Coffee with the Curators | May the Arts Bring You Happiness and Prosperity in 2022!

Tongyun Yin, Cofrin Curator of Asian Art
January 28, 2022

 

As many of us have already packed up our holiday decorations, hundreds of millions of people in Asia are just getting into the festive mood for the upcoming Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in China, South Korea, Vietnam, and other countries with significant overseas Chinese populations such as Singapore and Malaysia, as well as the diasporas from these countries around the world. Encapsulating the holiday spirit of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year, the Lunar New Year celebrations feature family reunions, home decorations, and expressions of hope for a prosperous year to come. Based on the lunisolar calendar matching the moon’s cycles instead of the sun, the holiday falls on a different day between late January and mid-February each year. This year, the Lunar New Year starts on February 1st. 

 


Xiong Yunshan 熊雲山 (active late 19th century), Ancestor Portrait 祖先像, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 1884, Gift of Charles and Hannah Mason, 2003.25.1

 

Reflecting the great diversity among Asian traditions and cultures, Lunar New Year’s celebrations take on different forms in different countries. Chinese Lunar New Year, commonly referred to as the Spring Festival, is a fifteen-day celebration filled with reunions among families and friends. A family reunion means the participation of both family members and ancestral spirits. In traditional China, offerings of flowers, fruits, and foods were made to the deceased forebears in front of ancestor portraits before the holiday dinner. This ancestor portrait shows four figures from two generations, the more distant ones at the top, sitting on round-back chairs with footrests and sumptuous brocades draped over the arms of the chairs. The figures have rigidly frontal and seated poses and nearly identical facial features and attire. The painter intentionally ignored the individualized depiction to confer a sense of permanency to these figures, who were deemed to have already been separated from the earthly world and achieved a quasi-godlike state.

 

 

Detail of Ancestor Portrait
Foliate Silver Dish with Designs of a Female Immortal 鎏金仙人紋仰蓮瓣花口銀碗, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 18th–19th century, Museum purchase, funds provided by friends of the Harn Museum, 2005.32.5

 

In the back, an altar table is adorned with ritual objects and flowers. Four ancestral tablets bearing the names and life dates of the other family forebears are placed in the center. A painting of a young lady, known as the Daoist immortal Magu 麻姑, carrying a basket of flowers and fungi of longevity tied to a garden hoe, attended by a deer, is seen above the altar table. This motif had become very popular during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and is also seen on a foliate silver dish in the upcoming exhibition She/Her/Hers: Women and the Arts of China (March 1st, 2022–March 24th, 2024). As a symbol of family continuity, this type of ancestor portrait served as the focus of a domestic ritual ceremony traditionally held on New Year’s Eve.    

 


Gu Shao 顧韶 (act. 1810–1860), Flowers, Fruit, and Vegetables 果蔬花卉圖軸, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 1856, Museum purchase, funds provided by the Robert H. and Kathleen M. Axline Acquisition Endowment, 2003.33.3

 

Placing decorations with auspicious symbols around the home is a part of the preparations for Lunar New Year festivities. In China, still-life paintings of flowers, fruits, and vegetables from different seasons, such as Flowers, Fruit, and Vegetables by the 19th-century female painter Gu Shao顧韶 (active 1810–1860), would be hung as elegant offerings on the first day of the Lunar New Year. Among the most propitious symbols is the bat because its Chinese name, fu 蝠, is the homophone of another character for happiness. Therefore, this jade vase with designs of bats would be considered an appropriate object for Lunar New Year festivities. 

 


Vase with Bat Designs 蝠紋玉香瓶, jade (nephrite), Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 18th–19th century, Bequest of Dr. David A. Cofrin, 2009.48.219. On view in Highlights from the Asian Collection exhibition

 

 

Each Lunar New Year is also represented by one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, which are said to attribute their qualities and powers to both the year they are associated with and the people born in that particular year. The year 2022, the year of Tiger, is known to Koreans as the Year of Black Tiger, representing characteristics of bravery, vigor, and nobility. Tigers have occupied prominent roles in Korean art from ancient times, as the animal is considered a national symbol. During the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), tigers were regarded as the most powerful beast providing protection. Hanging paintings of tigers would drive away evil and evoke blessings for the household in the new year. 

 


Seok Mo Ro-In, Tiger, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), late 19th-century, Museum purchase, funds provided by The David A. Cofrin Fund for Asian Art, 2011.41

 

As we face continued uncertainties and challenges, what better way to start the new year than to refresh and recharge by surrounding ourselves with the arts that will bring happiness and prosperity in 2022!  

 

All photos by Randy Batista.