My mind is drawn to anything that suggests the calm and the meditative. Contemplation mornings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York are beyond my reach, but an exhibition of the world of the Chinese scholar at the National Museum in Warsaw aren’t. So on a chilly afternoon I head off to enjoy treasures from the National Museum of China.
I pass a tomb figurine of a scholar-official from the Tang Dynasty and move into his world.
The museum excels at framing its exhibition rooms to suit the exhibition. The Italian Renaissance took you down an avenue of columns and at this one you walk through dividing screens, and subdued Chinese music.
Although the commentary suggests that the life of a scholar is open to every one, I have my doubts. It involves years of study, the contemplation of poetry, calligraphy and music, the obligation to acquire and produce art. All this gives immense prestige and pride to both the scholar and his family. A Ming dynasty mirror is inscribed “Five sons passing the imperial examinations” and another one “first place in the imperial examinations”.
The life of a scholar is created around private gardens for contemplation, friendships, drinking games, seclusion. You wonder about his wife and children, at the same time as you envy such a life, surrounded by elegance and beauty. I find calm in graceful shapes and decorations from nature – bats, plum blossom, lotus, magpies, chrysanthemums, begonias. (To see ID for these wonderful vessels have a look here.)
As someone who has dabbled in calligraphy, I find the equipment of the calligrapher particularly interesting: the inkstand decorated with magpies on a plum tree; the dragon box containing five colours; the jade wrist support carved with plum blossom; the brush embellished with dragons; the jade water dropper shaped like a hen and chicken; the box containing vermilion for a seal; the porcelain bowl for rinsing brushes, with its delicate design of bats amongst the clouds; and the blue and white paperweight with its flower and bird motif.
All this beautiful equipment leads to the finished calligraphy, in this case lettering on a fan.
An album showing the life of Wang Qiong from the Ming dynasty is projected onto a screen and the titles of other images not photographed give an added sense of the leisurely life of the scholar: Lesson among the flowers, Seven Sages of the bamboo grove, Sage watching a crane, A conversation about autumn in the shade of a tree, Resting on a stick I admire a painting.
Games are part of the scholar’s life: drinking games in which the three rods are used; a game that involves throwing arrows into a jug; backgammon; chess; and go all feature.
Perhaps the most familiar aspect of Chinese art is landscapes, usually on screens or wall hangings. This exhibition shows 3D landscapes in jade and a very modern-looking carved marble and mahogany semi-abstract contained in a lacquered screen from the Qing dynasty.
I wonder at the lack of deliberate beauty in my haphazard and quite slovenly domestic life when all this gives me such pleasure.
After a few hours in the rarefied, serene world of a Chinese scholar, I walk out into the chilly mizzle of late-afternoon Warsaw. Just outside the gallery stands a man about my age, neatly dressed in a jacket and a brown cap, holding a string of garlic heads for sale. He was a reminder of the underlying poverty of all societies and a rebuke to my indulgence in beauty.