Possessing the Past: Treasures of the National Museum, Taipei was published as a catalog to accompany an exhibit held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1996 that featured an incredible display of masterpieces of Chinese art taken from the collection of the National Museum in Taipei. These works were originally brought to Taiwan by Chiang-Kai Shek when he fled China in 1949 and represent the collection first amassed by the Ch'ing dynasty emperor Ch'ien-lung. So many masterpieces from all periods are included in it that the catalog's authors are able to present a systematic overview of Chinese art from the neoltithic period through the founding of the Chinese republic in 1911.
The book proceeds chronologically with a section devoted to the art of each of the major dynasties. In total, there are twenty-four essays written by noted scholars including Wen C. Fong and James C.Y. Watt, the book's two attributed authors. Each essay is illustrated by splendid full color reproductions of the works included in the exhibit as well as smaller black & white reproductions of works not included but referenced in the essays. In addition, there are notes, a bibliography and maps.
The essays are scholarly but easily accessible to anyone with a serious interest in Chinese art. Though written by different authors, they follow one another seamlessly and avoid the erratic shifts in point of view that sometimes blight such anthologies. An excellent feature common to all the essays is the in-depth analysis of each major work in the exhibit. The reader is not only given a short biography of the artist but also a background to the creation of the work that includes any symbolism, political or otherwise, the artist may have employed. Most importantly, the work is presented in context, i.e., the authors are careful to show how an idividual artist's style developed in relation to that of his contemporaries and how that style fit in with the reigning dyanasty's aesthetic principles. This is particularly important since virtually all the artists discussed belonged to a particular school, some of which were quite loosely organized while others were formalized into "academies" during the Sung and Ming dynasties
While every period of Chinese history produced artists of note, the high point of Chinese art was unquestionably the landscape painting of the Sung dynasty, both the monumental work of the Northern Sung and the more imtimate creations of the Southern Sung. Although a politically troubled period that ended with the eventual victory of the Mongol invaders, it was during this same time that Chinese civilization reached its peak. One can only look in awe at such works as Early Spring by Kuo Hsi or Listening to the Wind in the Pines by Ma Lin. So pervasive was the Sung influence that only recently has it been recognized that many later Ming paintings have for centuries been incorrectly attributed to Sung artists.
Although the focus is naturally on painting, there is also great attention paid to calligraphy which in China has long been elevated to the status of a high art, if not the highest. In fact, painting and calligraphy are closely interrelated, and it's not at all surprising that some of the greatest Chinese painters were also master calligraphers. The association between the two arts is emphasized in such essays as "The Scholar-Official as Artist" in which author Wen C. Fong details the connection between the ink-bamboo paintings of Northern Sung artist Wen T'ung and the calligraphy of his contemporary, the poet Su Shih. As another Sung scholar Hsien-yü Shu later wrote, "There is calligraphy in the painting, and painting in the calligraphy." Certainly, calligraphy permitted as much freedom of expression as painting. The reader has only to view at the work of the T'ang Buddhist monk Huai-su, known as the "Sage of Cursive Calligraphy," to understand the scope calligraphy permitted for individual styles and even idiosyncrasies.
There are also essays devoted to the applied arts. In the section devoted to the Ming dynasty, for example, there is a long essay entitled "Official Art and Commercial Art" by James C.Y. Watt that discusses the exquisite porcelains of that era that are now so prized by Westerners.
Possessing the Past is one of the finest art histories I've come across. I cannot recommend it too highly to anyone interested in Chinese art, or for that matter in art in general.