Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Weng Collection at the Huntington
It's been ages since LACMA has done a show of Chinese painting. Given that, it's impossible not to welcome the Huntington's "Treasures Through Six Generations: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Weng Collection." The Huntington may seem an odd venue — Henry and Arabella didn't do Chinese art, aside from a few ceramics. But the Huntington is remaking itself. The first phase of its Chinese garden opened recently to general acclaim. Wan-Go H.C. Weng, owner of most of the paintings on view in "Treasures", advised on the garden's design. The local and international Chinese community contributed most of the funding for the new garden, and the percentage of Asian visitors at the Huntington has increased from single to double digits.
"Treasures" reprises a show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It's a single-collector exhibition (of the sort Boston is notorious for lately). It is almost as much about the Weng family as the art. The show ramps up the ickiness factor by devoting about a quarter of the space to paintings and calligraphy by various members of the Weng family. I was prepared to hate that part. (Imagine a show of installations and big color photographs by Eli Broad and his dad.) The good news is that the Wengs are a talented bunch. Still, it's hard for moderns to compete with van Ruisdael and Hobbema on their own terms (which is basically what we're talking about here).
The chronology ranges from a single Southern Song Frontispiece to a Daoist Scripture to nearly the present. Its core is the "Four Wangs" of the early Qing dynasty and Chen Hongshou (above, The Three Hermits: Plum, Chrysanthemum, and Narcissus). A real stunner is Wang Hui’s scroll painting, Ten Thousand Li up the Yangzi River, displayed alongside the box in which it usually resides. The Huntington has managed to display almost the full 53-foot length, limited only by the dimensions of the old carriage house that became the Boone Gallery.
The twentieth century brings up to Wan-Go H.C. Weng, historian, poet, filmmaker, and painter. He managed to spirit the family collection out of China just before Mao's regime gained control. His story is fascinating, and some of it is told here with videos adapted from the Boston presentation. One of Weng's scroll paintings, Elegant Gathering, commemorates a landmark meeting of scholars at the New Hampshire home Weng designed (pictured below). The masterful portraits blend scholarly tradition with a hint of Alex Katz, and the house's red door nods to Mondrian via the Eameses.