Not being fish, how do we know their happiness?
We can only take an idea and make it into a painting.
To probe the subtleties of the ordinary,
We must describe the indescribable.
– Inscription on 13th century painting, ‘The Pleasures of the Fish’, by Chou Tung-ch’ing
A flock of twenty white cranes appear in a carefully designed compositional swirl in an azure sky above city gates that rise mysteriously from an illuminated layer of cloud, a scene of otherworldly beauty. We are at the V&A, just one room into the expansive and educational exhibition, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700 – 1900, standing before Auspicious Cranes, a rapturous, hypnotic image that appears as if in a dream.
Yet this painting, attributed to Emperor Huizong, according to Huizong’s own inscription and poem that follows to the left (the direction in which a Chinese reader would unroll this hand-scroll) records an actual event:
On the evening of the day after shanguan, the rhenzen year of the Zhenghe reign [26 February 1112] auspicious clouds suddenly formed and descended about the gates of the main palace, illuminating it. Everyone raised their heads to gaze at them. Suddenly a group of cranes appeared flying in the sky. Two came to perch atop the ‘owl-tail’ ridge ornaments of the gate, completely at ease and self-composed. the others all wheeled about in the sky, as if responding to some rhythm. Residents of the capital walking about all bowed in reverence, gazing from afar. They sighed at length over the unusual sight. For some time the cranes did not disperse. Then they circled about and flew off, separating at the north-west quarter of the city.
Emperor Huizong (attrib), ‘Auspicious Cranes’, 1112: the complete hand-scroll (click to enlarge)
Just as the sky grows light, rainbow-hued clouds brush the roof ridge.
Immortal birds, proclaiming good news, suddenly appear with their measured dance.
Soaring windborne, truly companions of the isles of immortality,
Two by two, they show their noble forms.
– from the poem inscribed on ‘Auspicious Cranes’
Huizong was a Song dynasty emperor and a great calligrapher, painter, poet and musician. Auspicious Cranes, with its flock of white Manchurian cranes soaring in a turquoise sky with fluid, calligraphic grace testifies to a culture steeped in a tradition of augury. As Huizong records on the scroll, the appearance of the birds was seen as an omen of good luck: in China, cranes appear in art and architecture as auspicious emblems of good fortune. But Huizong was a mediocre and unfortunate Emperor, twelve years into an unhappy reign. He filled the masterful painting with as many cranes as his composition would allow. He knew he needed some good luck. But these were not auspicious times.
Huizong was the eleventh son of a reigning Emperor and never expected to succeed to the throne. With his father’s encouragement, he devoted his life to poetry, calligraphy, and painting, and became one of China’s greatest artists. But, through an amazing string of bad luck, his ten older brothers all died leaving Huizong as the completely unprepared heir to the imperial throne. Preferring art to administration, Huizong neglected affairs of state and came to rely heavily on scheming and corrupt ministers. Forces from Manchuria soon took advantage of corruption and misrule to invade, capturing the capital city Kaifeng, and Taking Huizong prisoner. The man who once had been the most powerful ruler on earth, who had lived in opulence and dedicated his life to art died a broken man in northern Manchuria in June 1135, at the age of 52.
This exhibition is magnificent – but demands a lot of attention. Not only does it cover an immensely broad sweep of time (how many exhibitions embrace 1,200 years of art?); it also enters terra incognita for many of us. What I knew about Chinese art before seeing this show could have been written on a postage stamp. Even Brian Sewell, reviewing the exhibition for the Evening Standard, admitted as much:
A lifetime spent in the informed enjoyment of European art is no preparation for the sudden intrusion of Eastern cultures and that my responses to them are blunt and almost blind. Common sense tells me that so vast a land as China must have produced art as varied as the whole of Europe, but while I can distinguish an image of the Virgin Mary painted in Portugal in 1450 from one painted at the same time in Poland, in Chinese art all subtleties escape me. I cannot identify such variations, nor even with any certainty distinguish Chinese from Japanese art, though they must be visually as well as culturally distinct. Common sense also tells me that as I can judge these far oriental masterpieces only with a Western eye, this is no judgement at all.
