International Herald Tribune, MARCH 2, 2006
A show heavy on China, light on art
By Souren Melikian
LONDON When governments refashion art as a propaganda tool, the outcome
is rarely felicitous, and if this is done at the behest of outsiders to
the culture, catastrophe is inevitable.
No specialist knowledge is needed to realize the moment you step in that
the subject of the mammoth show "China, The Three Emperors, 1662-1795,"
at the Royal Academy until April 17, is the power of China, not art. The
word does not appear in the title. Nor is there much in these rooms,
cluttered as they are, that sends back even a modest reflection of one
of the greatest artistic cultures in the world.
The equally enormous but infinitely more interesting book edited by the
American historian Evelyn Rawski and the British scholar in Chinese art
Jessica Rawson describes the disaster that befell China when the Ming
dynasty crumbled in the late 1640s, under the onslaught of the Jurchen.
This Asian people, which sprang up from the steppes northeast of
Beijing, is known in Chinese history as the Manchu.
Rawski analyzes the carefully managed separation of the ruling circle of
Manchu chiefs, the bannermen, and the civilian population. Although not
based on ethnic affiliations - many native Chinese speakers had gone
over to the Jurchen challengers of the Ming and become integrated with
the bannermen - this meant that China was ruled by an alien occupying power.
In Beijing, the bannermen lived in the Inner City and the Han civilians
in the Outer City. Intermarriage was forbidden with few exceptions. The
American historian underlines the contrast between the Ming period, when
imperial princes were kept away from government affairs, and the Qing
dynasty, founded by the Manchus who entrusted all key positions to
kinsmen and bannermen.
Even more significantly, while the Chinese-populated areas were
administered by a Ming-style bureaucracy, the Kangxi emperor appointed
bannermen to run the affairs of the Manchu homeland as well as Mongolia,
with which the Manchus had close affinities. When Turkestan finally was
conquered in 1759, it too was ruled by a bannerman. China effectively
became an international empire with two different government systems.
The Manchus retained their customs and took care to preserve their
language. Manchu became one of the two official languages of government.
In the Beijing Palace school, Mongolians were encouraged to learn
Manchu, and Manchu princes, in turn, learned Mongolian. In Mongolia
where Buddhism had been introduced by Tibetan missionaries, the primary
language of liturgy and culture was Tibetan. Beijing became a publishing
center of Manchu, Mongolian and Tibetan texts in addition to its vast
Chinese literary production.
It is against this background of multiculturalism and foreign dominance
that the changes which remodeled official art, and the acceptance of
massive influence from faraway Europe, can be understood.
Suddenly a new style of imperial portraiture invariably following the
same formulaic model invaded the court. The staring faces of seated
characters observed with meticulous attention to physiognomy and detail,
and yet singularly lifeless and uniform, greeted visitors to the
Imperial Palace as they do, alas, in the show. They were painted by
anonymous hacks who had little in common with the great masters of
Chinese painting. Harsh outlines and flat colors, intense by Chinese
standards, broke with tradition.
So did the emphasis on documentary precision. The portrait of the
Qianlong emperor (1735-1796) clad in imperial costume and an actual
imperial dragon robe displayed nearby allow viewers to verify the
rigorous accuracy with which the nameless artists crafted these worthy
forerunners of the posters of President Mao as the Great Helmsman.
Presumably, the equally anonymous hand scrolls commissioned to celebrate
military conquest or record official events extolling imperial might and
majesty were just as faithful in their rendition of pageantry and urban
setting. Long vanished structures, gardens, costumes and customs are
thus preserved for posterity. Sadly, they are so overladen with detail
and often look so similar that the most diligent student quickly loses
his footing in this surging sea of dummylike characters.
One wonders what the Kangxi, Yongzheng (1723-1735) or Qianlong emperors,
all of whom attained a high degree of art connoisseurship, really
thought of these propaganda tools - a question not raised in the
exhibition book. Kangxi was a calligrapher in his own right. A scroll in
the show reproduces a Tang poem written by the emperor around 1703 in a
script following the style of Dong Qichang (1555-1636). He must surely
have looked contemptuously at works that violated every rule in the book
of calligrapher-painters, urged in the Chinese literati tradition to
allow the pen to flow freely.
The case of Qianlong is even more intriguing. In a remarkable chapter,
Gerald Holzwarth paints the portrait of the most passionate imperial
collector who ever existed in any culture. He was a bit of a painter
himself, and a writer whose collected works printed between 1749 and
1800 include more than 40,000 poems. The emperor's jades alone -
unfortunately not in the show, they are all in Taiwan - inspired 840
poems, most of which were actually inscribed on the objects. These
reveal a deeply sensitive response to the art. What did he really think
of such paintings?
Like his predecessor Yongzheng, Qianlong retained at court the services
of Giuseppe Castiglione, who had been initiated to the Chinese painting
technique. The Jesuit father produced hand scrolls in a hybrid style
betraying the intrusion of Western aesthetics. Mostly gaudy and cheap,
they qualify as exotic kitsch. What were Qianlong's true feelings about
a painting that depicts him in the hunting field? Despite the Chinese
nom de plume with which Castiglione signed his hand scrolls - Lang
Shining - Qianlong, who was familiar with the fabulous Song and Ming
treasures of the imperial collection can hardly have been overwhelmed.
Some of the Western objets d'art made for the Chinese court raise even
more pressing questions. The presence in the Palace collection of pieces
such as a gilt bronze crane, which carries on its back a pavilion
enclosing a clock by James Cox, implies at the very least a tolerance,
probably even some sort of approval of this object of roaring vulgarity.
European-inspired Chinese variants were not much better. A four-sided
piece topped by a dome derived from some German or French table clock is
grotesquely ill-proportioned. With its gaudy yellow cloisonné enamel
pattern, it belongs in the category of deluxe Oriental bazaar ware.
Most intriguing is the vast array of objects that seem to make a mockery
of the Chinese heritage. A pair of dark green jade incense burners in
the form of seated felines roaring ferociously or two cranes in
cloisonné enamels look like props from a kung fu movie set.
The innumerable revivalist objects suggest that there was a strong
yearning for a lost past. They invariably fail to recapture the vigor or
the subtle magic of earlier times. A porcelain pear-shaped decanter
copying the 14th- and early 15th-century type does not quite manage to
reproduce the decorative patterns of the same period. An unfortunate
combination of a brick red design with a deep yellow ground makes things
a lot worse.
The Qing potters even looked back to the Tang age. A rare imitation of
eighth-century two-handled jars that is decorated with a pale lavender
blue glaze may have been seen as a great curiosity - in Tang times, the
model came with sancai, three-color, enamels or with a colorless glaze
on the ivory slip. Alas, the molding is weak and the color sickly.
No decadence process is uniform. In the midst of hideous objects (of
which there is a surfeit in the show), there were also ravishing
creations. In the show, a cylindrical brush pot painted with bamboo and
magnificent calligraphy by Gao Fenghan (1683-1748/9) may owe its
inspiration to 12th-century painting of the Song dynasty, but it remains
Why so few of the finer works of the 18th century are included adds one
more mystery to an exhibition seemingly put together with a passion for
historical discourse matched by indifference to art.
With the resources of the Palace Museum in Beijing wide open to the
organizers, the Royal Academy show should have been fantastic. Instead,
it does little more than satisfy an appetite for banal exoticism.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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