Detail of a palace banquet from the Song dynasty.

“The Eternal Feast: Banqueting in Chinese Art from the 10th to the 14th Century,” on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through February 16, reflects several traditions.

The first is the museum’s tradition of collecting Asian art. As museum director James Steward says in the accompanying catalog, the exhibition “continues the proud tradition of scholarly investigation of Chinese art at the Princeton University Art Museum — a tradition that traces its roots to the joint establishment of the present-day museum and what is now the Department of Art and Archaeology in 1882.”

Noting that nearly half of the exhibition comes from the university’s collection (the other pieces are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard University Art Museum, the Cotsen Collection, and others), Steward writes that the museum’s initial group of Chinese and Japanese ceramics provided “an early signal that the study of Asian art would be valued at Princeton. This proved to be the case when, in 1927, George Rowley, graduate school class of 1926, was appointed the museum’s first curator of far eastern art — a remarkable fact given that many larger institutions did not take up the formal study of Asian art until decades later.”

The collection now boasts more than 6,000 works from China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast and Southwest Asia, many on view or available on the art museum’s website.

Two other traditions are intermingled. The obvious one is that feasting is a purposeful social tradition designed for specific outcomes beyond the event. The less obvious is that the practices used by one culture distant in place and time seem to demonstrate that contemporary practices share the same roots and social traditions.

Museum assistant curator of Asian art and exhibition curator Zoe Song-Yi Kwok’s examination of this past culture in many ways can also reflect contemporary American society’s use of feasts.

As she notes, “‘Feast’ is used here is an overarching term to encompass a range of gatherings where food and drink are served, from the informal to the formal, and a group of participants that may include just a few guests or a number in the thousands. The most formal feasts may be classified as ‘banquets,’ a word that bespeaks events involving a higher order of ritual or ceremony.

“At the other end of the spectrum are simple parties accompanied by food and drink. These more casual and socially relaxed occasions might not require participants to adhere to any rigid protocols, but as with all social gatherings certain conventions of behavior would always pertain.”

Kwok notes that in China “the convening of a feast represented a break from everyday routine, yet the functions of feast varied widely. Feasts and banquets could serve to forge, strengthen, and commemorate relationships and alliances, institutional or personal, and engage a range of different communities of varying levels of exclusivity. Alternately, or in conjunction, they could mark a host of specific, significant milestones: political, religious, calendrical, and social. Whatever the goal of a particular feast, however, the outcome depended on the actions of both parties to the event — host and guest — whose interests could align or conflict.”

The curator also points to another outcome of ancient feasts consistent with current practices: the involvement and support of artists.

“China’s early banqueting culture also had significant repercussions for the development of calligraphy and painting, alongside music, dance, and theater,” notes Kwok.

As visual art examples, Kwok notes that pleasing inscriptions on ritual bronzes inspired innovations in calligraphy, and innovations used by lacquerware painters began to influence pictorial art. And that “calligraphy and painting on silk and paper gradually became the prestige art forms of China, practiced by members of the social elite — not only by professional artists and scribes. By the 10th century, calligraphy and painting came to function in a manner akin to performance art, with the creation of works by host and guests alike.”

Regarding the performing arts Kwok adds, “Music’s fundamental role in the political and cosmological rituals of Bronze Age China evolved in part from its prominence as a form of entertainment for state banquets. As the culture of feasting expanded, these formal occasions afforded musicians with venues at which to demonstrate their skills; they also made up the patronage structure for the creation of sophisticated musical instruments and the extensive training needed to master them. Although the earliest evidence is less plentiful, dancing was also an integral component of the entertainment for feasts and banquets, occasions that likewise provided an important impetus for patrons to support the professionalization of the art form.”

Overall, Kwok notes, feasts “commemorated major life events, served as political theater, and satisfied religious obligations. These occasions, in turn, were critical in upholding and reordering the hierarchies — familial, religious, and political — around which society was organized. As such, tremendous artistic and financial resources were spent in supplying the necessary accoutrements for the feasts.”

A coffin box panel of an outdoor banquet from the Liao dynasty.

Yet, getting to the soul of the exhibition, Kwok then argues that “perhaps the most important feature of the Bronze Age culture of feasting was the long-lasting association with ancestor worship and funerary rituals, which were at the core of early Chinese religious thought.”

Those rituals included feasts for both the living and those entering the afterlife — with many of the exhibition’s feast-related objects originally buried in tombs to support the deceased with nourishment and “uphold their social rank in perpetuity.”

But eventually, notes Kwok, the importance of funerary feast scenes began to decline, and paintings made for the living began to explore new social and political dimensions and artistry.

One example is the early 12th-century painting “Palace Banquet.” Set in the inner quarters of a palatial compound, the rare image of ladies banqueting draws on both the older approach to figural painting and the more recent innovations in architectural painting. The temperament of the time also allowed the artist to use “the banquet setting to depart from the typical conventions of the court-lady painting genre” and create a “fundamentally nostalgic image” with “plump figures styled in the fashion of Tang court ladies, with elaborate coiffures and long-flowing robes.”

Overall, as the exhibition points out, the objects “ranging from sumptuous textiles that clothed participants and furnished spaces to the sublime ceramic, lacquer, and metal vessels that delivered food and drink” bring focus to this specific tradition — one that also provokes a viewer to see all related traditions anew.

The Eternal Feast: Banqueting in Chinese Art from the 10th to the 14th Century, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton. Through February 16, 2020. Free. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.

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