The V&A’s latest exhibition is an intriguing survey of 1,200 years of Chinese painting, from some of its earliest surviving examples up until the modern period, when the European influence was just beginning to be felt. If this sounds daunting, take comfort – there are actually only 70 pieces to see, so you won’t be drowned in hanging scrolls and inky landscapes. You will be immersed in a world of beautifully composed paintings offering all the delicacy of the Oriental aesthetic. And you will leave knowing a lot more than you did when you arrived.
As in the European tradition, the earliest Chinese art was born of religion, and composed anonymously. During the Tang dynasty, votive painting took place in the remote Dunhuang region, out of reach of the royal court at a time when Buddhism was outlawed. Intricate silk banners and screens were painted or embroidered as offerings, or for use in the liturgy. Exquisitely detailed images of Buddha, his lesser-known incarnations, and of his celestial helpers, the Asparas, abound. A particular treat is Bodhisattva in Monastic Dress Standing at Prayer (c.950), a double-sided ceremonial banner in hues of gold and red, hung here as originally intended, in a three-dimensional display.
The Song dynasty, from 950–1250, saw a move away from the devotional and into the secular. Paintings were created for official buildings and their subject matter was taken mainly from nature. Artists were still anonymous. Owners stamped works with their own seal. The hanging scroll was invented in this period, and subdued landscapes where nature dwarfed man gave way to views in which man began to tame nature, seen in villages and homesteads set against mountains. Noteworthy is Sima Yu’s Dream of the Courtesan Su Xiaoxiao (1200–25), a representation of a story popular at the time, in which a scholar falls in love with the spirit of an ancient seductress. This stands out as the only nod towards the naughtier side of ancient Chinese art, in which even I know there is plenty of hardcore erotica.
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