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Beautiful Women Blog

Beautiful Women Blog

This one is not about beautiful women I have known and been engaged with-- alas, there haven’t been enough of those to make up a blog, since I am not myself a Hollywood-idol type who would attract them. It is, instead, about paintings of beautiful women, Chinese meiren paintings, a genre I discovered long ago and have been working on ever since. Our exhibition of them-- the exhibition titled “Beauty Revealed: Paintings of Women in Qing Period China”, which I have put together with the help of Julia White and others, will open soon at our Berkeley Art Museum. Julia and her helper Fong-fong Chen came by yesterday bringing me a copy of the catalog and news of the arrival of the paintings and their installation. We have managed to borrow them from quite a few sources, and the exhibition will be a high-level representation of these paintings as they survive. More than one of them has survived only because it is falsely identified as something other than what it is. This genre of painting has never been valued by Chinese connoisseurs and collectors-- I was in fact the first to recognize it as a significant genre at all.

       How that happened is an interesting story in itself. Back in the early 1970s, when our “Restless Landscape” exhibition of late Ming painting which I had put together with a remarkable seminar of eight graduate students, all women, was still on the road, I came to the realization that one of the paintings in it had been misrepresented in the catalogue. Traveling on the East Coast, we saw at the Fogg Museum at Harvard a painting they had recently acquired, a beautiful-woman painting with an inscription containing an early Qing date and the name of an obscure artist along with the information that the woman represented was Mme. Hedong, or the famous literary woman Liu Yin, who became the concubine of Qian Qian-yi. It was written up in the catalogue as that, and was the subject of an article by Robert Maeda, as well as a Masters thesis by a young scholar who has gone on to become of the luminaries of our field, all hailing it as an important portrait of a noted literary woman, unique in Chinese painting. It took me a while to realize that this inscription was in fact spurious, written to raise the importance of the painting at a later date. What it really was, was a generic meiren, or beautiful woman painting. I discovered several similar ones, and eventually was told by my younger colleague Jerome Silbergeld about another version of the composition reproduced in an old journal, there identifying the woman as another courtesan of the period.

Once having made this discovery, I put together a lecture titled “The Real Mme. Hedong” and went about giving it wherever I was invited. Eventually, I came to give it at Harvard, to the great distress of Max Loehr, who had been responsible for purchasing it, from one of the heirs to the estate of the late Senator Francis Henry Taylor. Loehr and John Hay, who was teaching there at the time, resisted this re-identification, and it was an uncomfortable time for me. But truth had to prevail, and as more examples appeared and the genre took focus, all the resistance had to give way. But it was still years before we could pull together the kind of exhibition that is about to open at our Berkeley Art Museum.

The opening will be on September 23rd. The catalogue, in addition to essays by Julia White and myself, will contain one by Sarah Handler, on the physical surroundings of the women in these paintings, and entries for the individual works, mostly put together by Fong-fong Chen. Nancy Berliner, who is now the Curator of Chinese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but was previously at the Peabody Essex, from which we borrowed one of the paintings, will be coming out bringing it, and Clarissa von Spee will be flying all the way from London carrying a famous example in the British Museum. A few of the really important datable and signed examples in Chinese collections we were unable to borrow for reasons of cost, so they are only reproduced and discussed in my essay. Julia and others have made serious studies of some of the paintings and gone beyond anything I had suspected in revealing the nuances of meaning in the women’s surroundings and apparel. The exhibition will be mounted in galleries 4 and 5 of the Museum, two of the projecting galleries near the top, which gives lots of space for hanging scrolls, and for the larger paintings-- the picture of “Eight Beauties”, which is the on the cover of my recent book, and two large paintings that may originally have been screens, which we discovered at the last minute and decided to include.

Our exhibition will be shown from September 23 until December 22, so if you plan to be in or near Berkeley at that time, don’t fail to come see it. It will, believe me, be a revelation, persuading even those who begin as skeptics that these paintings have a great deal to offer in sheer richness of content, quite apart from the beauty of the women in them.


Exhibition Opening at Berkeley Art Museum and Book Launch


Our exhibition “Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting” opens tonight, and to my surprise, I’ll be attending the opening-- I hadn’t intended to but my daughter Sarah and son Benedict are taking me.  This is the realization of a long planned project, and it is accompanied by a book-sized catalogue with essays by Julia White, Sarah Handler (on the furnishings and physical surroundings of the women in the paintings), and myself, along with entries for the paintings put together by Chen FongFong and others.  The exhibition will continue until December 22nd so be sure to see it when you are in the Bay Area.  The paintings are beautiful, and the subject is new, the intricacies of meaning and expression, along with the differences in style, are more than I ever expected.

More on Salinger

I bought the new book on Salinger, by two people who went around interviewing those who knew him and looking into letters and other sources of information and insights, and have read most of it, along with the responses and reviews that have appeared in the New York Times

and elsewhere. They illuminate quite a bit more about Salinger, but chiefly in areas other than the one I wrote about in my “Thoughts on the Death of Salinger”(which is on the present website).  His obsession with teenage girls and his bad treatment of them has received a lot of well-merited anger.  But the question of why he retired into seclusion and stopped publishing still hasn’t been adequately answered, it seems to me, and my suggestion in my paper still strikes me as informed and valuable.  So let me suggest again that any of you with contacts to the mainstream media may want to mention it to a friend.




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