Sydney Morning Herald Column

Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art

Published February 22, 2019

Instead of asking: “How are you?”, the Chinese might greet you with words: “Have you eaten?” If ever one required confirmation of the Chinese love of food please note that the most famous and popular works in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are two miraculous carvings: one of a cabbage, the other a piece of cooked pork. The gift shop of the museum overfloweth with souvenir reproductions of these miniature icons.

Therefore it came as a surprise when I visited the NPM a couple of weeks ago and found that both cabbage and meat were away on loan. Imagine the dismay of the thousands of mainland Chinese that flood into the museum on a daily basis upon discovering its two greatest drawcards were missing.

China’s loss is Sydney’s gain because one of these morsels may be found at the Art Gallery of NSW, in the exhibition, Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Looking at the show this week I was surprised by the relative lack of attention being devoted to the Meat-shaped stone. A whole row of viewers had turned their backs on the tiny sculpture in order to study an epic scroll painting, Along the river during the Qingming Festival by Shen Yuan (1736-95).

Shen Yian, ‘Along the river during the Qingming Festival’ (detail), Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911

It would be hard to draw any conclusions on the basis of one afternoon’s observations, but it may be that local audiences are less excited by a sculptor’s ability to make stone look exactly like meat, than by the skill of an artist who can sustain a landscape of almost 12 metres, complete with trees, lakes, houses and hundreds of tiny figures, drawn with the utmost precision by the tip of a brush. It’s the power of invention that grabs these viewers, not verisimiltude.

Such work may sound mind-boggling but there are many items in this exhibition that display comparable degrees of skill, patience and inspiration. The core collection of the NPM was assembled by generations of Chinese emperors, who sought to acquire the very best pieces, employing the leading artists and artisans of every age. It was not until 1925, 13 years after the fall of the Qing dynasty, that a public museum was established in the Forbidden City.

Meat-shaped stone, Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911

By 1933, as the Japanese invasion closed in on the capital the collection began to be packed up and evacuated to different locations. Eventually the works found their way to Taiwan, where the Guomindang had retreated in response to escape the Communist advance. The collection has remained in Taipei ever since, acting as a constant bone of contention between the island and the mainland.

Exhibitions drawn from the NPM’s holdings have been held in the United States and Europe, but this is the first time a selection has been sent to Australia. The show arrives at a time of growing tension between China and the west, but it would be wrong to see this event as a provocation. On the contrary, it acts as a reminder of the strength and longevity of Chinese culture which has outlasted thousands of years of political upheavals.

The oldest pieces in the show are a Cong tube and a Bi disc, made from nephrite jade, which date back to 3,200 – 2,200 BCE. The former is kind of tower divided into box-like segments, the latter a smooth disc with a hole in the centre. These objects were used for ritual purposes but nowadays the details of those rituals are a mystery.

Bi disc, Liangzhu culture, 3200-2200 BCE

The catalogue entry associates the tube with the earth, and the disc with heaven. This kind of symbolism is not difficult to discern, given the extensive use of symbols throughout the history of Chinese art. Every animal, every plant, seems to be invested with symbolic meaning. Those meanings rarely transcend basic concepts such as ‘longevity’ or ‘prosperity’, although a bronze mirror from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) contains an entire cosmology.

It’s often said that Chinese art has been relatively static, with an exaggerated respect for the past ensuring that painters spent much of their lives copying the works of earlier masters. This is largely true, but there is also a palpable development that takes place over time as artists seek to extend the achievements of their predecessors, and to learn from nature.

The catalogue tells us about the painter and connoisseur, Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who saw his work as a “Great Synthesis” and a “dialogue with tradition”. It shows there was always room to move if an artist was strong-willed and dynamic in his attitudes. The history books are filled with eccentrics and mavericks who worked in styles that were looser and more expressionistic than the existing orthodoxy, in both painting and calligraphy.

Celadon warming bowl in the shape of a lotus blossom, Northern Song Dynasty, late 1000s – early 1100s

One of the glories of this show is an extensive selection of ceramics testifying to constant change and development over the centuries. This is partly because of the introduction of new techniques and the increasing evolution of skills, but it is also a function of changing tastes.

Some emperors favoured more austere styles, others delighted in brightly-coloured wares. The Son of Heaven was the ultimate arbiter of what was fashionable, or indeed, permitted. The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96) was passionate about jade, calligraphy and landscape painting. He wrote volumes of poetry and prose, but was also a great burner of books who tortured and executed his critics.

No matter how rigid the orthodoxies of Chinese culture, innate talent or feeling still made its way to the surface. Dong Qichang may have been an intellectual and an innovator, but his work looks academic alongside that of Tang Yin (1470-1524), whose scroll painting, Parting at Jinchang, is one of the melancholy masterpieces of this exhibition.

The picture, which is accompanied by an extensive poem, depicts the departure of a well-respected adminstrator, following a farewell meal. We read the work from right to left, watching as the dense detail of town, mountains and landscape gives way to the void of the lake. The great man stands alone on the brink of that emptiness, looking back at the world he is leaving and the friends who have come to say goodbye. We can empathise with his mood as the barren trees and dull tones convey sadness at the moment of parting.

Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Art Gallery of NSW, until 5 May

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 February, 2019