Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: 700-1900

Emperor Huizong: Ladies preparing silk

(Victoria & Albert Museum, London, closed on 19 January 2014)

This exhibition was the hit of the autumn in London. Many people told me how wonderful it was, but for various reasons I only managed to get there on the final weekend, when a friend and I realised that we were in danger of missing it altogether. How I wish I’d managed to go a little sooner! It would have been great to read the catalogue and then go back again to savour it all from a more informed perspective. As it was, I was almost completely ignorant of what to expect, and found myself bowled over.

There were only about 70 exhibits, all of which were loans: the V&A have no Chinese paintings of their own. The loans came from museums in Europe, the USA, China and Japan, all beautifully displayed in a gallery sympathetically fitted with dark wood and slatted screens. Fortunately for those of us who knew so little, the information boards were excellent, as were the labels; and in some cases the calligraphic inscriptions had been translated. This was crucial because, as I came to understand, Chinese art often relies on the interplay between picture and poetry: a synthesis of complementary forms of art creating the whole.

Some of you will be much more familiar with Chinese art than I am, so I can only ask for your indulgence as I careen happily through some of my favourite exhibits. The show opened with a room of religious banners, painted on silk and representing bodhisattvas and Buddhist monks. As my knowledge of Buddhism is more or less on a par with my knowledge of Chinese painting, I pootled round simply admiring the vivid colouring; and I was ready to move on when I suddenly saw how old these works were. The earliest banner was the one I was looking at: Buddha Preaching the Law, now in the British Museum. This dates from circa 700. Let’s just think about that for a moment. 700 AD. Justinian had been dead for one hundred and fifty years. It would be another hundred years before Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Oswald of Northumbria had been dead for fifty years. And this painting on silk had somehow, miraculously, come through 1,300 years of history with nothing more than a bit of fading and a couple of losses in the corners. All told, there are thirteen exhibits in the show that date from before the year 1000.

Tang Dynasty: Buddha Preaching the Law

Tang Dynasty, Buddha Preaching the Law, c.700, British Museum (detail)

Once I’d picked my jaw up from the floor, I moved on; and although I would see other things that I found more aesthetically pleasing, nothing had quite the impact of that first room. The show is arranged chronologically and, based simply on the exhibits in this exhibition, I found the 12th and 13th-century art most appealing. One of my favourite pieces in the show dated from this period: Chen Rong’s Nine Dragons (1244). This ten-metre long scroll follows a group of cavorting dragons as they wind their way through clouds and skim over waves. Although it’s all in black and white, the draughtsmanship conjures up a beguiling sense of light and texture. Presumably there was a narrative here, but the story wasn’t as clear as that in another magnificent scroll, this time from the early 12th century. Qiao Zhongchang illustrated the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff by Su Shi, following a group of friends on an excursion to the site of the famous battle. Their day out is tinged with an eerie, otherworldly quality: the poet, while wandering alone in the woods, becomes unnerved by the silent power of nature all around him. Later, as the friends drift on the river in a boat, their peace is shattered by the cry of a crane overhead. The story ends with the poet’s dream, later that night, in which he sees the crane as the spirit of a Daoist immortal; he wakes, eager to see more, only to find the spirit fading with the dream. The mood is beautiful but so melancholic.

That ethereal quality seeps into the landscapes from this period, most of which take the form of hanging scrolls (some of these were originally part of long horizontal scrolls but were cut down and remounted by later owners). These views often show mountain ranges skirted with mist, their summits divorced from the earth by bands of clouds. Striations on the mountains’ flanks could be stylised rock formations or waterfalls. One of the most imposing examples of this kind of landscape was The Summer Palace of Emperor Minghuang, a 14th-century vision of a intricately-detailed palace with fantastical mountains beyond, dissolving into pools of mist – shown on a hanging scroll a metre wide and a metre and a half high. On a more manageable scale, landscapes also often appeared on paper fans – interestingly, with a high proportion of winter and snow scenes. As my friend observed, if you need a fan to keep cool then the thought of snow is probably rather appealing.

