Season 1, episode 10
This episode gives a unique insight into the new V&A exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900. The Exhibition Curator Hongxing Zhang is in conversation with Glenn Adamson, and Craig Clunas, a specialist in Chinese art history from The University of Oxford. The broad range and diversity of materials and techniques in the exhibition is discussed, as well as highlights from the show such as a fourteen metre scroll displayed in its full length for the first time.
GA: Welcome to the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, head of research at the V&A. In this episode we’ll be talking about Chinese Art at the museum. China lays claim to one of the oldest and most complex artistic traditions anywhere in the world. At the V&A we have many great works form this culture in our permanent collection including textiles, porcelains and contemporary design. This autumn the museum is doing something very special: looking outside its own collection to bring together outstanding examples of Chinese painting from the beginning of the eight to the end of the nineteenth century. From small-scale works by Monks to scroll paintings over fourteen metres long, it will be the first comprehensive show on Chinese paintings seen in the UK since the 1930s. Here to talk about the V&A’s exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting is the show’s curator, Hongxing Zhang, and Professor Craig Clunas of Oxford University, who is one of the world’s leading specialists in the art history of China. Professor Clunas is also preparing an exhibition about the early Ming dynasty which will be on view at the British Museum in the autumn of 2014. So Hongxing, let’s start with you. Can you begin by describing to our listeners a little about what they will see in this exhibition?
HZ: This exhibition, as you mentioned in the introduction, is a loan exhibition. We borrowed seventy nine objects and paintings from representative collections in the world: from Japan, Europe and American museums to show the variety of painting styles and periods, by different artists in different subject matters and approaches. Also, as you mentioned before that, the scales of the paintings are really wide-ranging. From intimate album leaf handheld fans to spectacular hanging scrolls - one of them measures fourteen metres and another measures twelve metres long. It’s quite a big, wide range.
GA: Hongxing, with works of this size, are you saying that visitors will actually be able to see the entire scroll, all fourteen metres in length?
HZ: Yes. There have been technical problems for our designers and our curators but we have made our best efforts to show some of the hand scrolls in their full length. For example, the fourteen metre long scroll by a seventeenth century monk painter is shown in full length.
GA: Fantastic. Craig, what advice would you give to people who come to visit the show and may have no previous experience with Chinese art? What might they expect to see that they wouldn’t see, for example, in an exhibition of European oil paintings?
CC: My advice would be don’t try and reduce it all to one thing. I think an important point Hongxing made is about the variety of this material and if people go in there thinking there’s a thing called Chinese painting they’ll come away confused because what you’ve got here is a very broad variety. It’s very broad in period, it’s very broad in style, it’s very broad in function and it’s very broad in the context in which these works were looked at. Imagine an exhibition called Masterpieces of European Painting; you wouldn’t expect to come out of it with a definition of European painting. I think the most important thing is that people come out of this with a sense of variety and they might think ‘well I really like that,’ and ‘I didn’t like that’ and that’s going to be ok.
GA: The formats that Hongxing talked about, scrolls for example, that is quite different from European art, so that is one thing that people will certainly see that might be new to them.
CC: The physical formats are going to be different. And I think the other thing they should bear in mind is that the original contexts of viewing for which these things were created are very different from the contexts that we’re seeing them in a museum today. So there would be no expectation that these things would ever have been viewed in the context of such a large number put together. The idea of the very large exhibition, as with Europe, is a relatively modern one, and certainly at the time that these paintings were painted people would have been expected to look at a small number of them in concentrated detail. For example, with things like the big hand scrolls, I think it’s fantastic that we’re going to be able to see the whole thing but we need to remember that people would not ever have viewed them in that way. They would have viewed them sequentially, looking at a segment at a time, and therefore there’s an element of time and duration which is part of the act of viewing that’s worth thinking about as well.
