A provocative new exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum seeks to overturn the prevailing view of the women featured in the "beautiful women" art of the Qing Dynasty.
The orthodox view is that the portraits in the genre known as "meiren hua," or "beautiful women" paintings, of the High Qing period (mid-1600s to late 1700s) are high-status women, who are from the court or other upper echelons of society, according to the museum, which is run by UC Berkeley.
But new analysis and study led to the discovery that they are courtesans, according to the exhibit, "Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting," which contains a number of hanging scrolls and large paintings gathered from the museum's collection and other collections around the U.S. and Europe.
Courtesans in High Qing society were not what the term may suggest to modern ears.
"The education of the courtesan class in the Qing period was intended to create a woman capable of engaging with refined gentlemen in discussions about poetry, literature and music," says a wall of introductory text in the exhibition.
"In this sense, the courtesan was far more educated than other women at this time."
The exhibit was organized by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia White in collaboration with UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus James Cahill, an expert in Chinese art whose recent work includes the book, Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China (University of California Press).
Each scroll or painting is accompanied by a short analysis describing symbols and other elements that purportedly show the woman's accessibility and availability as a courtesan.
The gaze of most of the women looking at the viewer is presented as one clue, while peonies and Buddha's hand citrus fruits in the scrolls are described as signs of female sexuality.
In the exhibit's interpretation, some of the elements are more literal, such as the elongated, layered opening of a woman's sleeve in the hanging scroll, Woman in a Brothel Being Presented to a Client (see image attached to this article). The accompanying description says, "The open sleeve has a multilayered shape corresponding to the vulva."
In other works, the allusion is less direct. The description next to the scroll, Lady at Window with Two Cats (image attached), says that "the obvious interest shown by the larger male cat towards the smaller female reinforces the status of the woman as an object of desire."
The exhibit description on the museum's website offers a similar interpretation of another work:
"The direct gaze of the woman in Putting out the Lamp (image attached), addressed to the (presumably male) intended viewer, offers a suggestive undercurrent of greater intimacy, one of the hallmarks of this genre. Other codes of accessibility include the woman’s relaxed posture with right leg drawn up under left, the open sleeves that expose her arms, and the highly stylized extension of her right hand in a controlled gesture reaching to snuff out the light. Her expression engages the audience in a way never before seen in Chinese figure painting."
The exhibition opened last Wednesday and runs to Dec. 22. The museum also lists public programs related to the exhibit, including:
- "A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Courtesans: A Conversation with Judith Zeitlin and Margaret Francesca Rosenthal," Oct. 6, 3 p.m.
- "Sarah Handler: The Elegant Fantastic in “Beautiful Women” Paintings," Nov. 3, 2 p.m.
- "Perspective in Late Imperial China: A Symposium in Honor of James Cahill," Nov. 22, 3 p.m.