Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900 at the V&A
Years of research and negotiation have gone into what the V&A curator describes as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see all these works together. The exhibition is rightly entitled Masterpieces, as the range of high quality and rare treasures is quite awesome, many borrowed and shown in Europe for the first time. Paintings from the earliest centuries to the brink of Western influences trace the extraordinary beauty and ideals of Chinese art.
The accompanying catalogue book is full of the scholarship and background about the making of each work and its place in the history of China, both cultural and social, as well as how the artists influenced each other. The history of Chinese art emerges from anonymous religious banners to works by individually named artists with highly developed styles. Chinese art, even over more than a millennium, could be characterised as sheer elegance, with landscapes at once realistic and idealised, and a poetic feel for natural gesture.
Covering a vast 1200 years of art, we see the progression of a culture and many insights into Chinese life. Especially intriguing are the scroll paintings: several wonderful panoramic views of places, real and imagined, which stretch the length of the galleries. Flowers on the River is one of the longest paintings in the world at 14 meters, made in the 17th century by Bada Shanren, and even now looks remarkably modern and abstract. Another fascinating scroll, Prosperous Suzhou by Xu Yang, shows in intricate detail an 18th century Chinese city and all its daily activity.
The exhibition design is dark and muted, with the works well spaced out and glowing in careful lighting, emphasising their preciousness and fragility. Indeed, it is amazing that such early treasures exist at all, many in wonderful condition.
Accompanying the exhibition is an enlightening video of a contemporary Chinese artist recreating a piece in the classical style, revealing the processes and intricate skill of their making. Although the art exhibited ends at 1900, there is a commissioned contemporary response by Xu Bing installed in the V&A garden area (opening on 2nd November) – a constructed idealised landscape.
Photos: Adnan Moe
Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 26th October 2013 until 19th January 2014. For further information visit the V&A’s website here.