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The Art Gallery of NSW, Australia
Asian Collection – Curator Blog
The Art Gallery of New South Wales has been collecting Asian art since 1879 when the first group of Japanese objects entered the collection. Since then the collection has grown to include over 4000 works of art from across Asia, in a wide range of material, and from all time periods – ancient to contemporary.
As the Presenting Partner for the Asian galleries, we are thrilled to be sharing with you a selection of works that the Galleries Asian art curators have each chosen from the diverse collection.
These are not necessarily the most important or valuable, but each has something about it that appeals to our curators and that we hope will capture your imagination too.
The curators who have contributed are, Natalie Seiz, curator of Asian art, Melanie Eastburn, senior curator of Asian art, Yin Cao, curator of Chinese art and Matt Cox, curator of Asian art.
Chōtensai Eiju Presentation of the courtesan Takao story
late 1790s, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1961
One of the more curious works I have found in the Asian collection was acquired in 1961. Presentation of the courtesan Takao late 1700s, a woodblock print by Chōtensai Eiju (active 1789–1801) is currently on display in the exhibition In One Drop of Water in the lower Asian gallery.
This is a type of print known as mitate-e, is a genre that uses allusions or puns to parody classical art or events. Here the figure of the famous courtesan Takao 高尾whose name is on the banner above the boat, is located in something akin to a thought bubble coming from the mouth of a dead fish. This method of showing an idea or dream is perhaps a precursor to how manga is communicated today.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Takao’s story was well known and recounted in kabuki plays, literature and song, although at times liberties were taken as to the story’s accurateness. In one rendition of the tale, Takao was pledged to marry another, but the feudal lord Date Tsunamune fell in love with her and insisted on buying her in coin. She was so unhappy she tried to throw herself off the boat. Tsunemune was so furious he stabbed her in the heart and threw her off himself. The print parodies the story by having the dead fish make the allusion to Takao, as some courtesans look on in surprise.
Natalie Seiz, curator of Asian art
Thailand Illustrated manuscript of Phra Malai (poem about the venerable monk Malai)
1876, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Edward and Goldie Sternberg Southeast Asian Art Fund 2005
The rich surface of the paint and the intriguing tactility of concertina-folded books drew me to this Thai manuscript. It unfolds to reveal the story of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai who attained miraculous powers through meditation. He travels to the hells and heavens, returning with vivid tales of horror and bliss to remind humans to live virtuously. The text is in Khom, a form of Cambodian script only decipherable by trained monks.
Phra Malai manuscripts follow an established format and were so popular that almost all 19th century illustrated manuscripts from Thailand tell his story. The paintings include gruesome images of adulterers tortured in hell and an episode in which a woodcutter presents Phra Malai with eight lotuses to offer in honour of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The golden structure illustrated at the base of the manuscript is called Chulamani Chedi. Located in the heavens, it was built by the god Indra at a reliquary for the hair Shakyamuni cut off when renouncing princely his life. Phra Malai appears on one side of Chulamani Chedi while Indra (with green skin) and Brahma sit on the other. Floating opposite are Maitreya the Buddha of the future and his celestial attendants.
Phra Malai’s story was recited by monks at funerals and at weddings until the telling had become so crude that King Rama I (1781-1809) banned monks from performing it. Rather than disappear, the story was instead told by laymen, sometimes in costume as Phra Malai.
Melanie Eastburn, senior curator of Asian art
Wu Changshuo Loquats
1918, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1987 - 460.1987
Late spring to early summer marks the harvest season for auspicious loquats. The bright yellow colour of the fruit has earned it the nickname ‘golden ball’ (huangjin wan) in ancient Chinese poetry. Loquats are also considered by traditional Chinese medical practitioners to contain the energy (qi) of the four seasons. In this fine painting, the prominent Chinese master painter Wu Changshuo has created a balanced contrast between the firm branches and leaf veins executed with calligraphic stokes, and the leaves and plump fruits which are depicted using soft washes of ink.
Written by the artist, the poem in the right top corner further seduces viewers into longing for the juicy loquat fruit. It says: “During the Duanyang (a festival on 5 May in the Lunar calendar), the good fruit ripens with the warm wind. Though its colour is like gold, that hardly relieves poverty. Placed with pomegranate flowers on the table for appreciation, three chi of craving saliva hang on the child’s mouth”.
An unusual ‘imperfection' in Wu’s poem, which he inscribed in his unique and imperturbable calligraphic style, adds to the vitality of the work. Written at the end of the poem are eight smaller characters noting an incorrect word in the poem. They read “‘qiong’ [窮] is mistakenly written as ‘pin’ ［貧］, Lao Fou [Wu’s sobriquet] self-checked”. What an elegant way for the master, who was 75 when he painted Loquats, to be truthful to himself.
Yin Cao, curator of Chinese art
Jangarh Singh Shyam Peacock and snake
1992, Art Gallery of New South Wales, DG Wilson Bequest Fund 2019
Late last year the Gallery acquired this stunning painting by the Indian artist Jangarh Sing Shyam. In response to drought and widespread changes in living conditions during the 1980s, the Bharat Bhavan arts centre in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, encouraged local and international curators and artists to spend time in Indian Indigenous communities. This acted as a catalyst for many Indian Indigenous painters to take on new subjects and mediums. Raised within a community of Gond people and a family of bards, Jangarh Sing Shyam’s artistic talent was encouraged by the renowned modernist painter J Swaminath. The young Jangarh Sing Shyam made the transition from village life to Bhopal and his painting went on to feature in major international exhibitions.
In the village environment, Gond paintings are painted directly onto walls to illustrate folklore and celebrate important social events. In the international scene, Jangarh Singh Shyam translated Gond songs and stories into exquisite paintings on paper. Peacock and snake encapsulates his vibrant style that gives life to myriad myths animated by the animals, birds, mountains and deities of his village home.
Following inclusion in the pivotal exhibition Magiciens de la terre, retour sur exposition legendaire in Paris in 1989, Jangarh Singh Shyam’s international reputation continued to climb, but his fame brought with it unfortunate circumstances that culminated in his untimely death in Japan in 2001. Almost 20 years after his death, this painting emits an energy strong enough to excite even the most indifferent critic of contemporary art.
Matt Cox, curator of Asian art
As presenting partner of the AGNSW Asian Galleries, we are delighted to bring you a Together in Art Pocket Exhibition, curated by Melanie Eastburn. “From the muddiest waters, the lotus blooms pure and bright. I always smile when I see the lovers Radha and Krishna covered in petals, a goddess nursing the elephant-headed infant Ganesha, boys frolicking in a lotus pond, or Krishna prancing by the Yamuna river.”
The National Gallery, London, UK
Picture of the Week
Available only to the Gallery’s supporters, we are pleased to share with you the links to "Picture of the Week" from The National Gallery's Director, Gabriele Finaldi.
We are also delighted to share with you a message from the Director of the National Gallery recorded by the Head of Conservation on Monday 11 May 2020. Subtitles are available and can be viewed by clicking on the subtitle icon on the lower right, once the video has started.