Like many ancient cultures, China’s painting tradition was predominantly borne out of a need for religious ceremonial decoration and votive images. Indeed, silk banners from the early years of Chinese civilisation depicting Bodhisattvas, Asparas and sacred scenes pepper the start of this exhibition. However, once we pass the inevitable religious iconography typical of the dawn of any ancient civilisation, painting in China as an art form really starts to become quite interesting.
Painting of any form was, initially, considered a luxury. If it was not being displayed publicly, it was stored away in private collections, considered a treasured possession, and reserved for limited viewings. There was a deep reverence for a painting’s physical well-being – as it was a thing of skill, but more importantly expensive beauty. Art by its very nature, then, was elitist – intended for the rich: emperors, scholars and officials – and so the act of accessing it was almost as enticing as the work itself.
This restricted viewing would have inevitably dictated the imagery of ancient Chinese painting, and also, partially explain the typical forms in which it came. For instance, the silk scroll that opens out like a comic strip from right to left, which rolls up practically. Also, the handheld fan, and small prints intended for personal albums – all meant for delicate use and safe-keeping. What is interesting, then, and perhaps what we must always remember as Western viewers of occidental art, is that the functions of such art forms often differ from ours as much as its themes and social-cultural contexts do.
The themes and subjects present in early Chinese painting are as fascinating as its forms. Nature played a big part in the evolution of the Chinese sensibility; it is an overarching theme in the paintings of the early dynasties. Therefore, the bulk of the first half of the exhibition is occupied by 山水 – Shānshuǐ (landscape) paintings.What becomes clear at this point is that the theme of “nature versus man” was a huge preoccupation for early painters. This theme ties in with Buddhist and Taoist ideas of nature’s domination of Man, and nature as an all-encompassing force upon the world. This can be seen repeatedly in the stark silk hangings depicting scenes of nature at its most uncontrollable, tyrannical and overbearing – storms, ocean waves, mountainous climes. It is nature plucked at its most aesthetically pleasing and philosophically poignant prime.
Shānshuǐ paintings influenced the next clear evolutionary step forward for Chinese painting – from delicate, protected images to ever-expanding silk banners and hangings. What this is indicative of, is China’s economic progression, which in turn influenced the way society wanted to manage its wealth – it heralded a new desire to display and exhibit this prosperity. Suddenly, and in great contrast with tradition, paintings were created for permanent, prominent display. They became vast and elaborate, and blended calligraphy, poetry and painting together as a clear exhibition of the nation’s scholars’ multi-disciplinary talents. For example, by the Song Dynasty, where the classic grand imagery seen in Shānshuǐ paintings was narrated in calligraphy, almost on top of the paintings, in famous poems about nature.
Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, therefore, almost accidentally charts an interesting development – the growth of wealth in China and its effect on painting as an art form. It illustrates that with wealth came opulence, abundance and, naturally, more art, and then, the desire to flaunt such luxury. Following on from the monolithic grandeur of Shānshuǐ paintings, we begin to see the exhibition of art merging with the collection of art. Paintings start becoming littered with the seals of artists and owners, proudly documenting their multiple collectors. At this point it is clear that the ego of Chinese painting was born. Naturally, Chinese painting then turned itself to the human subject as its next inevitable muse. Once again, function and theme in Chinese painting adapted itself to contemporary society and culture – the depictions of natural magnificence began to be superseded by portraits of emperors, court officials and rich family heads – or they at least sat side by side.
One description within the exhibition expresses the motivation of Chinese painters as ‘an enthusiasm for the visible world,’ which I think somewhat reduces the functions and features of Chinese painting to general terms. There is a noticeable attentiveness to what is literally in front of the artist, moulded subtly by cultural and economic progression. Religious iconography gave way to representations of the huge and humbling forces of nature, which in-turn became a shifted gaze now focussing on Man as muse and ego. However, the painter’s lens seems to influence a painting’s purpose, status, and the status of its owners, just as much as these elements influence the motivation for a painting’s creation.
What is most illuminating about Masterpieces of Chinese Painting is that an exhibition such as this – one that attempts to house such a vast historic range of one nation’s artistic output – is it can surely only competently do so chronologically. However, although this is effectively the case here at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a lot more shapes the way you view each image than just the era it represents. It is an evolutionary diorama of Chinese painting – it creates a three-dimensional map of eras, social movements, a developing economy, and changing artistic themes. What you take away from this exhibition is a kaleidoscopic understanding of Chinese painting, a deeper, broader interest, and the acute awareness that it is just one history of one art-form within a culture of a myriad more.
Masters of Chinese Painting 700-1900 runs at the V&A until the 19th of January 2014
© Loesja Vigour 2013
Featured Image: Nine Dragons (detail), 1244, Chen Rong, Photograph © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston