Review: Galloping Through Dynasties Exhibit

Helen Rindsberg

October 7, 2022 – January 1, 2023

Gallery 234 – 235 

Galloping Through Dynasties, the new special exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), chronicles three-thousand years of horse images that illustrate Chinese political and social history through paintings, ceramics and sculptures.  It’s rich in stories about mythological horses, legendary military heroes on horseback, horses in sweeping landscapes and artists who used horses as powerful symbols.  In this first-of-its-kind exhibit, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, Curator of East Asian Art, reconstructs lost allegorical messages in artworks from CAM’s collection and loaned from leading museums in both America and Asia, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts.

Dancing Horse, Tang dynasty (618–907), 8th century, ceramic, Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of Carl and Eleanor Strauss, 1997.53 

When you enter CAM’s Gallery 234, you’ll be greeted by the Dancing Horse from the Tang Dynasty.  Proudly raising his head and right leg, he’s ready to perform.  Dancing horses were trained to move in time with a drumbeat.  They performed for emperors as early as 202 B.C.  Dr. Sung said that Emperor Xuanzong from the eighth century loved horses so much that he had a stable of more than 40,000.  He celebrated his birthday one year with a performance of 400 dancing horses.

Horse Decoration in the Form of a Taotie Mask, Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1050 BCE), c. 1500–1300 BCE, bronze, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B647. © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

As you continue your journey past the Dancing Horse you’ll see the oldest artwork in the exhibit, a 3,500 year old horse mask with a Taotie design.  The ancient dragon-associated motif enhanced the divine status of imperial horses.  Enlarged reproductions on either side of the case show how the leather-lined masks were still displayed on horses’ foreheads even 2,000 years later.

Long cases with paintings from albums and handscrolls run down the middle of the gallery.  Many have become darkened with age but reward the viewer with dynamic images of a stag hunt, a falconer with a horse, and tribute bearers.  But the international loan from Japan is a scene stealer.  

Gong Kai 龔開 (1222–1307), Noble Horse (Jungutu), Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), handscroll, ink on paper, Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts, Abe Collection

Noble Horse by Gong Kai is a symbolic self-portrait that expresses the artist’s indignation and defiance of the Mongol invaders who had defeated the Song emperors.  Gong was a Song loyalist and a talented scholar and official who refused to serve the foreign government.  The horse appears to be starving and neglected, walking with its head hanging low.  Yet you can recognize its fine frame and the defiant spirit in its eyes.  Gong’s poem describes the horse as once part of the Song Dynasty stable but now left in a wretched state.  He further implies that only during trying times can one see the true nature of a great man.  Note: a reproduction of the painting is in the case until November 16 when the actual painting arrives from Japan. 

When standing at this case, look across to the near wall for the Emaciated Horse, 1931-1934 by Pu Jin who was a member of the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and a cousin of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi.  When the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, Pu Jin became a yimin (left-over subject).   Like Gong, he expressed his frustration and indignation through this symbolic self-portrait and used it to convey a political message.  The wearily trudging horse, bones revealed through thin skin, steps shakily with its head hanging down, a metaphor for a neglected talent.

Further along in the same case is the Six Horses handscroll from the 13th – 14th century.  In a sweeping landscape we see two hunting parties from two different tribes, distinguished by the red and blue tassels on the horses.   At the time this was a new painting genre depicting fanzu (nomadic tribes) which emerged during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). The Song court’s close contact and constant negotiations with their northern neighbors generated a growing fascination with the nomads among the Chinese.  Paintings became more realistic to depict the nomadic lifestyles based on personal observations. 

The side walls are hung with large hanging scrolls, many also are dark with age.  But one dramatic black and cream composition stands out.

Unidentified Artist, Rubbing of a Stone Tablet Dedicated to Guan Yu, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), hanging scroll, ink on paper, Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of Lucille Dixon, 2019.300

Guan Yu (162-219 AD) was a military general deified as early as the late sixth century and by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) he had become the god of war and wealth.  Guan Yu is one of the heroes of the classic Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The story is part historical and part fictional.  It dramatizes the lives of feudal lords and their retainers who tried to replace the dwindling Han Dynasty, romanticizing the personal and military battles, intrigues and struggles of 100 main characters over 100 years. Guan Yu is shown on his favorite horse, Red Hare, with his signature weapon, the yanyuedao (crescent moon knife).  This exceptionally clear rubbing is from the stone table erected in 1490 when construction workers found a large jade seal with Guan Yu’s title.

Be sure to see Hunting on Horses from the Ming or Qing Dynasties to the left of the door to the balcony.  Details of horses and figures are easy to study on this very tall and wide hanging scroll.   In the center of the composition, the ruler is leading a spring hunting party of his courtiers. Mounted on a white horse, he is wearing a deep purple dragon robe and confidently faces the viewer.  He is surrounded by five mounted hunters, a white hound and two hunting hawks.  A white falcon has captured a wild goose and other geese flee into the sky.  It’s easy to imagine this masterpiece prominently displayed in an imperial palace.


The exhibit continues on the balcony.  Turn to your right to enjoy Horses by Louis Antoine de Poirot, depicting the playful activities of imperial horses.  A French Jesuit missionary priest, de Poirot arrived in China in 1770 and served in the Qianlong (r. 1733–1796) court.  He mastered Chinese languages and soon served the emperor as a translator and painter, eventually teaching Western techniques to Chinese painters.  These four small unmounted paintings were likely preliminary drafts made for the emperor’s approval before their final production, a common practice in the court.  Each painting is signed “Respectfully submitted by your servant He Qingtai,” de Poirot’s Chinese name.

There are many more masterpieces to discover in Galloping Through Dynasties.  Plan to spend time to fully enjoy all their stories.  The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color, illustrated catalogue.

For more information about the exhibit:

Dancing Horse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pM3TNCKtZFY 

Tang Horse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8LJKS1iiqs