In China, paintings that tell stories serve as powerful vehicles to promote political agendas and cultural values as well as to express personal thoughts. The complex art of Chinese pictorial storytelling will be the focus of Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Painting, opening this fall in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chinese painting and calligraphy galleries. Featuring some 100 works dating from the 12th century to the present, the exhibition will reveal the structural and expressive strategies of the genre. Drawn from The Met collection, with 16 loans from private collectors, it will be presented in three sections, each of which will demonstrate a different mode of pictorial narrative.
The exhibition will reveal that there are layers of meaning embedded in the pictorial language of these paintings. The stories are most often conveyed through multi-scene illustrations presented in long handscrolls, punctuated with corresponding texts (section one). Several examples of this type will be displayed, including Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao Entering the Tiantia Mountains, by Zhao Cangyun (late 13th–early 14th century).
At times, a story is distilled into a single scene that is so iconic it evokes the subject in its entirety (section two). Examples on view will include a painting, attributed to Qian Xuan (ca. 1235–before 1307), depicting the beloved recluse Tao Yuanming (365–427) returning home on a boat.
Peculiar to Chinese art, even seemingly generic landscapes or flower-and-bird paintings sometimes acquire a narrative element through the artist’s appended inscription (section three). In the exhibition, this type will be exemplified by a pair of deer antler paintings by Emperor Qianlong (1736–1795).
A portion of the first section, devoted to military narratives, has benefited from the collaborative work of three curatorial departments at The Met: Asian Art, Drawings and Prints, and Arms and Armor. On view will be a selection of copperplate engravings—designed by European Jesuits and engraved and printed in Paris by artists working at the court of Louis XV—chronicling Emperor Qianlong’s triumphant campaign in East Turkestan. The prints will be accompanied by weaponry and a saddle of the same period, selected by Donald LaRocca, Curator in the Department of Arms and Armor, and a portrait of a campaign commander.
Contemporary Chinese artists have continued the tradition of pictorial storytelling with an expanded range of subject matter and approach. The three artists represented in the exhibition—Li Huasheng (b. 1944), Qiu Anxiong (b. 1972), and Ji Yun-Fei (b. 1963)—use narrative to reflect on the creative process or to critique modern technology and environmental policies.
A wide selection of decorative arts embellished with related narrative imagery will significantly enrich the presentation. These works not only illuminate how storytelling functions in different media, also animate the viewing experience through their plastic forms. Five of them constitute a self-contained group that illustrates vernacular novels and theatrical performance.
Each section of the exhibition will be further divided into themes including history, seasonal progression, journeys, Confucian values, friendship, and art in the service of the state.