A dream realized

At Zbraslav Chateau, a visionary Asian art exhibit

By Tony Ozuna
For The Prague Post
June 18th, 2008 issue

Part two of the monumental exhibition “Figural Painting of East Asia” at Zbraslav Chateau has been extended for two weeks, until June 22. In its entirety, the exhibit spans centuries of Chinese and Japanese figural painting, from the beginning of the first millennium to the 20th century.

The exhibition is a tribute to Lubor Hájek (1921–2000), the founder and director (from 1952 to 1986) of the National Gallery’s Oriental Art Collection, who organized the same show at Brno’s Dům umění (House of Art) in 1980.

Hájek had intended the exhibition to be accompanied by an extensive catalog that he spent years preparing, writing the texts and doing the layout for reproductions of 180 works chosen mainly from the National Gallery’s special collection of Asian art (most of which are stored in a depository due to their fragility). Unfortunately, there weren’t enough funds to realize this integral complement to the exhibition.

Now, eight years after Hájek’s death and 28 years since the original show, his dream has been realized. The current director and curator of the Collection of Asian Art, Helena Honcoopová, has reconstructed the exhibition and finally had Hájek’s catalog published, with financial help from the Japan Foundation and the Tiang Ting-Kuo Foundation of Taiwan. Though the text is only in Czech, it contains some fine-quality reproductions.

Lubor Hájek was a Czech pioneer in the history and philosophy of Asian art. A student of Indology and comparative religion at Charles University after World War II, he taught himself the history of Asian art, beginning with his tenure as an editor for the Czech magazine New Orient. In 1951, he was authorized by the National Gallery to establish a new state collection of Oriental Art, and practically single-handedly built a very basic collection into the current holdings of some 12,000 pieces, particularly strong in the ancient art of China.

Hájek remains unique, without peers in his time or since. He was the last of the Czech Orientalists, meaning he had a broad knowledge of Asian art and history from various regions and periods, rather than being a specialist, like the vast majority of today’s scholars. This was to his advantage, giving him the necessary basis for objective comparisons.

Moreover, Hájek was a philosopher whose elegant essays compared the development of Asian art with developments in European art. Unfortunately, most of his publications were written for export and not made available locally, including the original text for the catalog. Thus, his scholarly contributions were overlooked in his own country.

There are visual delights in every section of this exhibition, which in its entirety was originally divided into nine sections (five devoted to Chinese art and four to Japanese works). For instance, from the section “Classical Tradition of Figural Painting,” there is a fine painting of Chinese polo players on brown silk, originally created by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) but presented here in a copy from the 17th–18th century. And Magnificent Horses (done in ink and pigment) from around 1600 is a masterpiece.

There are also grand Chinese portraits from the 1500–1800s done in elegant detail and color. These were commonly made by having family members describe the features of deceased ministers to professional portraitists, like criminal investigative sketches are done today.
Most of the display on the second floor of the exhibit is devoted to Japanese art, specifically the figurative tradition of Yamato-e (classical Japanese pictures), with folding screen or panel paintings of courtesan beauties, as well as a section of an erotic scroll (shunga) from around 1800 showing three positions from the Manual of Love-Making.

In the section “Written Idea and Ink Play” in the main salon, there are some remarkable works in which Chinese masters from the 17th and 18th centuries combine thin brush work (for fine or playful detail) with rougher or more flowing sections of finger painting.

Even if you missed the first part of this exhibition, the second half is worth seeing, filled with the National Gallery’s usually hidden treasures of East Asian figural painting, displayed in the unique arrangement of sections determined by Hájek. It is smartly incorporated within the context of the permanent installation of Asian art (one of the largest such displays in Europe) and the special two-year exhibit “The Art of Korea,” on loan from the National Museum of Korea until 2009.

Until June 29, you can also see “Art for Daily Life,” a special traveling show of handmade contemporary Japanese crafts from the Japan Foundation’s collection, including regionally unique types of ceramics, metalwork, lacquerware, wood and bamboo crafts, paper and more.
The National Gallery’s vast collection of Asian art will remain at Zbraslav Chateau for only another year, after which it will be moved from the Baroque chateau — a former monastery designed by Santini — to a much smaller exhibition space in Kinský palác on Old Town Square (600 square meters compared with the current 2,400 square meters), as the chateau will revert to private ownership. Try to visit this remarkable oasis of Asian art, just 15 minutes by bus from Smíchov, while it’s still possible.


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