush work itself has no individual personality, if you will.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you don't see the artist's expressiveness here?
WEN FONG: No, no. The artist is totally subsumed in this Imperial statement.
PAUL SOLMAN: So is this propaganda?
WEN FONG: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's this the Imperial propaganda. The emperor is the center of the universe is what it says.
PAUL SOLMAN: If Imperial portraits were already strongly propagandist in the 10th century Sung Dynasty, by the time of the Ming Dynasty four centuries later, they were almost entirely so. Religious icons really, whose style reflects, according to Fong, the rigidity and inwardness that's typical of absolutist rule.
WEN FONG: This is a very telling picture in some ways because it symbolizes a whole culture, an entire people turning inward for the remaining of the Imperial history up until modern times. Talk about autocracy, the Imperial system, there's only just really basically one direction you can go, that is, more becomes more absolute than ever before.
PAUL SOLMAN: China's emperor's turning inward, it's a standard explanation of why after inventing everything from gunpowder to the clock, China lost its technological lead and was surpassed by the West. To Fong, that's the message of the increasing decorativeness and lifelessness of the Imperial style. But then there is the other style of Chinese art, personal, private, sometimes even subversive, and to an average westerner, dauntingly subtle, even when Professor Fong extols its virtues.
WEN FONG: This is one of the greatest, almost legendary, pieces in Chinese history.
PAUL SOLMAN: This may be the first personal masterpiece in Chinese art. The mad script, black and white calligraphy, of 8th century Zen monk Qwai Su, who tended to drink while drawing, the text is about Qwai Su, himself, but it's the brush work that matters.
WEN FONG: And then he really at this point, you know, you can visibly see that he just takes off.
PAUL SOLMAN: Calligraphy, says Fong, is the beginning of the personal side of Chinese art, although that's a lot for some in the West to swallow.
PAUL SOLMAN: Why is this art? Isn't it sort of like penmanship?
WEN FONG: Well, it's so beautiful and so, you know, free and spontaneous, it, uh, it really is an exemplar of this critical notion that in order to create you have to be totally free without any constraint. So art really becomes artless, and this is so natural, you know, the brush just absolutely floats along and never leaves the paper and moves on and with this rhythm or the Chinese call the chi, this breath of life.
PAUL SOLMAN: Painting as a mystical experience. The artist in touch with a universal life force. Perhaps the most obvious parallel in the West is action painting in which artists like Jackson Pollock strove for a spontaneity that would tap into the mystical realm of reality. In that sense, the art here is the very act of making it almost like a dancer or a musician.
The show's next breakthrough of the personal style, Fong thinks, Chow Meng Fu's study of bamboo from around 1300. For the first time, the brush work of calligraphy was applied to nature. That means the expressiveness of the artist's painting style is more important than what's being painted.
Fong points to the outline of that big rock. Look closely and you may be able to make out the artist's presence in the long dragged strokes, where the hairs of the brush separate to create a famous calligraphy effect, flying white, but whether you see it or not, Fong says, the artist is doing something abstract.
WEN FONG: This is sort of the starting point for all new type of art in China, in Korea, in Japan, the only really two ways of drawing something, only is to represent nature as closely as possible to what eye sees, the visual representation, the other is almost acting it out, that I stand for this tree, this bamboo, and this bamboo is me.
PAUL SOLMAN: One nice thing about art, the longer you look, the more you find, especially if you've never looked before. For example, this is the philosopher, Lao-Tze, founder of Taoism, riding on an ox. But why does yet another major painting in this show have no color, because, Fong says, the artist is going after something as mystical, as essential as the philosopher, himself.
WEN FONG: There's a saying that ink has five colors.
PAUL SOLMAN: Ink has five colors?
WEN FONG: Ink has five colors. It is by eliminating the colors you are able to concentrate and to imagine what goes with it, so it is really this rhythmic quality that really matters here.
PAUL SOLMAN: For Wen Fong, the most personal, most interesting painting in the show might be Ni-Tsung's "Empty Pavilion." It seems Ni-Tsung, born in 1301, was a rich scholar artist who fled his estate because of Mongul tax collectors and civil unrest in the 1340's. Exile became the theme of his work.
WEN FONG: In this picture is the empty pavilion. That's a representation of his abandoned home. So there's infinite line for peace, for beauty, and survival. The whole thing is, is--hides a message, conceals a message of survival in a hostile world.
PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, this painting conceals more messages than you can shake a brush at. To aficionados, those dark, little arcs on the upper right branches, are painted with the brush tip perpendicular to the paper, which suggests the artist working very much within himself.
The contours of the trees and rocks, though, are painted with the side of the brush in an angle to the paper considered a more aggressive outward gesture and the lines start and stop abruptly, meant to convey the tension of Ni-Tsung's time. Now, if this level of detail seems obscure to us, it's vital to Chinese scholars, and that's even more true of the 17th century's Chu Ta.
WEN FONG: In these innocuous-looking flowers and vegetables, they are loaded with political messages.
PAUL SOLMAN: Flowers, for example, can be symbols of bureaucrats who sold out. Often accompanying poems amplify the image. To many of us, I imagine, just a pair of sagging melons, to connoisseurs, a suggestion of Chu Ta's dual identity, he was a prince who became a monk, the dual identity of imperial rule, Manchu versus Chinese, even the dual identity of the universe, as expressed by the opposite forces of Yin and Yang, from which everything is said to arise.
It's this sort of subtlety, often mystical, that defines Chu Ta and the personal style of Chinese art. Now after straining to decipher all this, it was something of a relief to come at last upon Chu Ying's "Pavilion in the Mountain of the Immortals," dated 1550.
PAUL SOLMAN: This I can really relate to, beautiful colors, fantastic abstraction of the mountains in the background, how come I can relate to this--and not a lot of what we've seen so far.
WEN FONG: But this is consumer art in late Ming period, lot of rich merchants and patrons of art and so it's, it's all escapist art.
PAUL SOLMAN: The island of immortality, a fantasy for a merchant class that had everything money could buy except of course eternal life.
PAUL SOLMAN: So this is art for bourgeois people like me?
WEN FONG: Exactly.
PAUL SOLMAN: This is more accessible then what of much Fong likes best in his exhibit. But even the art can be deeply appreciated by Westerners, even a bridge of understanding and sympathy between us and the Chinese. That's because Fong thinks we can all respond to the mystical essence of art. We just have to know the vocabulary, and then work at it.
WEN FONG: It always takes effort and study.
PAUL SOLMAN: Any work of art?
WEN FONG: Any work of art. Work of art is, is also acquired taste, acquired understanding.
PAUL SOLMAN: And so the more I look at--
WEN FONG: Looking is everything. Looking is the secret.
MR. LEHRER: The exhibit travels to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco this fall. The final stop will be early next year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.