Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Met on Khubilai Khan: The Show and the Other Show

If you're looking for a bit of easy-to-take culture in New York City, you could do a lot worse than the Metropolitan Museum of Art's show, "The World of Khubilai Khan," on display until January 2.  Khubilai's Mongols kicked out the decaying Song Dynasty in 1268 and established an East Asian Empire that was powerful if not long-lived--it lasted only 97 years.  The Met's blurb is fair comment when it says that "Most of us picturing the Mongolian empire think horses, banners, colorful tents, deadly bow and arrows, and lots of portable loot."  And sure enough, this is none of these.  The Mongols in fact did not bring a lot of culture of their own but they weren't willing just to assimilate their Song predecessors. Instead they imported Craftsmen from elsewhere in the Eurasian landmass.  What may be the most remarkable piece is a Manichean Jesus perched on a lotus throne.

But spare a bit of time to go up to the Museum's Asian wing at the other end of the building where you'll find another, complementary exhibit.  The name is "The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change," and presents us the work of the losers: Song artists kicked out, chased out, or simply self-exiled from the Khan's  great court.  It's not ambitious or extensive and it might not be easy to grasp the point had you not seen the main show first, but in context, it provides a gripping insight into a world of dispossession and disappointment.  The Met doesn't seem to be pushing this second show especially hard, but catch 'em both: do the main event and then follow up with this darker reflection.

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