“Court Ladies or Pin-Up Girls?” at the Museum of Fine Arts is a wonderful show about how men in China over the centuries have looked at young women. It’s also about the situations they like to imagine those women in.
Am I trying to say it’s a show about sex? Why, yes, it’s a show about sex — or eroticism, if you please — and the humor, high spirits, and fantasy that can make sex such a pleasurable pastime.
So if you are bringing children, you should be prepared, in the back part of the show, for some explicit images of intercourse — and also, dear reader, for an image of a traveling dildo saleswoman showing her wares to some understandably curious young ladies.
But more than mere sex, this is a show about those imagined “situations” in the broader sense. That’s to say, it’s about clothes, body posture, symbols, and double-entendres; it’s about rooms, furniture, and objects, and how all these things can be made by artists to come together in images of insuperable beauty.
It’s a show, in other words, about the sophisticated pleasures of looking. And it’s about imagining settings in which male desire feels not only free and potent, but subtly molded to an idea — if not of Confucian-style virtue, against which most of these images kick, then nonetheless to an attractive amalgam of civility, humor, and well-being.
The show, which takes up just one room in the MFA’s west wing, was organized by Nancy Berliner, the museum’s curator of Chinese art. Her idea for it grew from a desire to pull out of storage the MFA’s celebrated early-12th-century Chinese masterpiece, “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk.”
This stupendous painting, attributed to the Emperor Huizong (who was famous as a collector, calligrapher, and garden designer) is supposedly a copy the Emperor made of an eighth-century painting in his collection by Zhang Xuan.
It shows 10 well-dressed women beating, sewing, and ironing new silk. Two smaller girls, or maids, help out. One uses a fan, decorated with a landscape featuring two ducks, to keep the coals used for ironing hot. The other helps to keep a long piece of white silk stretched for the iron.
It’s an unbelievably beautiful picture, worth coming in from out of town to see. Its mineral colors are full and still saturated, almost a millennium after its making. And its composition, so apparently casual and unforced, nevertheless fills your visual field as a minor miracle of elegant choreography.
The picture’s actual title is written on the scroll itself — but it’s not “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk.” That title was bestowed on it by legendary MFA curator Okakura Kakuzo when it came into the collection in 1912. Rather, it is “Daolin Tu,” which is best translated as “Picture of Pounding Silk” — which is what the huddle of four women over on the right are doing.
“Pounding silk,” it turns out, was a common euphemism in that era’s erotic poetry for carnal pleasures. So suddenly, we have a new way of looking at this picture. And Berliner had an idea of a show.
“Court Ladies,” which was stolen from the emperor’s court when he was deposed and kidnapped at the end of his reign (also the end of the Song Dynasty), is displayed in a glass case just inside the entrance to the show. Directly behind it is a large Qing dynasty painting, in ink and color on silk, called “Eight Beauties on the Balcony of a Brothel.”
This, too, is a stunning painting, recently conserved, and strangely in sympathy with two famous 19th-century European paintings: Goya’s “The Majas” and Manet’s “The Balcony.” But, like “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” it used to have a different title: in this case, “Eight Beauties of the Hibiscus Terrace.”
Research led the renowned Chinese-art scholar, James Cahill, who died earlier this year, to conclude that this and many similar Qing dynasty images of women were not, as previously thought, portraits of wives, sisters, and household concubines, but rather of courtesans.
More than mere sex, this is a show about clothes, posture, symbols, and double-entendres.
His conclusion adds a new dimension to the coquettish tilt of the women’s heads and their very elegant hair and deportment, not to mention their frighteningly sharp nails. (Very useful, I should have thought.) Cahill speculated that the painting, which is very large, may have hung in a restaurant or drinking establishment as an advertisement for a brothel.
The central woman on the balcony holds a citron, a strangely creepy and finger-like species of fruit often known as a Buddha’s hand (in Chinese, “foshou”). The fruit appears in several other images in the show, too, and serves as a clear symbol for carnal pleasure.
Carnal pleasure is the explicit subject of “The Secret Spring,” a spellbinding album of Qing dynasty images in ink and color on paper. The artist, Meng Lu Jushi — known, evocatively, as the Master of the Lingering Dream — imagines a household of women when the men are absent.
He shows them frolicking outside, playing chess, and other games, but also looking at an album of pornographic paintings. (Images of other images, and sometimes of women looking at those images, or at themselves in mirrors, recur throughout the show, as if there were something thrillingly tautological about the erotics of looking — which of course there is.) They also receive a visitor — the aforementioned peddler of dildos.
But even more explicit than this series is a slightly later album of erotic paintings by Yin Qi. (It was unusual for artists to attach their names to erotic art; he was an exception.) Even as you admire the variety and athleticism of the various sexual positions Yin Qi’s male and female figures try out, you can’t help noticing the extreme sumptuousness of the furnishings and ceramics arrayed around them, with their decorative designs in inlaid lacquer, cloissone, and crackled ge-ware glazes, not to mention the participants’ sumptuous robes and the generously uncluttered interiors.
Sex likes luxury. One notices something similar in the less explicit but even more exquisite “Domestic Scenes From an Opulent Household.” This is an album made in the colorful and tightly realistic gongbi style by an unidentified court painter of the late 18th century (Qing dynasty, Qianlong period).
One of these paintings shows, in front of a bowl of Buddha’s hands that rhyme extravagantly with a woman’s upturned right hand, a man pulling at the strings of that woman’s gown.
Another shows a maid leaning against a wall, trying to listen to the lovemaking going on behind a beautiful blue curtain. We know what is going on, thanks to two pairs of shoes protruding from beneath the bedroom curtain. One has fallen inside the other, suggesting the haste of gusting desire. As she listens, the maid stares directly at us — an uncanny triangulation.
Berliner also includes two splendid large-scale portraits of female beauties. One, the Qing dynasty “Woman Looking at Fish,” is a recent acquisition, and evokes a woman’s tender longing for her lover.
We are also taken into the 20th and even the 21st centuries, with a studio photograph of a princess and three exquisitely hand-colored photographs of courtesans from the early 1900s; an advertising pinup from the ’20s; a magazine sketch from Shanghai; a 2002 silk embroidery by Hong Lei inspired by the 16th-century erotic novel “The Plum in the Golden Vase”; and — in a wonderful modern counterpoint to “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk” — a color lithograph from 1968, called “Women Workers in Cotton Factory.”
The socialist government that came to power in 1949 enforced strict new rules concerning sexual morality and pushed for women’s equality. But this new proletarian image, with its bevy of scrumptiously smiling beauties, suggests that even this puritanical new order was not blind to the erotic principle. “Stir up excessive enthusiasm,” reads the banner, “with the highest of ambitions to rapidly and efficiently build socialism.”Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.