Exhibition examines the transformative influence of the culture of feasting on the visual arts of China

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Exhibition examines the transformative influence of the culture of feasting on the visual arts of China
Chinese Northern Song dynasty, 960–1127, Flower-shaped Wine Cup and Stand Qingbai ware; porcelain with sky blue glaze cup: 4.4 × 11.1 cm. Stand: 4.1 × 14.6 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921.

PRINCETON, NJ.- The feast has existed at the core of culture in China for thousands of years and remains a vital part of life in East Asia today. As an important social and ritual activity, feasts commemorated major life events, served as political theater and satisfied religious obligations. The Eternal Feast: Banqueting in Chinese Art from the 10th to the 14th Century traces the art of the feast through more than 50 exceptional objects from three transformative dynasties – the Liao, Song and Yuan. Focusing on a rare group of surviving paintings from the period – along with ceramic, lacquer, metal and stone objects as well as textiles – the exhibition reveals the singular influence China’s culture of feasting had on the formation of the artistic traditions of China.

The Eternal Feast: Banqueting in Chinese Art from the 10th to the 14th Century is on view exclusively at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 19, 2019, through Feb. 16, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Zoe Kwok, assistant curator of Asian art at the Princeton University Art Museum.

“This fascinating and subtle exhibition, based on years of scholarly research and benefiting from one of the most important collections of Chinese painting outside of Asia, here at Princeton, speaks once again to our commitment to examining the art of the past in a new light,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director.

In ancient China, feasts intended to nourish and celebrate the spirits of the deceased were a fundamental part of funerary practices. From the 10th to the 14th century, art related to the feast began to survive in greater quantities outside of tombs. At the same time, the tradition of building grand underground tombs stocked with the paraphernalia of feasting began to wane. Presenting a selection of paintings of feasts and banquets from these four centuries alongside an array of feast-related objects, The Eternal Feast demonstrates the important role feasts and banquets played in shaping funerary rituals, social status, gender identity and contemporary politics in China.

Feasts were also crucial opportunities for other forms of performance art, including music, dance and theatrical productions. The Eternal Feast presents objects related to these essential features of the feast along with figural sculpture depicting different kinds of feast participants and performers. Together, these works offer a window into the feast as a site for the creation and consumption of art in China.

The Eternal Feast is divided into three sections reflecting the different social, political and religious roles played by feasts from the 10th to the 14th century, with each centered on a key painting or set of paintings.

Dining in the Afterlife examines the central role paintings of feasts and objects made for feasting played in funerary art, focusing on some of the earliest works in the exhibition, a rare set of six paintings on wood made for a Liao dynasty tomb. Among the less-known jewels of Princeton’s collections, two of these wood panels depict a group of men preparing tables for an intimate outdoor feast. The panels were produced during the 10th or early 11th century in the territory of the Liao empire, which encompassed parts of present-day Mongolia and northern China.

Ladies Banqueting in Seclusion, the second section of the exhibition, explores the rarely studied topic of the ladies’ feast. This section highlights a large Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) hanging scroll entitled Palace Banquet. Connected to the subject of court-lady painting as well as other genres of Song images, Palace Banquet offers a nostalgic view of a magnificent compound full of Tang dynasty (618-907) court women preparing for an evening banquet.

The centerpiece of the final section, Gentlemen Feasting as Scholarly Business, is Evening Literary Gathering, a handscroll that depicts a 13th- or 14th-century scene of gentlemen enjoying a casual feast that is rich in both historical allusion and contemporary social and political commentary.

A 196-page richly illustrated exhibition catalogue, published by the Princeton University Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, further examines the importance of feasting as a social and ritual activity in China since the Bronze Age. In addition to the curator’s introduction and central essay, entitled “The Feast Across Three Gatherings: Images of Banqueting from the 10th to the 14th Century,” the publication includes object entries that expand our understanding of the material culture of the feast in the Liao, Song and Yuan dynasties.

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