Shi Ke (attrib), ‘Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonising Their Minds’, 13th century
Already, in this first room of the show, aspects were emerging that would remain as my lasting impression of an overwhelming body of work. One recurring theme in room after room and through the centuries was the harmony between word and picture in Chinese painting: painting as poetry and writing as decorative art. In China, the arts of poetry, calligraphy and painting were intertwined, and the main mode of expression was the scroll, made of silk and decorated with inked calligraphy and painted subjects. Scrolls were designed to be unrolled occasionally and read slowly, one section at a time from right to left, as if they were a book. So the Chinese tradition of looking at paintings was different to the European one of easel paintings, altarpieces and galleries. Chinese paintings were appreciated in private, by individuals or small groups of friends or family. They were not, by and large, hung on the walls of houses or institutions, but were portable works: some hand-scrolls, unrolled and re-rolled, exposing one section at a time; some vertical scrolls displayed only temporarily.
Another consistent aspect of the work on display – reflecting the link between calligraphy and painting – is the delicacy and fluidity of the brush work combined with the atmospheric washes of colour. Brian Sewell commented:
In A Chan Patriarch Harmonising his Mind, of the 13th century, I saw brushwork of such freedom and certainty that it far outdoes Rembrandt and did not become the language of draughtsmanship in Europe until the 20th century. … Again and again I was astonished by the draughtsmanship, the sweeping brushwork, the immediacy of observation.
Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Landscape’, 1473
Indeed, Jonathan Jones in The Guardian went so far as to put forward the theory that Leonardo da Vinci ‘stole the idea of landscape painting from China’. He notes that Leonardo is traditionally credited having drawn the first ever landscape on 5 August 1473:
To look at mountains and trees just for themselves was unprecedented. Or was it? The invention of landscape painting is one of the great moments of European art. Painting nature is a way to get inside yourself. To this day, people enjoy doing watercolours in the outdoors as a form of meditation. Leonardo’s discovery of the mystery of nature – which you see in all his paintings, with their dreamy rocks and pools – is the invention of a new kind of inner life.
Jones wonders whether Leonardo might somehow have seen Chinese paintings:
Might something have reached the west along the Silk Road? Excitedly, I get Leonardo’s 1473 drawing up on my iPad and hold it among the 12th-century Chinese landscapes for comparison. The shapes of the hills and trees in Leonardo’s sketch perfectly mirror the sugar-loaf peaks and willowy trees in 900-year-old Chinese paintings.
It’s possible, I suppose. But when he writes about painting landscapes ‘as a form of meditation’, Jones touches on something else that is striking about this exhibition. The artists making these painting were imbued with, and employing their skill to express, certain principles of Zen Buddhist philosophy: that painting should express emotions and inner thoughts, rather than simply imitating reality.
‘Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters’, Wang Jian, c 1669-73
This is a vast exhibition, covering more than a millennium, so as you might expect there is a considerable variety of subject matter and varied approaches to painting on display. There are portraits of Buddhas and beggars and beautiful landscapes, snapshots from the lives of poets and courtiers, records of journeys and meetings, and a fascination with the natural world, from bamboo leaves and blossom to birds and a monkey. The exhibition charts the evolving styles and subjects of painting over a 1200 year period, from early Buddhist devotional or votive banners for religious sites to landscape painting and the beginning of Western influences. Many of these masterpieces have never been exhibited in the UK before. What follows is a brief survey of the six sections of the exhibition.
Objects of Devotion 700 – 950
Unknown artist, ‘Bodhisattva Wearing Monastic Robes’, 9th century
The exhibition begins by exploring paintings made for religious purposes during the Tang (618 – 807) and Five Dynasties (907 – 60) periods. Most of the works which survive from this early period are Buddhist banners and screens, painted on silk and characterised by their bright colours, such as this embroidered image of a Bodhisattva.