GA: Hongxing, another thing that’s different about Chinese art is the materials. I mentioned oil paintings, maybe the most important medium for European art. In the case of Chinese painting we often think of it as being painted in ink. I know you are very interested in the materials of Chinese art, can you say a little bit about what people will see in that regard?
HZ: Again, I would emphasis diversity and also historical changes; these are perhaps the two key words for people to look for in the exhibition. For example, the Chinese painters in general, before the twelfth century – I am putting this in very simplistic terms –had painted polychrome rather than monochrome. There is an aesthetic shift and the exhibition tries also to feature this shift from polychrome to monochrome. Also there’s a shift from silk painting to paper and from, say, bright colours and meticulous style to more abstract style. There are histories about these shifts, about these diversities - that’s something we try to show in this exhibition.
GA: So that’s a little bit about how to approach this exhibition from the level of someone new to the material. Craig, obviously you’re an expert in this material, how do you look at a show like this? How would you expect to use it?
CC: It’s challenging in the sense that what we’re going to do in the exhibition is look. So I’ll be very conscious of the difference between the kinds of viewing experience that you can have today and the kinds of Ming viewing experience which very much involved tactility as well: it involved a handling of the object. And that’s true of the hanging scrolls as much as it is of hand scrolls; hanging scrolls weren’t hung on walls and looked at by people standing back they were often held up by servants, they were held up on a big bamboo prong by serpents and the viewers would be physically engaging, holding the bottom etc. Now that has a great deal to do with the composition of the thing; if you look at a Ming painting for example, and imagine that the middle of it is often an empty space in a painting and all the action is taking place down in the bottom third. That’s to do with the patterns of viewing the thing that people had at the time – holding the bottom of it and getting up close and personal with that. So, that’s not reproducible in the modern context but I will be thinking of those kinds of issues.
GA: Craig, another thing that people would do to engage with those paintings is write on them, which is perhaps surprising to us from a European point of view, that a later owner of a painting, for example, might put their name and perhaps a poem or other text on the scroll. Can you say a little bit about that tradition?
CC: Yes, certain kinds of paintings will have a kind of biography of the object inscribed on them in the sense of the seals of separate owners and people who have owned these things over a number of years, and that does strike us as a kind of difference with a European tradition where the provenance is made visible that way. It certainly enriches the painting from the point of view of Chinese owners. It can spoil it as well; paintings that have been in the imperial collections in the eighteenth century have got imperial collection seals all over them. Some connoisseurs nowadays will say well it’s a shame the Qianlong emperor stuck so many seals on the thing! It just spoiled it!
HZ: That’s interesting, and in the exhibition what we tried to do is really to reverse that, to reconstruct the original state of the artwork. In one of the sections, we digitally removed Qianlong’s seal inscription and other Ming collectors’ seals from a painting from the Metropolitan museum. We have an image of the painting that we hope portrays the original state when the painting was made and shows the difference visually from how it looks now.
CC: That’s really interesting; I’m really looking forward to seeing that. But of course one of the things is did the artist leave space imagining that there would be inscriptions? Maybe not by the Qianlong emperor who you couldn’t possibly imagine but I think it’s an interesting idea and a constructive use of digital technology to give us a new view of the thing, I’m looking forward to that.
GA: Hongxing, one thing I mentioned in my introduction is the fact that this will be the first comprehensive exhibition of Chinese paintings seen in Britain for a very long time - since the 1930s I believe. Can you say something about why that is? Why such a long period of time when the public has not seen works from this great tradition in such depth?
HZ: Yes. The 1930s exhibition coincided with the modernist movement in Britain, or in Europe in general, when people looked for inspiration. Chinese paintings and Japanese paintings were favoured at the time, but then the Cold war happened, then pop art and on the Chinese side propaganda posters and propaganda socialist art, so really there was no chance to look at the Chinese painting tradition as a whole. And from the 60s, 70s and 80s onwards - as Craig touched upon previously - it’s about specialisation and only after the early twenty first century - our century - do people now think about taking a more comparative perspective; to look at their own tradition and other people’s tradition. So this becomes really a part of this consciousness about comparison, about global perspective.
GA: Another question I had for you Hongxing was about our collections, because as I also said in my introduction, we have a truly important and large collection of Chinese art in many areas but we actually don’t have very many paintings in the collection. I’m wondering why that is?
HZ: We do have Chinese paintings but different kinds of Chinese paintings. Craig has worked on a research project and published on export watercolours that were made by Chinese artisans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the European and British market, and we have a large collection of these. Recently, scholars pay much more attention to this type of material and to see how and whether these practices for the English market had an impact on domestic practice, for example. But this is really out of the scope of this exhibition.
CC: There is quite a large body of Chinese painting within the Victoria and Albert museum; it’s just that most of it isn’t real. The confidence that our predecessors felt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when it came to acquiring works of Chinese painting was not necessarily born out in reality. So there are paintings in the V&A collection that the catalogue says are by major artists of the Ming and Xing period, there are famous examples that are just not genuine. The connoisseurship of ceramics that people had in the 1930s - this standard was very high – meant that there are very few outright fakes in the ceramic collection but the painting collection is not like that.
GA: I see, so it’s not that they didn’t try?
CC: No. They tried they just didn’t succeed!
GA: Ok. And it’s very interesting, therefore, that the one area of authentic paintings that we have were the ones that perhaps the Chinese themselves didn’t regard as highly at the time and sent out of the country.
GA: Craig, you were a curator at the V&A with us some years back, in fact, you helped to plan the T. T. Tsui gallery, the permanent collection gallery of Chinese are at the museum. I believe it was some time in the late 80s or early 90s? Can you tell us about that gallery and also how you feel when you go back and look at it today?
CC: Well I’m still proud of it. I’d point out that it was a team effort; it was done by a team of people from what was at that point still called the Far Eastern department. I’m still proud of it. I think like all galleries it shows its age. I think it was an important step in the museums development towards styles of display which looked at historical context and which didn’t simply see a set of formal, stylistic developments bounded within categories like: ceramics, metalwork and textiles but looked across and thought about context of use and so on. Like any gallery, I think it’s showing its age. I think probably there is too much set in it. I think we probably went a bit overboard with set...
GA: Do you mean set design?
CC: ... Set design. Nobody would be more delighted than me if the museum found a generous donor to enable colleagues of the present day to do it again, because I think a great collection like that does need to be refreshed every so often. But I still think that we learnt a lot about the collection by doing it that way and basically I don’t have any regrets, but like anything it’s showing its age.
GA: How about the show that you’re doing at the British Museum next year on the Ming dynasty? Can you talk about your approach to that as a curator?
CC: The importance of the overview that Hongxing talked about; I think that’s really important. But, at the same time, I think it’s important that we do what we’re doing in the Ming show, which is to focus. I think people now are ready to see, not something called ‘China,’ but to see specific moments in China’s history. This looks at a very particular moment in China’s history – the half century between 1400 and 1450 – when the Ming dynasty is particularly engaged with the outside world in all sorts of ways and things are flowing in and things are flowing out. It looks at flows of objects and connectivity in that period. It looks as well at some of the ways in which that particular period sets things that we think of as modern China: the location of the capital, what the national standard language is, these are things that came in to being at this period. It’s true to say that it’s an exhibition which is focused on a historical moment, rather than an aesthetic tradition, and I think that it’s absolutely wonderful that these two great museums are able to do two big, utterly important and very different shows – that is a sign of maturity. There is no one way of looking at China; we can’t just get it through one frame of reference. This is as you said, a very long tradition, very complex, very diverse and we need loads and loads of different ways of doing it. We can’t say ‘Oh we did China’, we can’t have that anymore. We have to keep engaged.
GA: Hongxing, one of the unique features of the show that we’re doing at the V&A is what you might call the ‘technical art history of it’, in other words, the analysis of works from a physical point of view as well as a historical point of view or on the basis of their imagery. Can you say something about that?
