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Virtue and Entertainment: Chinese Music in the Visual Arts on View at the Freer October 1, 2005–March 26, 2006

Media only: Rebecca Fahy, 202.633.0521
Public only: 202.633.1000
Exhibition dates: October 1, 2005–March 26, 2006

September 20, 2005

This fall and winter, the Freer Gallery will present an exhibition of 36 objects, including a bell, drum, chime and zithers, as well as scrolls and painted porcelains that date from the fifth century B.C.E. to the 20th century, highlighting many of the ways in which music and the visual arts have long interrelated at the heart of Chinese civilization. From the Bronze Age (circa 2000–500 B.C.E.) through imperial times (221 B.C.E.–1911), musical harmony was considered a sign of good government. Rulers frequently sponsored ceremonial music to be played at their courts using beautiful, brilliantly crafted instruments.

Chinese archaeologists have discovered the world's oldest playable flute, made more than 8,000 years ago, as well as impressive finds of panpipes, zithers, drums and sets of stone chimes and bronze bell-chimes interred in tombs dating to the Bronze Age. These early orchestras performed ritual music revered for its alleged power to align Heaven and Earth and to inspire moral virtue and regulate human conduct.

Despite protests by some philosophers during the Bronze Age that lighthearted music might induce lewdness and depravity—especially if performers of both sexes intermingled—musical entertainment flourished at all levels of society. Intellectual music also arose, notably in the form of refined solo compositions for the "qin," a seven-stringed zither that scholars championed as a form of sublime communication between friends and with nature. Foreign influences flowed into China as well, merging with and expanding native musical traditions.

These multiple "voices" of music are represented in the diverse selection of the objects on view, some more than 1000 years old. Included are two Buddhist stone carvings showing instruments brought to China via the Silk Road before the sixth century. More typically Chinese instruments, some from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), are also on view. Paintings devoted to musical topics explore the status of the zither as the indispensable accessory of a cultivated scholar. Paintings of women and music include images of heavenly maidens performing for celestial occasions and all-female ensembles playing music in an earthly garden—a sign of feminine erudition and refinement. A section on the flute describes the poetry of its music as well as its use in bawdy entertainment. Display of 20th-century calligraphies on musical themes brings the powerful connection between Chinese music and the visual arts into modern times.

Among the works on view are:

• A scroll depicting the performance of a Rainbow Dance, "nichang wu," which is distinguished by the dancer's colorful costume. Rainbow Dance music, described by Tang poets as the "Sogdian whirl," is thought to have originated in India and was presented to the Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–756), who in turn modified the composition. (F1916.42)
• A handscroll depicting a multitude of immortals, presided over by a female immortal whose status is augmented by the presence of a retinue of musicians. (F1918.13)
• An early fifth century B.C.E. bronze clapper-less bell whose elaborate design, featuring winged creatures and coiled serpents, underscores the exalted status of bronze bells—a luxury restricted to China's early rulers and elite. (F1941.9)
• A Tang dynasty (seventh–early eighth century) bronze ritual drum that is closely connected in style with Southeast Asian drums. (1994.25)

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late19th- and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the exhibitions section of the galleries' website.

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