Zhang Sengyou, ‘The Five Planets and 28 Constellations’ (details), c 700-800
But not all the works in this section are Buddhist; the illustrated manuscript The Five Planets and Twenty-Eight Constellations, attributed to Zhang Sengyou, is one of the earliest hand-scrolls depicting ancient astrological deities. The ancient Chinese named the five major planets after the Five Elements of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The planets and constellations here are personified as deities, figures, or in animal-headed form, each accompanied by an inscription for its planet or constellation name.
The Quest for Reality 950 – 1250
‘Landscape with Pavilions’, Yan Wengui, 10th century (click to enlarge)
As the golden age of Buddhism faded, new ideas about reason, education and the possibility of improving society took hold, leading a growing artistic enthusiasm for depictions of the visible world, and the rise of landscape painting. This is where we begin to find mountain and river scenes, depictions of flowers and animals, studies of fishermen and travellers, and pictures exploring the cycle of the seasons, changing weather and the shifting qualities of natural light.
Without leaving your room you may sit to your heart’s content among streams and valleys. The glow of the mountain and the colour of the waters will dazzle your eyes glitteringly. Could this fail to quicken your interest and thoroughly capture your heart?
– Guo Xi, landscape painter, 1117
Mi Youren, ‘Cloudy Mountains’, 1140-50
The art of the Song dynasty (960-1279) was characterised by an enthusiasm for secular subjects and the rise of landscape painting – mountain and river scenes, travellers in a landscape, changing weather and shifting qualities of light. Another characteristic of this period was the shift from a preference for bright colours to a more monochrome aesthetic, as seen both in landscape paintings and in small-scale vignettes featuring animals and human figures.
‘Bamboo Twig with Grasshopper’, possibly Wu Bing, c1190-1250
‘A Monkey’, Mao Song, c1127-50
In Mao Song’s picture of a monkey, each strand of fur has been carefully painted in India ink and gold dust over a background wash, and is extremely fine and natural. The animal has a gentle, contemplative expression – something beyond simple realism – and the painting is regarded as one of the finest works of the Song dynasty.
Preference for the monochromatic did not completely preclude the use of colour, however, and looking at Auspicious Cranes we can see how during the later years of this period, Emperor Huizong developed a style that employed both colour and lyricism. Standing before Huizong’s miraculous painting I had to take a minute to orientate myself in time. 1112? What was happening in Europe then? It was a time of cathedral-building and anti-Islamic crusades, or, as Jonathan Jones put it:
It shows that during the Song dynasty, at a time when Europeans were fighting barbaric crusades and had long forgotten the creativity that flourished in ancient Greece, artists in China were taking painting to heights of sensitivity and poetry that would not be attained elsewhere until the age of Leonardo.
Embracing Solitude 1250 – 1400
In China this was a period of turbulence and dynastic change. The most striking artistic innovations of this period came from monks and scholars – the ‘literati’ – who shunned commissions for palaces and official buildings and instead chose to live in seclusion, making their paintings for private use, or as personal gifts.
These artists preferred simple subject matter, laden with literary, philosophical and personal meaning. Painting moved from imitating external reality to a concern for exploring inner thoughts and emotions. This in turn gave rise to powerfully expressive styles of brushwork (as seen in Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonizing their Minds which so excited Brian Sewell, as noted earlier) and an austere approach to the use of colour. Black ink on white paper was regarded as the most appropriate medium for the aesthetic of solitude.
Paintings such as Wang Mian’s Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge were an attempt to create a visual poem – a visual representation of the artist’s feelings and emotions, striving to reach beyond the everyday, and to suggest a deeper meaning than that conveyed in ordinary realism.
Wang Mian, ‘Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge’, c 1310-59
Wen Fong, Emeritus Professor of Chinese Art at Princeton University and author of Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (1992) notes the very different response of Chinese artists at this time to nature and wilderness, compared with their European counterparts:
From very early times the Chinese, unlike Western Europeans, who considered untamed nature inimical to human society, imagined the mountains an earthly paradise, the abode of the immortals. […] During the fourth and fifth centuries, the influence of Taoism and Buddhism led artists to turn to nature in their desire to express themselves in a spiritual domain.
