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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #46 (November 15, 2005), page 12.

Treasure, buried and living

Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights:

Early Chinese Art from the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection

By Donald Jenkins

With contributions from Janice Quivey

Portland Art Museum, 2005

Hardcover, 143 pages, $39.95

By Josephine Bridges

Let’s face it. You can’t spend every moment of your life at the Portland Art Museum (PAM), even if the wonderful exhibit "Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights: Early Chinese Art from the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection" becomes a gift to the museum. Should you find yourself with a hankering for this magnificent art at two o’clock in the morning, you’d do well to have on hand a copy of the gorgeous book that accompanies the exhibit.

Donald Jenkins, PAM’s Curator Emeritus of Asian Art and author of this book that brims with buried treasure, is himself a living treasure. In his acknowledgements, Jenkins’s enthusiasm for this project is a joy to witness: "I have always thought that curators enjoy the best of two worlds: the pleasurable, first-hand contact with works of art of a kind and quality that only collectors and dealers usually experience; and the delight the art historian finds in undertaking challenging research. This project has confirmed me in that conviction."

Jay Xu, Pritzker Curator of Asian Art at The Art Institute of Chicago, contributes an introduction that deepens our understanding of the ancient objects depicted and described in Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights. His commentary on the presence of mingqi, artifacts made specifically for burial in the tombs of the rich and powerful, explores a profound and practical shift in how the living think about the dead. "Replacing utilitarian implements and actual human victims or animals, they probably represent a rationalized distinction between life and death, and a pragmatic attitude toward the afterlife — a life lived largely through symbols."

In his foreword, John Buchanan, Jr., Executive Director of PAM, writes, "For museums, collaborations with private collectors and donors such as the Schnitzers are among the high points of our histories." And in their "Collectors’ Statement," Arlene and Harold Schnitzer remind us that "all the objects we acquire during our own journey on earth are only loaned to us, in a sense, for the relatively short period of time we are here."

Photographs by Paul Foster and Richard Goodbody evoke the beauty and grace of the three-dimensional works on display at PAM, and the show-and-tell is completed with comments on every object in the collection. Here’s a favorite, describing "Two Mounted Cavalrymen": "The paint on these two figures is so well preserved that one can still make out many of the smallest details of the soldiers’ costumes and their horses’ trappings. The riders gaze forward attentively, holding now-vanished bridles to restrain their steeds, which, their eyes alert and their ears erect, seem eager to charge ahead."

Another passage, on an unusual work of art known as "Well," which consists of a storage jar below and a model of a well above the jar, poses questions that speak to the delicious mystery of the sculpture and remind us that it is often at least as delightful to wonder as it is to know: "It is hard to think of it as merely a model of a well. If it were, why add the jar? Could the idea have been to represent the underground source of water?"

Great art, it seems, brings out the best in everyone. Let it bring out the best in you.

To purchase a copy of Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights, visit the Portland Art Museum’s gift shop. PAM is located at 1219 S.W. Park Avenue in Portland. Copies are also available from the Museum Store, found online at <www.portlandartmuseum.org>.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon