The Metropolitan Museum’s lunar New Year celebration with dancers and musician, story-tellers and artistic activities might be over, but there’s still a way to welcome the year of the monkey at the Met.
Monkey Business: Celebrating the Year of the Monkey, a small exhibition featuring masterpieces from the museum’s Asian collection pays homage to the holiday by celebrating monkeys in art. Since the Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.) representations of twelve animals corresponding to a twelve year cycle have played an important role. The rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig are thought to embody decidedly human characteristics. People born in the year of the monkey are believed to be endowed with intelligence, energy and a playful spirit.
The monkey has appeared countless times in the arts of China, Japan and Korea, in paintings, sculptures and decorative arts like textiles and ceramics. A classic blue and white porcelain plate starts the show. In it, a monkey hangs from a branch while a magpie, bees and deer fill the rest of the scene. As is common in Chinese art, the symbols carry more than one meaning, since the names of these creatures, when spoken, form an entirely separate message. Using these four animals results in a word play wishing “giving great wealth and bestowing a noble title.
Similarly, a fan with a delicately painted gibbon wishes success in studies.
There are monkeys made of crystal, jade, and ceramics. The show stopper is a stunning group of all twelve of the zodiacal beings, regal and serious, but fantastic and fun, all lined up in a procession that would fit into stories as old Aesop’s fables or contemporary as a Pixar film. Each face is unique and charming. Together, they’re absolutely delightful, and should intrigue scholars and school kids alike.
A second grouping, all carved in jade, and each about the size of a chess piece, sit in a semi-circle, and gives the impression that they’ve just finished discussing important matters of state. The monkey is, of course, in the middle.
The Met is a treasure, and whenever they reach into their vast holdings to bring out and share some of their treasures with audiences, it’s worth taking a look. Whether monumental and important, or as in Monkey Business simply charming, each exhibition is an opportunity to expand our worlds, and at the same time, learn enough to make them a little smaller. With this show, sure to make you smile, the year of the monkey is off to an auspicious start.
BEFORE YOU GO: Monkey Business: Celebrating the Year of the Monkey, on view through July 24 in the Asian Art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
All Photos by Adel Gorgy
Opening Photo: A Conference of the Twelve Animals of the Chinese Zodiac, carved in Jade, 18th Century
Photo 1: A Cup with a Handle in the Shape of a Monkey, Tang Dynasty, 8th Century
Photo 2: A playful monkey holds a double meaning. He’s part of a Chinese painting, and a wish for success.
Photo 3: Gibbons Raiding and Egret’s Nest, Southern Song Dynasty, late 12th Century, an elegant painting from the Song dynasty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo 4: Two Monkeys on Two Peaches – delicate lines and colors belie these monkeys’ mischievous spirit
Photo5: All Twelve Zodiac Animals on parade in a stunning work from the 8th Century
Photo6: A wise monkey in jade takes center stage in an 18th century group of Animals of the Chinese Zodiac
Photo7: Snuff Bottle with Two Monkeys and a Rock, late 18th – early 19th Century