Today, the 21st of December, marks the winter solstice—the day of the year when the Earth is tilted the farthest away from the sun on its axis. How better to acknowledge the first day of winter, than to turn to "Seasons," a series of five overlapping exhibitions at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art.
"Seasons: Chinese Landscapes," which opened this past Saturday, features large summer and winter-themed paintings done on silk by commercial artists and painters of the imperial court as well as smaller spring and autumn paintings done on paper by famous Chinese scholar-bureaucrats, all dating from the 14th to the 18th century. According to Stephen Allee, research specialist in Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, the pieces, all part of the museum's permanent collection, were selected for display based on their artistic quality and the way they capture the mood of a particular season. "In the traditional Chinese approach to landscape painting, seasons inspire unique emotions, such as happiness and elation in spring, peaceful contentment in summer, melancholy and solemnity in autumn and quiet contemplation in winter," he says.
Of the wintry scenes, Allee counts Pavilion in the Winter Mountains (above) and Mount Emei under Heavy Snow (below, right) among his favorites. "Both capture the essence of winter for me," he says, "both its harshness and beauty." The first, a fan from 1933, is luminous. While the other, of the frigid Mount Emei, one of the Four Holy Mountains of Chinese Buddhism and a site of religious pilgrimage, seems to describe, visually, what Chinese landscape painter Guo Xi (circa 1001-circa 1090) once wrote about winter: "In the winter mountains, darkness and murk cover and enclose, and one is quiet and contemplative." If you look closely, two scholars stand on the porch of a villa taking in the view.
All in all, says Allee, "I hope that visitors come away with a sense of elation, of having been on a leisurely journey through a new and fascinating terrain, of having experienced the ideas and emotions that inspired the paintings."
The "Chinese Landscapes" exhibition is open through June 12, 2011. Looking ahead, here is the schedule for the remainder of the series:
Seasons: Japanese Screens On View: A collection of screens decorated with different flora and natural wonders. December 24, 2010-July 5, 2011. (A second group of screens will be on display July 9, 2011-January 22, 2012.)
Seasons: Arts of Japan On View: Paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics and calligraphy that allude to Japanese poetry and customs. February 5, 2011-August 7, 2011. (A second group of Japanese works will be on view September 3, 2011-March 4, 2012.)
Seasons: Tea On View: Ceramic bowls and utensils used in a tea room that reflect what was used during different seasons. February 5, 2011-August 7, 2011 (A second group will run from September 3, 2011 to March 4, 2012.)
Seasons: Flowers On View: Paintings of Chinese flowers native to each season. July 2, 2011-January 8, 2012.