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Presenting one of the world’s greatest artistic traditions, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 - 1900 will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see rare surviving works of art drawn from collections around the world. Explore over 70 of the finest examples of Chinese painting, from small-scale intimate works by monks and literati through to a 14-metre-long scroll painting, many of which are shown together for the first time.
Charting the evolving styles and subjects of painting over a 1200 year period, the exhibition includes figure paintings on silk for religious sites, landscape painting and the introduction of Western influences. A significant number of these masterpieces have never been exhibited in the UK before, from banners, albums and scrolls created for a variety of settings to the materials that reveal the traditional process and techniques of painting on silk.
The exhibition will begin by exploring paintings made for religious purposes during the Tang and Five Dynasties periods. Most surviving works from this early period are Buddhist banners and screens, painted on silk and characterised by their bright colours. The double-sided ceremonial banner Bodhisattva in Monastic Dress Standing at Prayer showing a sacred and enlightened figure will be hung as a three-dimensional display, allowing it to be appreciated as originally intended. Not all the works in this section are Buddhist; the illustrated manuscript The Five Planets and Twenty-Eight Constellations, attributed to Zhang Sengyou, is one of the earliest handscrolls depicting ancient astrological deities.
This section looks at the growing enthusiasm for the natural world and the rise of landscape painting. Realistic observations of mountain and river scenes, plants and animals, fishermen and travellers, the cycle of the seasons, changing weather and the shifting qualities of natural light were all subjects favoured by artists. These compelling images of the real world also saw a shift to a more monochrome aesthetic. Monumental yet meticulously detailed landscapes like Yan Wengui’s Landscape with Pavilions will be shown alongside intimate, poetic fan paintings. This section also includes the celebrated Nine Dragons by Chen Rong, in which mythical creatures cavort amidst clouds, water and mountains.
The most striking innovations of this period came from groups of monks and scholars, who encapsulated painting, calligraphy and poetry within their works. These artists did not paint for official commissions but for private display instead. Under Mongol rule, many lived in reclusion and channelled their inner thoughts through contemplative works. In Wang Mian’s Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge, the early flowering plum signifies purity and endurance in adversity. A powerfully expressive style of brushwork also developed, as seen in the spontaneous Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonizing their Minds attributed to Shi Ke. Black ink on white paper became the medium for the aesthetic of solitude.
An artistic explosion took place in the stable and prosperous Ming dynasty, stimulating demand from all levels of society for painting such as Four Pleasures attributed to Ren Renfa – a series illustrating scholarly pursuits of calligraphy, painting, music and chess. Many southern cities like Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou became new centres for painting, and artists returned to working on silk and using expensive pigments to produce decorative pictures for seasonal, festive and auspicious occasions. Some paintings were nostalgic evocations of earlier periods, such as Qiu Ying’s Saying Farewell at Xunyang that draws on the Tang dynasty’s blue and green landscapes to convey a fairytale quality.
Challenging the Past will explore an age of artistic rivalry when painters competed with both their contemporaries and predecessors. Some were passionate students who identified themselves as heirs to the grand tradition of Chinese painting. Dong Qichang demonstrated his art historical expertise by paying homage to various Song dynasty masters in his Twin Marvels of Calligraphy and Painting. Others re-imagined conventional subjects to prove their worth to the old masters. As one of the longest paintings in the world, the 14-metre-long Flowers on the River by Bada Shanren shows his superb and intricate handling of ink even at age 72.
Finally, Looking to the West will examine the impact of European painting on China. European art and its techniques like linear perspective and chiaroscuro became increasingly influential in the 18th and 19th centuries. The exceptionally long Prosperous Suzhou, depicting a bustling urban life by court painter Xu Yang, noticeably draws on Western perspective. Fascination with European painting was not confined to the court. In Portrait of Gao Yongzhi as a Calligraphy Beggar, Ren Yi depicted an eye in profile naturalistically – a first in Chinese figure painting. The availability of imported prints and illustrated books in major cities also exposed Chinese painters to previously unknown techniques and subject matter.