The early flowering plum in Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge was a symbol for the Chinese of integrity and endurance endurance in adversity. For landscape artists, plum blossom was considered a key symbolic feature, as Wen FongAs the earliest blooming of all trees, the plum comes into flower towards the end of winter and is therefore considered a harbinger of spring. Wen Fong again:
During the late Southern Sung, a decline in moral values gave rise to several popular themes in painting, one of which was the three friends of the wintry season: the early-blossoming plum, harbinger of spring; the bamboo, which bends but does not break; and the pine, green throughout the harsh winter — all symbolic of moral steadfastness and friendship in adversity.
Paintings like this one were not meant to be a realistic portrayal, but rather an attempt to create a visual poem – a visual representation of the artist’s relatively abstract feeling:
The eighth-century scholar-artist Wang Wei (699?-761?), because he had “ [combined] poetry in painting and painting in poetry,” was, according to Su Shih, the ideal painter. The eleventh-century scholar Shen Kua praised Wang Wei for his marvellous use of invented imagery. “In painting flowers, [Wang Wei] mixed peach and apricot blossoms, hibiscus and lotus, and flowers [of different seasons] in the same scene. . . . When something came to mind, the hand responded intuitively; when ideas connected, painting instantly took shape.
With regard to Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge, Wen Fong writes:
Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge, a small hanging scroll on silk by Wang Mien (1287-1359), exemplifies Yuan dynasty ink plum painting at its best. The composition, which follows a formula found in the fourteenth-century ink plum manual by Wu T ’ai-su (ca. 1351), shows a splendid old branch of plum laden with flowers pendant from the top of the scroll. The plum tree is rendered in different calligraphic brush-strokes: the snow-covered boughs in rough ‘flying white’ strokes, with streaks of white showing through a split brush; the curving branches in sweeping saber-like strokes; and the delicate blossoms and scattering petals in sharp outline strokes. Wang Mien stains the silk surface with a light ink wash, so that the snowy branches and silken blossoms stand out dramatically as in a moonlit scene. In the upper left is a poem composed and inscribed by the artist:
A plum tree in winter, with branches of white jade,
Stirred by a warm breeze, its scattering petals flutter like snowflakes.
In his heart, the Recluse of the Lonely Hill remains true to himself,
But someone has just passed the Broken Bridge, carrying with him the song of reed pipes.
It was at this time that Chen (Zen in Japanese) meditation philosophy became popular among educated Chinese. Chan painting – a visual aid to meditation – flourished, depicting landscapes, plants, or Chan saints. The literati revived an old idea – painting as wordless poetry and poetry as painting without images.
Because of the pale tones adopted by these artists in their attempt to capture the immateriality of all things, the style became known as ‘apparition painting’. It is exemplified in this exhibition by Qian Xuan’s Doves and Pear Blossoms After Rain (c. 1235), an achingly lyrical work whose subdued palette was intended to evoke Qian’s sorrow after the Song dynasty succumbed to the Mongols (who rule China – as the Yuan dynasty – from 1271 until the establishment of the Ming in 1368.
Ma Yuan, ‘Bare Willows and Distant Mountains’, c 1175-1200
Despite harsh political realities, the Song dynasty is a brilliant period in Chinese art that shaped Chinese culture for centuries. Alongside monumental landscape paintings that attempted to capture the sublime were the quieter, introspective images of the literati, and a taste for small and delicate studies of nature. All would serve as models for later artists, as would the quest for self-expression.
The Pursuit of Happiness 1400 – 1600
Zou Chen, ‘Dwelling by the Stream in Spring’, 1475 (click to enlarge)
The Ming dynasty (which would last from 1368 to 1644) was a stable and prosperous period in China during which an artistic explosion took place. As well as in Beijing in the north, major cities in the lower Yangzi River region such as Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou became important new centres for painting. The political stability and economic prosperity stimulated demand from all levels of society for paintings that would delight the eye and the heart. Painting on silk resumed its former popularity, expensive pigments reappeared on artists’ palettes, and images became increasingly decorative. Subject matter ranged from romantic characters or episodes in history and literature, through to topographical views of famous sites and gardens, rare animals and plants. Many pictures were made for seasonal festivals or other auspicious occasions.
