Learning from Collections: Behind the Scenes at the Met

Nov. 23, 2022

ART 369 and ART 493 Make Special Visit to Metropolitan Museum of Art Storage

Students from ART 369/EAS 386: “The Arts and Archaeology of the Chinese Court” and ART 493/EAS 493: “Narrative and Visuality in China,” co-taught by the Department of Art & Archaeology’s Cheng-hua Wang with Chao-Hui Jenny Liu and Paize Keulemans from the Department of East Asian Studies, respectively, had the incredible opportunity to examine works in storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this semester.  “The main reason to take students to the Met, especially into the store room, is to show them the actual objects,” said Wang, noting most of her students were not art history majors so this close access to precious works was a very special experience. The value of the visit became clear right from the start; when Wang asked the students to first identify the differences between the digital images she had shown them in the classroom and the actual paintings before them, she was pleased that they identified texture as a critical element that becomes clear only when viewing the actual works.  In addition to seeing the work up close, the opportunity to experience the inner operations of the museum also brought valuable insight. Importantly, “this kind of trip, I think, also helps build up the bonds within the class,” said Wang.

ART 369 class gathers in front of a massive Buddha mural at the Met

Cheng-hua Wang and Chao-Hui Jenny Liu with ART 369 students in front of the 24-foot by 49-foot mural titled Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru (Yaoshi fo), ca. 1319. Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, in honor of his parents, Isaac and Sophie Sackler, 1965

For ART 369, Wang selected five paintings depicting imperial courts from the 8th to the 18th centuries.  An immense handscroll—longer than 65 feet—attracted the most attention.  Though Wang considers the older four paintings more precious since they dated back to the 8th and 12th centuries, this 18th-century scroll stole the show with its many details.  The sixth in a series of 12 representing the emperor’s southern inspection tour, the scroll depicts his journey to Suzhou and combines landscape painting, genre painting, and architecture.  “It’s very rich in terms of details and visual information,” said Wang, “almost like a kaleidoscope of life in Suzhou in Southern China.” The class examined nearly the full length of details, encountering symbols like dragons and banners with specific characters in anticipation of the single appearance of the emperor himself.  They found him toward the end of the scroll, mounted on horseback at the city gates. 

Chinese scroll depicting emperor entering Suzhou city gate
Xu Yang, section of The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Six: Entering Suzhou along the Grand Canal (1770)


Chinese scroll from mid 12th century

Ma Hezhi, section of Odes of the State of Bin (mid-12th century), calligraphy attributed to Emperor Gaozong (1127–1162)

For the class on narrative and visuality, ART 493, Professor Wang selected three paintings and Professor Keulemans chose two dishes. Among the paintings were two handscrolls that both depict the Book of Odes, a work traditionally believed to have been compiled by Confucius (551–479 B.C.). Students were asked to compare the two scrolls. One was created by a famous painter in the mid-12th century showing a signature style, calligraphy, and silk quality.

Chinese scroll depicting grasshoppers under reclining villager

Unidentified artist, section of Odes of the State of Bin (13th century)

The other, dated to the late 12th to early 13th centuries by virtue of the landscape paintings depicted within the scroll, was painted by an unidentified artist.  In contrast to the first scroll, this monochromatic iteration on paper was a literal line-by-line illustration of the poem, free of calligraphy.  Wang asked students to consider for whom this scroll might have been created and was impressed when they suggested for children who had not yet learned to read.  The Book of Odes references a wide variety of animals and plants and this scroll was intended to illustrate them all.  “You get some interesting details like dogs chasing boars or huge grasshoppers—really kind of huge!,” said Wang, “Grasshoppers as big as boars. Like going through a comic book.” 

Students inspecting scroll

(Photo/Yichin Chen)

Masha Slautina, graduate student in the Department of Art & Archaeology enrolled in ART 369 summed up the palpable value of this special trip:

“Seeing artworks in a storage room is always a fantastic opportunity to observe the details that remain unnoticeable even in the best gallery setting. While most museums strive to improve the accessibility of works on display, seeing a painting under good lighting and without the mediation of glass gives a much better sense of its materiality. The material quality of the support and the pigments, the state of the work, including traces of conservation—one can observe all these details only when a painting is not “dressed up” to be presented to the larger audience of museum-goers. It would be fair to say that museum storage is a kind of laboratory for art historians, allowing us to share an unmediated space with the objects we study and to engage with their physicality.” —Masha Slautina