Court Ladies or Pin-Up Girls?

B&M Company Fertilizer by Wang Yiman, circa 1930-35, chromolithography on paper. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

AT THE RISK of sounding trite, this exhibition promises to be amusing, being, as it is, a survey of Chinese misogyny. The title rather sums it up well, being akin to the old adage of “Good little girls go to Heaven and smart little girls go to Paris’. The works on view range from the exalted image of the female to those of beauties (in this case 18th-century prostitutes on a balcony and photographs of prostitutes) to women as lures for advertisements, like Hollywood stars hawking everything from face cream to cigarettes, to genre scenes to those which Monty Python would have referred to as ‘Naughty Bits’.

At the high end of the scale is an extremely rare hand scroll, Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk by the 12th-century Huizong Emperor, probably the greatest patron of the arts ever to sit on the Dragon Throne. The painting appears innocent enough, but based on erotic poetry of the time, the term ‘pounding silk’ is a reference to bodies locked together in sex. This little survey comprises more than 30 Chinese paintings, prints, posters and photographs of women from the 11th through the 21st centuries, and rather than reflecting traditional Confucian ideals of painting women as embodiments of virtue, these works illustrate the realities of how male artists have imagined women throughout the centuries. Some are idealised and some are in varying degrees of eroticism.

The Eight Beauties on the Balcony of a Brothel (1736), was once thought to be a portrait of eight concubines in a Qing artist’s household. New findings now indicate that the painting may have hung in a dining, or drinking, establishment as an advertisement for a brothel. In addition to their alluring demeanour, the women reveal their professional status by objects they hold – the organically-shaped citron (foshou), featured in many of the paintings in this exhibition, is, for instance, an unambiguous Chinese symbol for lovemaking.

Of course, albums of erotic paintings are on display, under the term ‘spring paintings’, or shunga in Japanese, another culture keen on erotic imagery, especially amongst the merchant class of Edo. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colourful prints had appeared on the scene and by the 1920s and 1930s, especially in Shanghai, posters advertising a variety of products, all using a prominent image of a beautiful woman, became commonplace, such as the BM & Company fertilizer poster, circa 1930-35, by Wang Yiman. The Communist government of the People’s Republic of China will never be known for its sense of humour, or laissez faire, and they would have none of this bourgeois imagery. Instead, they preferred their version of Soviet Realism, in this case Women Workers in Cotton Factory, circa 1968, by Shuntai Yang, in which a group of factory workers are gathered around a loom, all smiling wildly, like a group of blue-collar Stepford Wives.
The most recent work in the exhibition, Embroidered Spring Dreams, Illustrations of the Golden Vase Poems (2002) is by Hong Lei (b.1960.) Taking its subject matter from the 16th-century erotic novel,
The Plum in the Garden, he has executed this depiction of a floating female nude in embroidery, a traditional feminine art form.

MARTIN BARNES LORBER

From 20 December to 19 July 2015 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, www.mfa.org.