Evocative Creatures: Animal Motifs and Symbols in East Asian Art

, Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum
Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Although the landscape, with its towering mountains and rushing streams, has traditionally been the principal subject matter of East Asian painting, the smaller details of nature, including birds, beasts, and insects, have also occupied a place of distinction in the visual arts. By the Han dynasty (206 bc–ad 220), domesticated animals and fantastic creatures alike had entered the Chinese artistic repertoire, and in late Imperial times (the Ming [1368–1644] and Qing [1644–1911] dynasties), the phoenix and the dragon—ancient symbols of the yin and yang (female and male) forces of the universe—became official symbols of the royal house. Many of those mythical creatures came to be embraced by artists in Korea and Japan.

Through paintings, ceramics, sculptures, jades, and textiles from the permanent collections, this exhibition of over 50 works explores the symbolism and significance of a variety of real and fictitious animals in the arts of East Asia, and includes a section on animals that, according to Buddhist religious texts, serve as symbols for specific deities.

Organized by Robert D. Mowry, Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art.