It’s something like perfect timing, or maybe just the endless wash of information ebbing and flowing. The Met Museum in New York, knowing I’m starting rehearsals again of hell tomorrow wants a piece of the action too, so has put together a fine exhibition, Secular and Sacred: Scholars, Deities, and Immortals in Chinese Art.
This sort of felt, introspective response to the world is the essence of that most rarefied of Taoist pictorial forms, landscape painting. The show has superb examples, each a cross between a mirror and a mood ring. At the same time, Taoist art could be raucously extroverted. That’s certainly one way to describe the 13th-century scroll titled “The Demon-Queller Zhong Kui Giving His Sister Away in Marriage,” with its parade of plug-ugly nature spirits pumping iron and preening.
These creatures may have had origins in Buddhist art, which arrived in China with a developed pantheon of celestial and hellish beings. These ranged from the ethereal savior-deity Guanyin, to the burly, glowering Kings of Hell – depicted in five extraordinary, high-colored hanging scrolls at the Met – who processed the damned in the Buddhist underworld with the cool dispatch of Confucian court judges.