It’s not all poetic melancholy, though. We were delighted by Du Jin’s scrolls showing 15th-century court ladies playing golf and football. The balls seemed to be stitched in exactly the same way as modern footballs, and a little girl stood on the sidelines with a spare ball, wrapped in a red string bag similar to those we used to have in our school gym cupboard. And there was a charming drawing of a foreshortened, rather rotund horse held by a genial-looking groom, by Zhao Mengfu (c. 1300). In its most basic sense, it testifies to the Chinese love of good horses; but it also draws a parallel between the ability to recognise good horses and the ability to recognise a good official. The artist was a Chinese scholar hoping for employment in a period when most official positions were given to the countrymen of the Mongol rulers. The drawing is therefore both work of art and flattering plea for favour. It’s been suggested that the characterful groom might be a self-portrait.

I tended to be less enamoured of the 16th-century works, which felt as if they were lesser shadows of the dazzling pictures that had come before. However that’s merely the feeling of a Westerner who knows nothing about the art’s form or intentions and is struggling to make sense of it via parallels with European painting. Having said that, one of the most charming scrolls dated from this period: Qiu Ying’s four-metre-long Saying Farewell at Xunyang. My friend and I had difficulty tracing the story that we knew should be there, so we diverted ourselves by playfully inventing our own tale as we followed the tiny figures through fantastical landscapes of vibrant greens and mountains of lapis-lazuli blue. Both of us are quite familiar with Western art, but we quickly discovered that this didn’t provide a shortcut: to fully appreciate these beautiful paintings we would need a completely different toolkit of symbolic knowledge, as well as the ability to read the characters which provided the necessary poetic complement.

Something that we both found very interesting was Wang Jian’s mid-17th-century sequence of ten rocky river landscapes, each of which was executed in the style of a different Chinese old master. We went from one to the next, determined (for the sake of our own pride) to identify the variations in style. It was immensely tough, and even after studying them for a long time all I could see was that the rocks were treated in different ways: sometimes smooth and undulating, sometimes sharp, sometimes irregular and sometimes elegantly aligned.

Chinese: The Summer Palace of Emperor Minghuang

The Summer Palace of Emperor Minghuang (14th Century) (detail)

There were, however, points when I could see where Western artists had borrowed from the Chinese. For example, take the combination of dark, broad strokes of ink and lighter grey washes in the Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonizing Their Minds (13th century). They immediately made me think of Goya’s albums, in which he achieves a similar striking effect… albeit 600 years later.

The highlight of the entire exhibition was saved for last, and we joined a dutiful and polite queue (so very English) to see it. After twenty minutes we reached one end of this final, dazzling scroll and, for the next twenty minutes, inched our way along every intricate bit of it. This was the breathtaking view of Prosperous Suzhou, executed in 1759 by the imperial workshop under the direction of the artist Xu Yang. It took three years to complete and stretches for twelve metres, offering an unbroken panorama of a busy and bustling town. There are markets and harbours, weddings and river parades, civil-service exams in tightly-packed halls, an opera performance, ships and sedan chairs, and a dizzying mass of detail, down to pot plants glimpsed through windows left ajar. The achievement is stupendous; and yet this was never intended to be seen. Only the emperor and his closest advisers would have had the chance to admire it. It was locked away, intended as propaganda for posterity, so that future generations could marvel at the wealth that flourished under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). As we shuffled along, noses almost pressed against the glass, it felt (forgive me a moment of levity) like nothing so much as an epic version of ‘Where’s Wally?’.

It’s rare to visit an exhibition which is a complete revelation, and the V&A did a super job. They managed the feat of putting on a show which was just as exciting for seasoned connoisseurs of Chinese painting as it was for complete beginners like me. Everything was clearly explained and there was a good number of exhibits: enough to feel you’d had your money’s worth, but not so many that you reached the final room in an overwhelmed fog. Unfortunately I can’t urge you to go because it’s closed now, but the catalogue seems to be a feast of knowledge and (as an added bonus) has translations of many of the inscriptions in the back.

Buy the catalogue

Xu Yang: Prosperous Suzhou

Xu Yang and workshop, Prosperous Suzhou, 1759 (detail)

One thought on “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: 700-1900

  1. Michael Savage says:

    Completely agree – I also got to this just before it closed, and loved the earlier Yuan landscapes. Odd that Chinese painting starts so strongly so early but develops so little. I also loved the late nineteenth century portrait at the end. Made me curious about late Chinese painting, which must have been rather buffeted by 'events' in the twentieth century.

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