Leo J. O'Donovan, SJ, president emeritus of Georgetown University, is always on the lookout for art exhibitions that readers might find of interest. Recently he visited a new show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has been receiving raves for its creative curation: "The World of Khubilai Khan." (Khan has apparently changed his name since my eighth-grade social studies class, when he was plain old Kubla.) Fr. O'Donovan's review begins:
If you have ever wondered what the great city of Xanadu in Northern China looked like when Marco Polo arrived there around 1275, you can get a good idea by visiting New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” will be dazzling today’s travelers for the next several months.
Made possible by remarkable loans—half from China itself, most of the other half from museums in the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, England and Germany—this is one of the Met’s most ambitious shows ever. It is accompanied by “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change,” drawn mostly from the Met’s own holdings and an event in itself.
From the moment you enter the Khubilai Khan show, passing between two enormous stone sentinel figures from Beijing, you are in a wholly other world, one of autocratic power but also highly refined artistic skill and sensibility. Khubilai Khan (1215–1294), grandson of Genghis Khan, was an accomplished administrator, if also an incorrigible imperialist. Early in life he became deeply interested in Chinese culture and in 1271, even before completing his conquest of the great land to the south in 1279, he inaugurated the Yuan (“beginning”) Dynasty, which lasted until 1368. Portraits of the Great Khan himself and of his favorite consort, Chabi—actually cartoons for what would be larger portraits woven in silk—welcome you to the daily life of their time, and especially their court.
UPDATE: A slideshow of select images from the Met exhibit is now available.
James Martin, SJ