Online Archive  
Issue 8 - November 1972
Taoist Art
The Chinese Taoist Art Exhibition in the Gulbenkian Museum in Durham, which opened in July, has been well received by a considerably wide section of the public. Due to its success, this pioneering exhibition is to remain on show until the end of the year in the Museum's pitifully small temporary exhibition room. But you do feel that the size of the exhibition room is immaterial for the understanding of the workings of Taoist ideas in Chinese art. In fact, one is reminded now and again that there is a world beyond the walls of that exhibition room, and beyond the primarily visual impact of this interesting display of over 250 choice items. You travel freely between Heaven and Earth, and scale the Universe with the freedom of the Elements of Nature, and the penetration of the strength of your own mind.

The visitor is invited for the first time to take a more profound approach to Chinese art, and try to come to terms with the initiated Taoist interpretation of these works of art, in which, for example, a kidney-shaped carved jade is symbolic of the vulva and a tripod vessel of the penis. On the other hand one is also reminded that the initiated interpretation of sexual intercourse (with all its realistic representation) is not considered erotic at all, but deeply religious and philosophical.

We see the workings of Taoism in Chinese art, the open philosophical system of Taoism that reconciles opposites, and fuses the yin and yang elements of Nature, in order to emphasise the Harmony of the Universe. (It is in this context that the sexual act becomes so significant.) One also learns the Taoist art of active participation in the discovery of the mysterious forces of the Universe, frequently by viewing things on a miniature scale. The splendid conglomeration of Chinese folklore, nature-worship and metaphysics is shown in ten main sections that range from the symbolism of shapes and colours to occult arts and sexology.

Through these sections we are shown the development of abstract tendencies in Chinese art, e.g. in the compositional and symbolic development of Taoist calligraphy, and particularly in landscape painting, which represents one of the highest levels of abstraction from outward reality that the Chinese genius has been able to achieve. The exhibition underlines certain tendencies in the over 2,000 year history of Taoist art: a Sung period full of philosophical inspirations and the birth of Taoist popular arts during the Ming. In all these fields of Chinese artistic activities, Taoist concepts, or at least a degree of understanding of Taoist concepts, were indispensable and used even by non-Taoists. This is why Chinese art cannot be studied without the understanding of Taoist ideas. Besides, it is a great experience to have a taste of Taoism.