The importance of temporal context in the creation and observation of traditional Chinese art was emphasized in a lecture given by Jan Stuart, keeper of the department of Asia at the British Museum, Thursday night. The lecture, entitled "Timely Images: Chinese Art and Festival" and part of the "Innovation/Adaptation: 5,000 Years of Making Art in China" series of the University's Year of China initiative, attracted a mature audience to the List Art Center of primarily Providence community members.
Stuart's lecture, though rich with art history, also offered a cultural lesson on the importance of festivals in China. She organized her lecture — and the art pieces she included — in chronological order of the festivals that take place throughout the year, emphasizing how, from ancient times to the present, there has been a "significant bond between temporal context and Chinese art, especially because of the significant number of festivals and holidays during the year."
Stuart's main point was made clear by her first two slides — the first of which was a painting of a Christmas tree, and the second a painting of a small bouquet of pomegranate flowers. Stuart said she knew everyone in the audience recognized the Christmas tree and its cultural implications. But the average American viewer would have no idea that the pomegranate flower detailed in the second slide was representative of the Tianzhong Festival, which takes place the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in China.
"Time eats away at all things," she said, but the way to understand traditional art more fully is to recognize that works are shaped by their temporal context.
Elsie Morse, a community member and volunteer docent for the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, said she came to the lecture because of the RISD Museum's partnership with the Year of China initiative. Currently, the museum has an exhibit titled "From the Land of the Immortals: Chinese Taoist Robes and Textiles," displaying ancient Chinese garments. The delicacy of the robes allows them to only be displayed for three months every five years, she said, so the exhibit is incredibly special.
Professor of History of Art and Architecture Maggie Bickford, who introduced Stuart for the lecture, said she felt there was so much stress on the modern state of China and its place in the global arena that traditional and ancient art does not gain proper recognition. This lecture, she said, was an opportunity to dig into that history.
There will be about half a dozen speakers in the Innovation/Adaptation series over the course of the semester, Bickford said.