Skip to contentSkip to navigation
Become a Member
Explore today's schedule
Visit MMFA for free by becoming a Member
Learn more
September 23, 2021

A Touch of Elegance: The Kenneth Greenstein Collection of Chinese Decorative Arts

Rectangular box (Changfang He) with figures in a landscape, late 17th – early 18th c., lacquer on wood and vegetable fibres, copper alloy, 7.2 x 34.8 x 20 cm. On loan from the International Friends of the MMFA through the generosity of Kenneth Greenstein. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

A remarkable collection of 26 Chinese decorative objects was recently put on display in our Wing for the Arts of One World, thanks to the International Friends of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the generosity of New York collector Kenneth Greenstein. These works of art reflect the aesthetics of the Chinese scholar’s studio and showcase the importance of the tactile experience in modern China.

Laura Vigo. Photo SPG / Le Pigeon

Laura Vigo

Curator of Asian Art

The educated scholar has played a prominent role in Chinese society ever since civil service examinations were established in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.). However, when Confucian ideologies were revived in the Northern Song period (960-1127), the concept of the scholar-gentleman (shidaifu, 士大夫) became elevated to that of an idealized man of letters with a deep knowledge of history, literature and laws, who skilfully expressed his moral rectitude and cultivation through the fine arts of calligraphy, painting and poetry. His refined taste was also showcased in the judicious display of ornaments and accessories related to the arts of the brush: printed books, finely crafted brush pots and holders, water droppers, bronze censers, scroll weights, carved seals, ink paste and document boxes, and wrist rests. All of these ornaments would be staged on and around the desk to construct and convey the scholar’s understated elegance as well as his vast and eclectic erudition.

This Neo-Confucianist ideal eventually crystallized in the 17th century during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, inspired by the aesthetic discourses on the presence – or absence – of taste prevalent in the literature and collecting manuals of the time. Elegance came to be associated with the aristocracy and the scholar-gentleman. They saw the brush arts as a means to achieve an ennobled existence. Well known are the poetic verses by Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1735-1796) on his art collection, in which he frequently extolled works by describing them as “elegantly made” (yazhi, 雅製). In the 18th century, the burgeoning middle-class art collectors, who looked up to the aristocratic model for inspiration, adopted the term when praising and appraising art.1

Qing dynasty (1644-1911), scroll weight, 18th c., brass, bronze, cloisonné, 2.2 x 20.3 x 3.1 cm. On loan from the International Friends of the MMFA through the generosity of Kenneth Greenstein

Qing dynasty (1644-1911), scroll weight, 18th c., brass, bronze, cloisonné, 2.2 x 20.3 x 3.1 cm. On loan from the International Friends of the MMFA through the generosity of Kenneth Greenstein. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Aristocratic and court elegance was carefully orchestrated through a pervasive control over production. Decorative artworks, from lacquer and cloisonné to hardstone and soapstone pieces, were produced in the imperial ateliers (zaobanchu) in Beijing under the patronage of the emperor, and were restricted to court usage. The imperial court’s sophisticated aesthetic eventually inspired objects produced in the less-regulated provincial workshops that catered to the budding merchant class.2

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the scholars themselves often made desk ornaments as a display of their artistic self-assurance. Soapstone, being easy to model with a knife and relatively accessible, became a widely used material for seal carvings and small sculptures during the Qing dynasty. For their part, bamboo segments provided the ideal medium for the application of poetry and evocative landscapes in creating decorated wrist rests that would serve the scholar when painting – thus binding the three arts of painting, poetry and calligraphy in one object.3

Beyond their inherent artistic merit, which can be appreciated by people of all levels of art knowledge, scholar desk ornaments were for centuries instrumental in crafting an image of elegant cultivation through the way they were staged, used, shown and handled. The beautiful ornaments recently donated by Kenneth Greenstein offer interesting insight into how materiality developed in China in the early modern era and manifested in the form of objects of social standing, erudite taste and tactile consumption

Wrist rest, bamboo, 19.5 x 5.8 x 1.5 cm. 18th c. On loan from the International Friends of the MMFA through the generosity of Kenneth Greenstein
Credit

1 Still today, the term yazhi stands for excellence in artistic production and personal expression. See Richard John Lynn, “Yazhi, Elegantly Made,” in J.J. Lally & Co., Elegantly Made: Art for the Chinese Literati (New York: J.J. Lally & Co., 2020).

2 James C.Y. Watt, “The Literati Environment” in The Chinese Scholar’s Studio: Artistic Life in the Late Ming Period (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 1-11.

3 See Liu Yang, The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005) p. 46.

Add a touch of culture to your inbox
Subscribe to the Museum newsletter

Bourgie Hall Newsletter sign up

This website uses cookies in order to optimize your browsing experience and for promotional purposes. To learn more, please see our policy on the protection of personal Iinformation