Released May 19, 2007
Salem, Mass.—Perfect Imbalance, Exploring Chinese Aesthetics illuminates the visual themes that have prevailed in China through centuries of dynastic change, social upheaval and influences from other cultures. As China continues to evolve, these aesthetic constants are brought into contact with the contemporary and the new, re-appearing in a variety of novel formats and interpretations. Perfect Imbalance juxtaposes a wide range of media—from paintings and prints to jade, textiles and porcelain—to reveal the tenacity with which these aesthetic values have recurred. The exhibition presents three themes—Views of the Cosmos, Revering Antiquity, and The Aesthetic of the Brush—that have persisted in Chinese art through thousands of years, linking the pre-historic and the contemporary, the imperial and the vernacular, the Daoist and the Maoist. Perfect Imbalance features 30 works from the museum’s collections and private collections.
Reflecting a Chinese view of the universe as a hierarchical and balanced order, Chinese art often demonstrates a near-perfect symmetry. The strong compositional balance of a Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) ancestral temple painting reveals the Chinese belief in structured social and familial hierarchies. To offset the static effect of complete symmetry, slight discrepancies endow the painting with dynamic tension, creating the “perfect imbalance” that is a familiar quality of Chinese art. These minor imperfections are a desirable quality and considered aesthetically pleasing.
References to the past are a fundamental aspect of Chinese culture and its arts. The fine porcelain finish of a Jiajing period (1522-1566) jar is decorated in underglaze blue with the “Hundred boys” motif, conveying a wish for numerous sons that is traceable to China’s earliest literary compilation, the Book of Odes. Artists often used historical allusions or antiquarian themes to give their work a sense of cultural legitimacy and to reflect their own understanding of tradition.
The fluid effect of ink and brush is a prominent feature of Chinese art and a direct result of calligraphy’s importance in society. The brushstroke has tremendous expressive potential and lends a feeling of movement and spontaneity to the object. In Guan Dongqi’s 19th century ink painting of a blossoming plum, the artist has rejected chromatic color and unnecessary detail to give focus to the brush’s assertive and vigorous movement. With quickly executed strokes, the angular branches contrast with delicately wavering stems.
Visitors to the exhibition will also be interested in Yin Yu Tang, a 19th-century merchant’s house located within the museum that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture in the United States. Reflections of the Chinese aesthetic traditions explored in Perfect Imbalance can be found in the decorative objects and architecture of this finely preserved historic home.