Over the centuries, depending on the prevailing political winds, Confucius has been revered in his homeland as social visionary or despised as moral despot. In the West, his name, like that of Mao Zedong, simply means “China” to most people.
He’s hard to know. Mao has a visual presence, thanks to his many portraits. But Confucius — Kong Fuzi, or Master Kong, to use one of his Chinese names — is an abstraction, which is one reason that a small, fine, get-acquainted show called “Confucius: His Life and Legacy in Art” at China Institute Gallery is so valuable. It neatly encapsulates some of the ideas that have made him a monument. But it also puts a face to his name, even if that likeness, as seen in paintings and sculptures, is fictional.