Film Archive (BAM/PFA) proudly presents Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting, on view September 25 through December 22, 2013. Featuring nearly thirty works, this exhibition is the first to bring together a genre of Chinese painting known as meiren hua, or paintings of beautiful women. Situating the works within the social and economic contexts of the High Qing period (mid-seventeenth to the late eighteenth century), the exhibition challenges the prevailing opinion that these subjects are high status women—either members of the court or other privileged women. By reading the visual codes embedded in the images,Beauty Revealed instead makes the case that these women are courtesans.
Borrowing seldom-before-utilized techniques from the West, including one-point perspective and heavy opaque colors, the artists, many of them unknown professional painters who painted on demand and for a fee, pursue a realism not previously seen in Chinese painting. Rather than the willowy beauty shown in a garden setting or surrounded by family among luxurious furnishings typical of earlier periods, these paintings generally feature a single, near life-size figure, often in a brazenly unladylike posture. Their garments tend to be low cut and transparent, and their bound feet exposed. For example, the direct gaze of the woman in Putting out the Lamp, addressed to the (presumably male) intended viewer, offers a suggestive undercurrent of greater intimacy, one of the hallmarks of this genre. Other codes of accessibility include the woman’s relaxed posture with right leg drawn up under left, the open sleeves that reveal her arms, and the highly stylized extension of her right hand in a controlled gesture reaching to snuff out the light. Her expression engages the audience in a way never before seen in Chinese figure painting.
The backdrops further draw viewers into the women’s world, conveying significant information about their wealth, taste, learning, and accomplishments. The women are depicted surrounded by everyday objects packed with erotic symbolism. The art has an immediate impact, inviting viewers to enter and enjoy another world, one perhaps longed for and unattainable.
In addition to several paintings from BAM/PFA’s own collection, Beauty Revealedfeatures loans from institutions and private collections from around the U.S. and Europe. It is organized into distinct sections that explore the intimate life of women within the garden, home, bath, and brothel. Curated by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White in collaboration with UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus James Cahill, the exhibition is accompanied by an exquisitely illustrated catalog with essays by Cahill, White, and noted historian Sarah Handler. The catalog entries are by Chen Fongfong, with contributions by Nancy Berliner and White.
Tours in both Mandarin and English, an illustrated talk by Cahill, a conversation between by Judith Zeitlin (University of Chicago) and Margaret Francesca Rosenthal (University of Southern California) about courtesan cultures in China and Italy, a presentation by Handler on furnishings depicted in the meiren paintings, a performance by internationally renowned musician Wang Fei on the qin instrument, and other related events will provide visitors with additional opportunities to explore and re-evaluate this previously misunderstood genre of Chinese painting.