Splendors of China's Forbidden City | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Splendors of China's Forbidden City 

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Many of the opulent paintings, sculptures, ceramics, furniture, clothing, weapons, and other artifacts in this compelling exhibition were made for 18th-century emperor Qianlong. And despite a decorative excess that could signal the decadence of a waning imperial culture--Chinese painting and ceramics reached their apex with the suggestive, ethereal works of the Song dynasty more than five centuries earlier--many objects here are splendid on their own and not just interesting for illuminating the aesthetics of power. A magnificently excessive gold and silver stupa built to contain a relic--Qianlong's mother's hair--dazzles with its beautifully ornate spire and reliefs of flower garlands and Tibetan script. On the surface of a stunning lidded jar is a painted design of wrapped cloth that both appears to tightly constrict the vessel and leaps out at the viewer visually, with its bold colors and three-dimensional effects. My favorite work here is the huge jade sculpture The Nine Elders of Huichang, whose finely carved reliefs of trees and a bridge and freestanding figures offer an amazing mix of weightlessness and monumental solidity--this piece fully supports cocurator Bennet Bronson's claim that the Qianlong period is the great age of Chinese jade carving. Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., through September 12. Hours are daily 9 to 5; 312-922-9410.

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