Ren Renfa, (attrib), ‘The Four Pleasures – Music and Chess’, detail, c 1500
Paintings such as The Four Pleasures, a series illustrating the scholarly and gentlemanly pursuits of calligraphy, painting, music and chess attributed to Ren Renfa, reflect the demand for paintings for entertainment, enjoyment and as status symbols. Some paintings were nostalgic evocations of earlier periods, such as Qiu Ying’s Saying Farewell at Xunyang that illustrates a Tang dynasty poem about a poet demoted from his official role saying farewell to his friends before leaving for exile. It draws on the Tang dynasty’s fantastical blue and green landscapes to convey a fairytale quality.
Qiu Ying, ‘Saying Farewell at Xunyang’, c1515-52, details (click to enlarge)
Several of the works on show are examples of those commissioned by wealthy patrons. In Spring Clouds in the Linggu Mountains (c 1440-62), Dai Jin sets his patron’s villa in an idyllic landscape. His patron stands on the shore of a lake with servants who carry his zither and his books. In Dwelling by the Stream in Spring (1475), Zou Chen does the same, portraying his patron in an idyllic home.
Challenging the Past 1600 – 1900
Wang Hui, ‘The Colours of Mount Taihang’, 1669 (click to enlarge)
The second half of the 16th and the 17th century was an age of great artistic rivalry, especially in the fields of landscape painting and the depiction of animals and plants. Painters competed directly not only with their contemporaries, but with their predecessors as well. The most competitive of them entered into a life – long duel with the great masters of the past. Different strategies were adopted to achieve individual ambitions. Some painters were passionate students of the grand tradition of Chinese painting and were obsessed with a sense of mission as heirs to that heritage. Others took up the great subjects of the past, turning them into something entirely their own. In doing this they sought to prove they were as good as, if not better, than the old masters they so admired
Qingxiang Shi Tao, ‘Calligraphy and Painting’, 1696, detail
Qingxiang Shi Tao, one of the most outstanding landscape masters of his time, was passionate about painting bamboo. On his monumental scroll, Calligraphy and Painting, he quotes a description of Wen Tong, a famous 12th century bamboo painter: ‘He dallies amid bamboo in the morning, stays in the company of bamboo in the evening, drinks and eats amid the bamboo, and rests and sleeps in the shade of bamboo; having observed all the different aspects of the bamboo, he then exhausts all the bamboo’s many transformations’.
Shi Tao was born in 1642 and was related to the Ming imperial family. When the dynasty collapsed he was forced to escape from the Manchu persecution by seeking found refuge in a monastery where he became a Buddhist monk. He was best known for his paintings of landscape, bamboos and flowers, as well as his calligraphy in various styles.
The hanging scroll Calligraphy and Painting takes the form of a travelogue illustrating poems about experiences on his travels and comprises two parts: the upper part a poem and the lower part a painting. In the poem, Shi Tao expresses his longings for a tranquil life and friendship, while the painting depicts bamboo plants and chrysanthemum flowers, all done in light ink, the bamboo leaves like calligraphy.
‘Bamboo and Rocks’, Zheng Xie, c 1762
Another painting in this section that I enjoyed was Chen Hongshau’s Versifying under the Influence of Wine (1646), one of several eccentric paintings inspired by events in his own life.
