Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 @ V&A

A stunning exhibition of 70 banners, scrolls, fans and ink paintings covering well over 1,000 years of Chinese art, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The audiobook is voiced by Juliet Stephenson and is over 2 hours long. This is a big and densely detailed exhibition.

For me Chinese art is a completely new world with almost no bearings or fixed points. I know nothing of Chinese history and recognise none of the artists’ names and know nothing about the aesthetics of Chinese art, the conventions and rules or the schools and movements. The exhibition displays the work by chronological theme, but I’ve stuck to the dates of the dynasties which define Chinese history, giving me at least one framework to cling on to.

Tang Dynasty 618-907

The first room concentrates on silk banners showing Buddhist deities. The earliest banner dates from 729 (contemporary with the Venerable Bede in England and just before the Battle of Poitiers in which the Franks stopped the advance of Islamic armies into France). Buddhism, boddhisatvas, banners and offerings. There is a fascinating film of how silk was prepared and treated with alum and gum before painting, as well as an ancient painting showing the process being carried out

Itinerant monk accompanied by a tiger (9th century)

Itinerant monk accompanied by a tiger (9th century)

Song Dynasty 960-1279

Buddhism faded, secular subjects, the visible world and landscapes became more popular. Visual explorations of changing weather and the shifting qualities of natural light. The Emperor ruled over 100 million people! Art merged decorative and subtle landscapes with philosophical ideas. Paintings began to be autographed in contrast with the anonymous Tang banners.

The Summer Palace of Ming Huang

The Summer Palace of Ming Huang

There are three Chinese philosophies: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. The Taoist ideas of Yin and Yang were developed and incorporated into theories of art: the active Yang is represented by hills and rocks; by contrast, the passive, feminine Yin is embodied in rivers and lakes.

The Nine dragons scroll was painted about 1244 and shows nine shapes or incarnations or activities of the dragons beloved of Chinese legend. Like many of these artworks, it is not a painting to be hung on a wall but a scroll, meant to be kept in a safe storebox and occasionally taken out, unsfurled and appreciated. From right to left.

Nine Dragons scroll. Detail of a dragon

Most if not all of the images incorporate texts and poetry. The calligraphy of the Chinese characters is just as important as the image itself and the style of both can be highly individual and distinctive. Images and poems were produced by a self-consciously artistic scholar-gentry class.

Thus the text of the poem by the northern Song emperor Huizong describing the flight of the ‘auspicious cranes’ is given just as much space as the image itself.

Auspicious cranes poem and painting by the Emperor Huizong (1112)

Auspicious cranes poem and painting by the Emperor Huizong (1112)

Yuan Dynasty 1271-1368 (pronounced ‘un’)

Kublai Khan and his Mongols conquered China and proclaimed a new dynasty in 1271. The scholar-gentry class was dismissed from power and influence. The era is one of solitary, isolated scholars and artists creating wistful, nostalgic poems and images full of nostalgia. Ghostly brushwork in pale ink is typical of the ‘apparition’ painting of the time.

Wu Zhen, Hermit Fisherman on Lake Dongting 14th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Wu Zhen, Hermit Fisherman on Lake Dongting 14th century

Ming Dynasty 1368-1644

After Mongol domination, the Ming represented a return to rule by ethnic Han Chinese, leading to a long period of prosperity and stability. Silk and expensive pigments reappeared. The capital moved from Bei-jing (‘jing’ meaning capital and ‘bei’ north) to Nanjing (‘jing’ meaning capital, ‘nan’ meaning ‘south’.)

There is a lovely scroll of Court Ladies in the Inner Palace, playing Chinese forms of golf (!) and football (!). There was renewed scholarly interest in past art and techniques and history.

Du Jin (active 1465–1509), Court Ladies in the Inner Palace

Du Jin (active 1465–1509), Court Ladies in the Inner Palace

There are many more portraits of real people and places – for example, Tang Yin whose civil service career was ended by wrongful accusations of bribery made a painting called ‘Pure Dream Beneath a Paulownia Tree’, with accompanying poem:

For this lifetime he is divorced from the thought of rank and fame
This pure sleep is no longer filled with the dreams of grandeur.

Wen Zhengming created an album of views of The Garden of The Inept Administrator, 1551.

Garden of the Inept Administrator, Wen Zhengming

Garden of the Inept Administrator, Wen Zhengming

These serene, philosophical and mature images were created soon after England suffered the bonfire of vandalism of the Henrician Reformation, followed by the burnings-at-the-stake of Bloody Mary and the further artistic destruction of Edward VI. Hard not to compare our brutal philistinism with the depth and civilisation of these images. Paintings with names like:

  • Spring Clouds in the Linggu Mountains
  • Deity with Phoenix
  • Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies
Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies

Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies

Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 (pronounced ching)

The rise of Traditionalism, the urge to copy what were now seen as the Old Masters of the Chinese tradition, in subject matter, brushstroke, style and calligraphy.

Bamboo and Rocks by Zheng Xie, c 1762

Bamboo and Rocks by Zheng Xie, c 1762

The end

The story of classical Chinese painting ended in the early 20th century, amid the influx of western influences – perspective, realism, the horizon – and the social upheavals accompanying the end of the Chinese empire in 1911. What a tradition! What wonderful awesome works of art!

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