Theater & art

critic’s notebook | Sebastian smee

Song Dynasty art at MFA is pure elegance

A sculpture of Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, from about 1200.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A sculpture of Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, from about 1200.

Don’t put the artists in charge. They’re dreamy and irresponsible. They confuse symbols with reality. You stand to lose half your empire.

If you doubt it, consider the case of Zhao Ji, the eleventh son of the Song Dynasty Emperor Shenzong. Being low in the order of succession, Zhao Ji reasonably assumed that he would never be crowned emperor. He whiled away the hours of his youth painting, writing poetry, and cultivating a fine sensibility.

Unfortunately, his elder brother died without a son. And so Zhao Ji — just 18, hopelessly under-prepared, and utterly unfit to rule what had become the wealthiest and most populous nation in the world — became the Emperor Huizong, the eighth ruler of the illustrious Song Dynasty (960-1279).


The empire was increasingly under threat from Jurchen tribes. But did the Emperor Huizong do anything about it?

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Well, let’s see. He established a painting academy in the imperial court — does that count? He painted himself, too, and very creditably.

The Museum of Fine Arts, which recently opened a wonderful new gallery devoted to Chinese Song Dynasty art, has one work definitively by Emperor Huizong in its collection; two more are attributed to him (including the masterpiece “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” which was the centerpiece of an MFA exhibition in 2014-15).

The academy, under his guidance, solidified new criteria for excellence in a diverse array of art forms, from ceramics to poetry and painting. The emperor’s efforts, which built on advances by predecessors dating back 200 years to the first Song Emperor Taizu, helped make Song a golden era of Chinese culture.

But all this did little to safeguard imperial borders, or even the capital. With his empire nearing bankruptcy and mired in massive corruption, his authority slipping, and a military weakened by neglect, Emperor Huizong did what desperate leaders often do. He appealed to a national symbol. He recast the Nine Tripod Cauldrons — ritual vessels, dating back three millennia, possessing enormous cultural prestige.


This achieved nothing. The capital was invaded, the empire cut in half, and a new capital duly established in the south. The Emperor Huizong was kidnapped and imprisoned. He died in disgrace nine years later, just before his 53rd birthday.

But artists take heart: Emperor Huizong may have lost half of his empire and his own freedom, but in the long arc of history, he did what was required to be remembered affectionately.

The Song Dynasty is the great classic era of Chinese art. The MFA’s dramatic new display, conceived and organized by Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art, has several points of focus. The most obvious, dominating the room, is a magnificent painted wood sculpture, Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion.

This Buddhist work was made from paulownia wood in a town about 200 miles north of the Song capital, Bianjing, at more or less the same time that Emperor Huizong’s government was overthrown. It was painted red, green, blue, and pink, with fine strips of gold leaf. It remained an object of devotion in a Chinese temple for almost 700 years.

The MFA hasn’t displayed it since 1999. It arrives now fresh from 18 months of conservation. Despite its larger-than-life presence, the work is not in the least daunting. The bodhisattva — an enlightened being willing to help all other sentient beings achieve enlightenment — is instead elegant, feminine, relaxed, and infinitely compassionate.

Detail of Chen Rong’s “Nine Dragons,” from 1244.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Detail of Chen Rong’s “Nine Dragons,” from 1244.

The gallery’s other points of focus are less visually dramatic, but no less precious. One is a very simple flat saucer, or actually a bowl stand, with a pale bluish glaze. It is an example of ru-ware, a kind of stoneware made in the Song imperial court for fewer than 30 years. Its production in the imperial kiln in Ruzhou came to an abrupt end when the invading Jurchen soldiers destroyed the palace, the kiln, and all but about 100 Ru ceramics.

Ru-ware represents a peak of Chinese ceramic production not only because of its rarity, but because it embodies Song period aesthetics: restraint, simplicity, sensuous coloring — pure elegance.

And something else, too: a taste for imperfection; in this case the faint cracking on the surface of the dish, which occurred when the thick glaze contracted at a rate faster than the very thin clay body as it cooled.

Song aesthetes admired such “crazed” surfaces. They had a sophisticated, supple understanding of the relationship between nature and human artifice, and among beauty, pleasure, functionality, and philosophy. Much of this understanding was channeled through poetry. And probably no poet was more important to Song self-conception than Su Shi.

Su Shi was also a painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and gastronome. Through his various pursuits, he came to embody the “wenren,” or Chinese scholar aesthetic. Some lines of his poetry were inscribed on a fan by Emperor Xiaozong (ruled 1162-1189). That fan — even more than the much larger Guanyin sculpture — is the gallery’s true presiding spirit.

The very beautiful lines the emperor chose — “The ceaseless river and rains always lull me to sleep/ Winds beating the cliffs all day move my boat along” — evoke both solace in nature and an ideal of progress through a harmonized dynamic of resistance and yielding.

Su Shi died, a victim of court intrigue and exile, at age 64. The previous year, Emperor Huizong had been handed the reins of power. The emperor’s painting academy helped elevate the status of painting, putting it on a par with poetry and calligraphy, and in the process shifting the criteria used to judge painting in a more poetic and scholarly direction.

Emperor Huizong himself was, in effect, the court’s master painter. And indeed it was he who painted the earliest extant Chinese painting with a poem inscribed on it.

His cousin Zhao Lingrang painted one of the gallery’s most absorbing works — a landscape in a horizontal format on a long silk scroll, titled “Whiling Away a Summer by a Lakeside Retreat.” The work is, as the title promises, exquisitely peaceful and, although it describes no specific place, extremely naturalistic.

The MFA has an embarrassment of Song paintings to choose from, and will no doubt rotate this display to avoid light damage to fragile works. But one other magnificent painting it has, which is on display, is Chen Rong’s masterpiece “Nine Dragons.”

Unfortunately, you can’t see all nine dragons — the painting is too long. But a nearby touch screen allows you to swipe along the entire length of a digital reproduction, which is lots of fun.

Chen, a classic “literati” or scholar painter of the kind the Song period gave birth to, is widely regarded as the greatest of all dragon painters. He claims to have been drunk when he painted this, his crowning achievement (“When drunk,” he wrote, “I spit the painting from within”).

Chen does employ splattered ink in a manner known in China as “pomo,” which may remind some of an American painter notorious for heavy drinking — Jackson Pollock. But in fact, “Nine Dragons” is remarkable not only for its invention, humor, and sheer vitality, but for its detail and unerring technical control.

Spend time in this gallery. You will gain immeasurably, and it will have a profound effect on your appreciation of other Chinese art. Such is the importance of Song.


At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300,

Reliquary in the shape of a stupa, from the mid 13th century.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Reliquary in the shape of a stupa, from the mid 13th century.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.