Looking to the West, 1600-1900
European painting was introduced to China in the late 16th century by Jesuit missionaries. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the country was ruled by the Qing dynasty, European art became an increasingly significant force. Chinese court painters learnt of linear perspective and chiaroscuro, techniques which, modified to suit the Chinese aesthetic, were adopted to create the illusion of depth and light. One painting displayed here – Yangzi Riverscape (painted c 1660-70) is by Fan Qi, one of the first Chinese artists to paint a true horizon in the European style:
In earlier and most later Chinese painting, including most landscapes by Fan Qi himself, the meeting of earth or water with the sky is ambiguous and blurred by clouds and a misty vagueness. In fact, in the revolutionary horizon line here, which is about 75 centimetres long, there are only two short stretches of about 5 centimetres where sky and water really touch: at the three boat sails, and to the right of the tip of the tallest tree. Everywhere else, shoals and cliffs in pale grey and brown washes without contour lines appear behind the horizon, as if floating on it. It is as if Fan Qi was afraid to show directly the full implications of his line: the earth is round, and even the tallest mountain, if far enough away, sinks beneath the horizon.
– Kure Motoyuki, from the exhibition catalogue
Zhang Hong, ‘Zhi Garden’, details, 1627
Zhang Hong’s album of paintings of Zhi Garden has been selected as an example of a work reminiscent of European topographical prints in its depiction of perspectives and viewpoints. The work is displayed as a slideshow, and is a prelude to the final room that contains two of the most impressive artworks you are likely to see anywhere. Both are scrolls over 45 feet in length, displayed back to back along the length of the room. But there the similarity ends.
Xu Yang, ‘Prosperous Suzhou’, details, 1759 (click to enlarge)
Xu Yang’s Prosperous Suzhou is so detailed it seems to contain a whole world. It’s a panorama of urban life in Suzhou, commissioned by the Emperor. Studying it as you edge along the display case you become immersed in its astonishing detail. Everything is here: from the wharves on the river Yangtze, the bustle of workshops, streets and shops, to a student awards ceremony and an opera.
The painting it shares the space with, Flowers on the River by Bada Shanren, is something else entirely – an epic expressionist masterpiece painted in broad, loose brush strokes in 1672 when the artist was 72 that demonstrates a muscular freedom, and at the same time a delicacy in his handling of ink. Sections of it brought to mind Hockney’s recent work.
Bada Shanren, ‘Flowers on the River’, details, 1697
… in my picture,
A single lotus seed that is visible but does not exist.
Alas! The entire world is within my lotus.
Bada’s painting is reckoned to be autobiographical, a melancholic reflection on his life. Following the scroll from right to left, lotus flowers go from budding to full bloom and then to death; moving slowly along the scroll feels like walking along a river bank, a joyous sense of freedom conjured in Bada Shanren’s gestural brushstrokes. His poem at the end of the scroll concludes: ‘Happily singing my way, I immerse myself in the splashes of spring water and the sprays of flowers. East and west, south and north, after all, are the same.’
A contemporary of Bada wrote that the artist’s poems ‘were so strange that no one could understand them’, while his brushwork was ‘impulsively reckless’, adding that he did not stick to any established method, but ‘worked in a firm and often unrestrained manner.’ What we can see, 300 years on, is an artist stopping just short of pure abstraction.
Adrian Hamilton, in his review for the Independent reckoned this work was the highpoint of the show; I wouldn’t disagree:
Bada Shanren’s Flowers on the River, on loan from the Tianjin Museum, is an enormously long ink paper hand-scroll painted by the artist – prince and monk – in 1697 when he was 72. Its motif is the lotus in bud, in flower and in decay. Its mood is at once meditative and joyous, it’s brushwork expressionist and free as only a man approaching old age can encompass. I can only compare it to the later works of Titian and Matisse in the bravura pleasure of an artist let loose from the bonds of craft to imagine at will.
Ren Yi, ‘Portrait of Gao Yongzhi as a Calligraphy Beggar’, 1887
- Famous Chinese paintings: comprehensive online gallery
- Review: Independent
- Review: Telegraph
- Made in China: how landscape painting was invented in the east: Jonathan Jones, The Guardian
- Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900: a lavishly-illustrated blog post
- Prosperous Suzhou: fantastic electronic version that allows you study details of the scroll
- Prosperous Suzhou: video produced by the Hong Kong Museum of Art