In China, paintings that tell stories serve as powerful vehicles to promote political agendas, endorse cultural values, or express personal thoughts. With masterpieces dating from the fourth century, narrative is the earliest established genre in Chinese painting. This exhibition is the first at The Met to explore the various ways in which Chinese artists have gone beyond mere illustration to convey multiple layers of meaning.
Displaying works from the 12th century to the present, this exhibition introduces three distinct modes of pictorial storytelling: multipart illustrations presented in long handscrolls, often punctuated with passages of text; single iconic scenes that evoke an entire story; and generic landscapes or flower-and-bird paintings that acquire narrative significance through the artist's inscription. The exhibition is further organized by theme: historical events, seasonal progression, warfare, journeys, Buddhist and Confucian values, and family and friendship. One special gallery focuses on a grandiose military narrative—that of China's annexation of East Turkestan in the 1750s. The installation, a collaboration among three Museum departments, features a suite of European engravings alongside Chinese weaponry and a painting to show how an emperor exploited art for his own aggrandizement.
Contemporary Chinese artists have continued the narrative tradition with an expanded repertoire of subjects and approaches. The examples on display range from reflections on the creative process to critiques of modern technology and government policies. Together, the approximately 60 pictorial works and 30 decorative art objects, most from The Met collection, present a comprehensive view of the narrative genre, demonstrating its expressive versatility and continuing relevance.