Middle Kingdom Modernists:
Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700 – 1900 at the V&A Museum
by Travis Jeppesen
The ambition to represent over a millennium of painting within a single exhibition seems wild and almost reckless – and in particular Chinese painting, as its masterworks are messily scattered in collections all over the globe. Indeed, there is no single great museological vault where one can find a historically representative array of these works (barring perhaps the National Palace Museum of Taipei or the Shanghai Museum), so the Victoria and Albert’s effort alone will earn them an instant A, especially since it has not been attempted by any Western museum since the first half of the 20th century. And, as the great majority of visitors to “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700 – 1900” will no doubt be novices to the field, the underlying task then is to present a sampling of the rich and varied works accomplished over this vast period, rather than essay an accurate historical survey.
The exhibition begins in the middle of the Tang Dynasty. It was during these years that Buddhism’s popularity spread throughout the Middle Kingdom, and as such, religious art triumphed. The highlight here is the extraordinary Bodhisattva in Monastic Dress Standing at Prayer, dated between 875 and 925. This double-sided translucent silk painting portrays the enlightened being sheathed in elegant robes with competing shades of red, his hands clasped solemnly in prayer.
But the Tang Dynasty was known mainly as the Golden Age of poetry for China. Painting would have to wait until the advent of the Song Dynasty to experience its Renaissance under its eighth emperor, the ruler-patron Huizong, who was also a painter, poet, and calligrapher himself. His masterpiece Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, on loan from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is one of the exhibition’s centerpieces.
While literati painting officially began in the Song Dynasty, when poetry and painting began to merge, it would reach its zenith in the short-lived Yuan Dynasty as a quietly defiant rebellion against the perceived barbarism of the Mongolian invaders who would rule throughout this period. If there is such a thing as Modernism in Chinese art history, then it begins here, in the years 1271 to 1368 – six centuries before such a thing would evolve in the West. Exhibitions like this show us why Western Modernists like Ezra Pound so readily converted to the Confucian cause. The impassioned inventors of paper and gun powder, the Chinese were also the first to put forth the inner landscape as a serious artistic concern. While the official artist-artisans who supported the new rulers would remain subservient artistically, as well, by sticking to what was then perceived as the outmoded, baroque style of Song Dynasty painting, literati artists of the Yuan such as Gong Kai largely restrained their palettes to black ink. Individual style and the primacy of gesture represented a breaking-away from tradition, one that perhaps resonated with the more anarchic branch of Taoism espoused by Zhuangzi, yet were simultaneously infused with a melancholic nostalgia for China’s former glories under the Tang and Song. Gong’s Emaciated Horse is a stunning example, not only of the Yuan style, but of early dissident art; the skinny horse, that beloved beast of the Mongolians, bends down pathetically in search of morsels. The message is clear: no creature will find any sustenance under this regime.
As different as the two period styles were from one another, a strong notion that painting had reached its peak of perfection in the Song and Yuan Dynasties would persist up until the late 19th century. While much of the Ming period could readily be viewed as classicalist in its endless refinements of Song and Yuan styles, things get interesting in the lengthy (1644-1912) Qing Dynasty, which would be the scene of a riveting battle between traditionalism and individualism. In the former camp, you have the Four Wangs, whose conservatism nevertheless gave rise to moments of great beauty. Look at the mountains of Wang Jian, their magnificent shading; they look like flowers. Clouds and Mist in the Mountains, which came from the gifted hands of Fa Ruozhen, is like a Song landscape projected through the blurred vision of a drunken mystic.
Then there were those artists who worked outside the establishment. If the Yuan literati painters were the first to propose the artist’s individuality as the core of all expression, it was Qing Dynasty painters like the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou who completely broke gesture out of the prison house of style – centuries before Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. Zheng Xie’s depictions of rock and bamboo endow these static objects with movement, the force of life. The clear highlight here, though, is Bada Shanren’s epic scroll Flowers on the River. With thick washes of ink throughout, cuttingly contrasted with a rigidly controlled calligraphic hand at the end poem, the painting depicts the life of a lotus flower, from the near-nothingness of its seed form up through the real nothingness of death. The painting is pure hand, unreadable in parts, with stablike dots constituting the brushwork, until it suddenly coalesces into form, only to dissolve once again – mimicking, perhaps, the deceitful and withering constancy of clarity.
It was also during the Qing Dynasty that European painting was introduced to China by Jesuit missionaries. From this encounter, more in-depth and linear (narrative) landscapes would emerge, such as Xu Yang’s Prosperous Suzhou, an exquisitely detailed scroll depicting a thousand scenes in that thriving and prosperous city, beginning at a morning excursion to Lingyan Hill and terminating at Tiger Hill and the pagoda of the Cloudy Cliff monastery. Besides being an impressive painting, it is also a fascinating historical document of the place at one of its more ascendant moments.
With a net as wide as this cast, there are bound to be some gaps. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more work from the pivotal transitional period of the Yuan Dynasty, when artists began to loosen up and engage directly with the question of tradition on a deeper level. The title of the exhibition led me to believe that it would somehow be bigger, that it would occupy an entire wing of the V&A and cover many floors. Instead of representing more of China’s hundreds, indeed thousands of artists at work during this awesome stretch of history, the curators opted to include a number of incredibly long scroll works, which, while certainly awe-inspiring, could have been edited to include more paintings by different artists. These are really minor quibbles. If anything, “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting” presents an impetus to explore this fertile, often overlooked (in the West, at least) part of art history even further. Which is why it is worth visiting two, three, even four times.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author