Friday, 17 January 2014

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, is an amazing opportunity to see some of the most distinguished masterpieces of Chinese art lent by collections from around the world... and they really are masterpieces.

I was expecting a lot from this exhibition, and although the quality of the individual works was extremely high, I was left feeling a little unfulfilled by the exhibition as a whole – perhaps it was that most artists were represented by only a single work, or maybe I missed something of the bombast and quirkiness of the Japanese artists I am familiar with.

Taken overall, Chinese art of this period has a smoothness and balance that distinguishes it from Japanese art. Although some of the artists displayed great flair and originality, not to say dynamism, it is probably safe to say that there is a greater regularity in brushwork and tone in the work of Chinese painters than their Japanese counterparts.

But on to the works themselves – there were several that really stood out for me – two of which I had known for many years, but had only seen as reproductions, once again reminding me of the value of seeing art in the original.

The first piece that really struck me was one I hadn't seen before – The Summer Palace of Emperor Minghuang , traditionally ascribed to Guo Zhongshu, a 10th century painter of the Northern Sung, but actually thought to date somewhere between 1350-1400. Gorgeously mounted (as such paintings in Japanese museums often are – this one was on loan from the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, which still describes it quite confusingly as a work by Guo, while at the same time faulting the brushwork of the copyist and placing it as a late Yuan work), it shows the height of technique of late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty painters.

Looking at a painting like this, one can understand why academic painters sought to reproduce the skills of their forebears, especially the painters of the Song Dynasty. Superbly painted in line, the detail and modulation of tone seemed faultless; the dim light and glass in front of the work may have prevented me from seeing the way in which 'the fine details have been somewhat corrupted' - I think I need to see a real work by Guo to assess that. As far as I was concerned, the finesse of the detail goes down as far as the eye can take it, yet it never threatening to overwhelm the larger dynamics of the composition.

The highlight of the exhibition was the Nine Dragon Scroll (1244) painted some 100 years earlier, by Chen Rong (1189-1268). It was displayed to show its full length, some five metres or so. I suppose the thing that first struck me  was its size – or more particularly, the size of the dragons. Having only seen fairly small reproductions, I had imagined it was somewhat smaller than it actually was.

Size is actually quite an interesting element of Chinese art. Chinese books often failed to print the dimensions of works, and this is, in many cases, a deliberate policy to prevent accurate copies being made. Likewise, colours are often misreproduced, once again making accurate copying impossible. Artistic legitimacy and secrecy for its own sake are deeply embedded in the culture.

For me, as usual, the chance to see the way the artist had painted the work was what was most interesting. Chen had  employed a dry brush technique – something I hadn't seen used to this degree before – with great skill, combining it with darker and lighter lines in wet ink for most of the 'drawn' features. The painting of the waves allowed quite a degree of insight into Chen's painting methods. He used dabbing strokes, almost like a dotted line, rather than the single flourish non-painters often imagine is employed. The lines on the torrent as it rushes forth from the rock are more forceful – here, too, they were painted with light ink first, sometimes over-brushed with darker ink.

These two details show some of the techniques used in these paintings.

This was clearly a painting that required some degree of planning and careful attention to detail through much of its execution, and yet Chen Rong himself wrote about receiving inspiration through drink, and his contemporaries wrote of how he spattered ink and would even sometimes use his hat to scrub at the ink, sometimes tearing the paper – evidence of both these can be seen in this scroll – but it is far from being 'dashed off'. This is the result of many hours of concentration: each individual dragon displays meticulous brushwork in the delineation of the scales. Some of the effects, certainly, require a degree of abandonment, and this may have been of a more spiritual variety rather than alcohol induced; it is quite possible that he planned the work or made initial sketches for it in such a state, and the theme of 'Bohemian' habits among artists is often commented upon in Chinese and Japanese artistic traditions – the Chinese tradition stretched back to painters such as Wang Mo, who painted with his head, feet and hands, as well as his brush, creating a semi-abstract underlay upon which he apparently built his paintings (none survive today).

Another work that grabbed my attention was Chen Patriarch Harmonising his Mind (13th century), one of a pair traditionally attributed to Shi-ke, a painter of the 10th century. This is an often reproduced painting, and one I had seen on many occasions in books – to be honest, I had not been particularly struck by it. Seeing the actual work was a very different experience. The ink had a particular rich and vibrant quality to it, and though it was powerful and dynamic, like Chen Rong's painting, it had not simply been dashed off on the spur of the moment – a powerful artistic intelligence was at work here. The strong black accents jump out against the saturated grey of the robe; while the contrast of the delicate features of the face and the pale head against the light wash of the background give it an unexpected subtlety.

I was not the only one who was impressed: Brian Sewell, the acerbic critic of the London Evening Standard commented on this painting:
"...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."
It is probably the finest example of 'Zen' style painting I have seen, with all the elements that are typical of later Japanese 'Zen painting', especially the powerful, 'spontaneous' brushwork and it is not surprising that this style became emblematic of Zen painting in Japan. Perhaps what I find most inspiring is that this style, this approach, is not solely aesthetic. It has spiritual and philosophic dimensions. Abstract expressionism in the 20th century explored some of the same ground, and sometimes with conscious reference to east-Asian traditions; here, in a small work some 700 years old was a power and vibrancy those painters would have been proud to achieve.

There was much more in the exhibition, and I am sure that others with different interests would have highlighted a different selection of works. Many of the works speak to more recent preoccupations of artists, yet often deriving from very different histories or concerns. Yet for any lover of painting, there should be something to give food for thought.