HZ: The reasons for looking at and to emphasis the technical material aspects of Chinese painting are several. Most importantly, as the curator of this exhibition, I realised that Chinese paintings really need to be looked at closely and one way to invite people to look closely at original work is to invite them to think about, and give them the background about how these paintings were made in their own times. What are the approaches that the artists from different periods and areas take? What are the considerations that the artists took when they prepared to make a work? Secondly, the V&A is really the right place to contemplate making and I was inspired when I was planning this concept by many European galleries -from stained glass, to jewellery, and miniatures. They gave me the confidence to approach the painting and the story of Chinese art from this angle. So, we include in the exhibition something quite unusual - unusual for Chinese painting exhibitions in China or America, for example. We have a block of dried ultramarine blue of the tenth or eleventh century which has never really been seen before.
GA: So this is a block of the colour that the artist would actually have used?
GA: And how do we know that that would have been used by an artist? Why isn’t it just a rock?
HZ: It is ground, ready-made pigments, discovered below murals in a cave now identified as an artists’ workshop/storeroom of kind.
GA: So, fascinating stories of materials and techniques as well as the artworks themselves. I wonder whether we can finish gentleman, by asking each of you, perhaps Craig first, to pull out one work from this show. We’ve been talking about the great variety of the exhibition, so maybe it’s time to get specific. If you could just pick one painting and describe it first of all, and then tell us a little bit about why you think it’s so fascinating?
CC: Well one work I’m really looking forward to seeing is something that I have taught about and published about a number of times but I’ve never seen it for real. It’s an anonymous portrait of the Ming artist Shen Zhou who died in 1509. This is a painting done by an artisan. We don’t know his name but it’s a meticulously realist portrait of this man who by then was in his eighties. On it, Shen Zhou has put an inscription, which deals with the whole issue of illusion and reality – ‘do I really look like this?’ – and it reminds us, apart from anything else, that people in the fifteenth century and early sixteenth century didn’t have the kind of mirrors that we have today and didn’t really know what they looked like. So he’s contemplating towards the end of his life: ‘is this who I really am?’ and ‘is this what I really am for?’ And it gives us a sense of paintings as playing a role in peoples understanding of the world and understandings of the universe which is very profound. It’s a very beautiful and moving thing.
GA: Hongxing how about you?
HZ: I would choose a late eighteenth century painting, painted in 1797 by a young artist from Yangzhou called Luo Ping, the subject is ghosts. It’s a very small shot by Chinese standards and is a horizontal hand scroll. What surprises me is that most of the images of ghosts were drawn from the sources of Chinese traditions but at the far left-hand– because the Chinese are viewing scrolls from right to left –the last image is of an animated skeleton which is obviously not Chinese and is European. Thanks to Joanna Woodall at the Courtauld Institute and her research in to early seventeenth century Dutch prints and, in particular, the album by Hendrick Hondius published in 1610 - the album of great masters, on the last page is the same image of the skeleton. I am very grateful for that research and am very lucky to be able to identify that as the source for this skeleton in the eighteenth century artist’s work. There are so many intriguing questions still to be answered. For example, Luo Ping was not a court painter, and therefore, not working in the court where those that did have the opportunity to possibly meet Jesuit missionaries like Castiglione. How did he get hold of the European prints when he was in Yangzhou?
GA: So many questions still to answer in this field and I think it’s also important to hear stories like that, that show - not only that Chinese artists have this depth of reflection on themselves that you would find in any artistic tradition, but also this tradition of Chinese art as porous and has always been open to other parts of the world; so, in some ways, perhaps anticipating the discussions about globalism that we had today. Thank you both very, very much for that up-close look at Chinese art at the V&A - Craig Clunas and Hongxing Zhang. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this discussion and I also hope that you’ll join us again next time for another episode of the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes at the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com