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March 2014

Vol. 156 / No. 1332

Masterpieces of Chinese painting

Reviewed by S. J. Vainker

Masterpieces of Chinese painting


By Shelagh Vainker

For the first time since the exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1935, European students of Chinese art were afforded the thrill of standing before the works through which they learnt that history at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s landmark exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700–1900 (closed 19th January). The exhibition was indeed one of masterpieces, displaying great works from the Tang (618–906), Song (906–1279), Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties that have been reference points in the history of painting in China for centuries, and can be readily enjoyed as such. Yet the exhibition was far more than a series of highlights illustrating a much-told story. It was rather a re-telling that incorporated the traditional version within an innovative contextual presentation that encompassed function, genre, materiality, collecting and engagement with cultures beyond China itself.

Visitors to the Royal Academy in 1935–36 were presented with scores of paintings among hundreds of historic treasures from the Imperial collections. The landscapes, figures and bird-and-flower compositions followed the categories established by connoisseurs in China, and their reception was informed by the interpretations of Roger Fry and Lawrence Binyon, whose understanding of art far outstripped their knowledge of China. Had there been an exhibition of Chinese paintings between then and now, it would probably have been organised by scholars with a good knowledge of Chinese and the literature on painting, and its display would have emphasised a cerebral ink landscape tradition that was the preserve of wenren, scholar-official painters and calligraphers. Zhang Hongxing, Senior Curator at the V. & A. and the mastermind behind Masterpieces, opened the catalogue introduction with an explanation of how the properties of the portable paintings that comprised the show fitted with one of the key aims of today’s museums, that of situating the works on display within their original context.

Put simply, the exhibition was divided into six chronological sections, each one reasonably characterised in a phrase: Objects of Devotion 700–950; The Quest for Reality 950–1250; Embracing Solitude 1250–1400; The Pursuit of Happiness 1400–1600; Challenging the Past and Looking to the West 1600–1900. The prelude, by the entrance, was the single painting Court ladies preparing newly woven silk (cat. no.16; Fig.29), attributed to Emperor Huizong (reg.1101–25), with, alongside it, a group of artist’s earthenware colour pans excavated at Dunhuang that still contain pigments dating from 800–1200 (cat. fig.14). Nearby was a discreetly positioned video of a painter from the Palace Museum Beijing creating a replica of the handscroll, and a small model of silk fabric on a stretcher. Further on in the exhibition, carved jade seals of artists and collectors and a sample book of silk mounting fabrics from Japan were similarly enlightening. The succinct introductory texts to each section were supplemented by quotations from artists, also printed on the walls, or lively information in brief texts, such as the one near some fan paintings that explained how small paintings of flowers were placed among the blooms displayed at flower festivals.

Each section of the exhibition included a range of subjects – figures, landscapes, animals, birds or flowers – in a variety of formats: hanging scrolls, handscrolls, fans and album leaves. The sizes varied too, from Zheng Sixiao’s famous orchid of 1306 at 25 cm. (no.47; Fig.27), to the set of twelve, two metre-high hanging scrolls (no.68) in the manner of old masters by Wang Jian (1598–1677), and Bada Shanren’s extra­ordinary late seventeenth-century, twelve-metre ink handscroll of flowers by a river (no.74; Fig.28). The multi-coloured gold brocade mounts surrounding some of the paintings (nos.39 and 40) revealed that they had belonged to Japanese collectors, while at the same time drawing attention to the paintings as complete objects. The paintings themselves showed the whole range of brushwork, impressing the unfamiliar viewer with the meticulous quality of the detailed genre paintings, and the overwhelming power of the brushstroke as a vehicle for self-expression when freely used, allowing them to draw comparisons with Western painting as they liked, or not.

All the richness and subtleties of the longstanding cultural tradition that is Chinese painting thus pervaded the display; but to explain all its purposes and inner workings would be impossible within any single exhibition. Introducing the visitor to what it was they were viewing, however, through references to what these objects once were, who made them, who used them and how they came to be where they are now, removed painting from its long-embedded position as a subject in the realms of the mind and also provided an enlightening and informative background to viewing the paintings themselves. To have achieved this with fewer than a hundred works within a con­sistent chronological display was remarkable.

The pluralities underlying the exhibition were elaborated in the multi-authored catalogue edited by Zhang Hongxing, in which many new ideas, such as the close relationship of silk to painting, are explored.1 The first half of the book comprises essays: on painting practice and materials; categories of paintings and their subjects; inscriptions and seals, and a sequence of essays on collecting Chinese paintings in Europe, the United States, Japan and China, and finally on the preservation of scroll paintings. The second half consists of the catalogue entries, following the sections of the exhibition. These have been written mostly by the curators of the twenty lending institutions, providing a depth of information and some variety in approach, and all of them highly readable. The scholarly detail of the seals and inscriptions on each work appears in an appendix, followed by a bibliography, ensuring the value of the publication for the visitor, student and expert.

‘Masterpieces’ may have become arguably an outmoded term for an art-historical project, but for this exhibition it was appropriate, revealing as it did so much more than the individual works in a survey that covered more than a thousand years and even embraced the twenty-first century. In a contemporary work in the V. & A’s Madejski Garden, Travelling to the wonderland (ex-catalogue), the Beijing artist Xu Bing (b.1955) encircled the oval courtyard pond with thinly cut rocks to recreate at once, in three dimensions, some of the landscape paintings in the exhibition and the utopian poem Peach Blossom Spring by the fifth-cen­tury poet Tao Yuanming, a contemporary of some of China’s earliest art historians.

1     Catalogue: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700–1900. Edited by Zhang Hongxing, with essays by Ling Lizhong, Itakura Masaaki, Charles Mason, Shane McCausland, Camille Schmitt and Clarissa von Spee, and catalogue introductions by Roderick Whitfield. 360 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (V. & A. Publishing, London, 2013), £40 (HB). ISBN 978–1851–777563.