The exotic appealing sounds of Chinese traditional music heralded the beginning of a social and cultural conversation now taking place between the people of Australia and the People’s Republic of China at the National Gallery of Victoria, 27th March – 21st June 2015.
The NGV International are providing a platform for showcasing A Golden Age of China and its hidden treasures, a truly sumptuous array of costume and decorative arts produced during the rule of the Qing dynasty, highlighting the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, 1736 – 1795, the longest living emperor in Chinese history.
The arts both visual and performance are a wonderful way to create an ongoing dialogue between our cultures that can only expand. All the 120 works on display come from the Palace Museum inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, which is this year celebrating ninety years since its establishment.
There are sublime examples of calligraphy, fine porcelains, glorious jades, superb cloisonné enamel, intricately and wonderfully painted scrolls, stunning textiles, glorious gold and silver with coral, precious stones and pearls, turquoise wares, kingfisher feather hairpins, painted snuff bottles and all the accoutrements of a scholar including a superb cloud scroll carved scholar’s table.
Qianlong was in charge when Chinese influence on western culture began to intensify. This was also when China was ruled by the Manchus, who, to the mainstream population the Han Chinese, were foreigners.
It was Qianlong Emperor’s ability to adopt Chinese ways while honouring his Manchu traditions that made him one of the most successful emperors of the Qing dynasty.
He particularly appreciated the Confucian principles of political and cultural leadership as he successfully governed its 150 million Chinese people.
The visual feast of paintings and objects from the Qing imperial courts includes great portraits of the Qianlong Emperor and extraordinary paintings of life in eighteenth century China. The show is presented in five separate sections; Manchu Emperor, Son of Heaven, Imperial art under the Emperor’s patronage, Imperial art of religion and Chinese scholar, art connoisseur and collector.
According to a Chinese adage “Knowledge comes from seeing much” a particularly apt comment for students. Representing major sponsor Rio Tinto, Phil Edmands Managing Director explained that while doing commercial business with China is important for his company, he and his colleagues seek a deeper engagement with its people. It is all about establishing mutual trust, helping to promote greater cultural awareness while strengthening the understanding between our cultures.
NGV Director Tony Ellwood thanked Mr Edmands and Rio Tinto for generously providing the entry cost, opening the door to the exhibition free for every school child in Victoria.
This is certainly a noble gesture, one providing wonderful opportunities for the next generation to learn from and be inspired by the philosophical and intellectual ideas of another culture, reflected in its visual art forms.
There is a focus on those recorded for history by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 – 1766) an Italian Jesuit priest who arrived in China in 1715 where he passed his life at the Court of Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors.
The scale of works and space given over to providing a perception of being inside the glories of the Forbidden City is indeed impressive.
Some scroll paintings over 3.5 metres high feature buildings of the Forbidden city, reduced or enlarged in scale according to importance.
There is a most breathtaking array of golden Imperial robes worn by both Emperors and Empresses featuring extraordinary embroidery so beautiful and fine it defies description.
One black based robe with golden dragon embroidery is a knockout. It’s a surcoat, or a garment worn over the top of others. It features a prodigious amount of cloud scrolls…which originated from ancient cosmological and mythical beliefs.
Director Tony Ellwood paid particular attention to thanking not only all his current staff, but also those, including the previous NGV Director Martin Vaughan. Many had worked over many years negotiating back and forth to bring the show to fruition.
Mrs Yan Han, the General Manager in Australia of sponsor Air China announced the first flights starting on June 1, 2015 taking tourists direct to Beijing from Melbourne. She spoke eloquently about the warmth and hospitality she experienced working with NGV staff.
Hon Martin Foley, Minister for Creative Industries in the Victorian Government thanked the officials of the Palace Museum for entrusting their great treasures to the National Gallery of Victoria, enabling Australian people access these extraordinary works that form part of their cultural heritage.
A man of letters, calligrapher and poet Qianlong Emperor (1735 – 1799) was devoted to art and architecture. A great collector, a tradition in the Imperial families for centuries, his name was associated with works of great literary importance. He had thirty six thousand volumes from the Imperial and private collections copied and assembled in a vast encyclopaedia.
Another fascinating fact is that he officially retired in 1796 taking a title indicating he was an Emeritus Emperor, one honouring his legendary grandfather Kangxi Emperor by committing an act of piety so that he would not reign longer than he had. He remained the ultimate power however until his death three years later.
Giuseppe Castiglione was presented to Qianlong’s grandfather Kangxi (1662 – 1722) in November 1715.
There is a record of his presentation to the Emperor Kanxi, by Father Matteo Ripa another Jesuit painter and engraver who had arrived in China in 1710. It says “In November, 1715, I was summoned into the presence of the Emperor to act as interpreter to two Europeans, a painter and a chemist, who had just arrived. While we were awaiting his Majesty’s pleasure in one of the anterooms, a eunuch addressed my companions in Chinese and was angry when they did not return an answer. I immediately told him the cause of their silence, upon which he said that we Europeans were all so alike that it was scarcely possible to distinguish one from the another!”
Part of the confusion was the practice of the Jesuits to wear long wispy beards.
An artist of high accomplishment in the course of his long stay at Peking Castiglione managed to achieve a remarkable synthesis between the traditions and techniques of European painting and those of Chinese painting.
He taught many Chinese artists to paint in perspective. Qianlong had known the priest since he was a little boy, often visiting his studio when he became Emperor to watch him paint, as he was a skilled painter himself.
In one superb scroll on show Qianlong is peering out of a pavilion onto an exquisitely painted snow filled scene. He had Castiglione paint the portrait of himself inside the pavilion, a unique collaboration between respectful artists.
Castiglione must have had extremely well developed diplomatic skills quite apart from his missionary zeal that took him there in the first place. He took a Chinese name for himself and is well documented in court records. He dressed in Chinese clothes and mastered the immensely difficult art of calligraphy to the point that it was almost indistinguishable from the great Chinese scholars.
Curiously he gains little mention in Jesuit history, although records left offer us today a fascinating picture of daily life, especially the great ceremonial occasions at the Court of the Emperors.
He offers an insight into the confrontation of two great cultures and emboldens us to endeavour to understand and learn to appreciate the intellectual and philosophical disputes that arose from the encounter and how they were resolved. They are an example for how we can build on the honour and respect shown, one to the other.
Chinese dynastic histories started long before the birth of Christ and continued unbroken until 1911. Rulers BC had their most treasured objects buried with them, similar to other cultures around the world.
In Chinese culture eight (8) is an important aspect of their symbolism, represented in all their visual and performance art forms.
It has played an important role in the lives of Chinese people back until the dawn of their recorded histories.
Symbolic meanings form an intrinsic part of their culture and are readily understood by Chinese people. Noting there were eight members of the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra playing at the preview was immediately significant.
Eight is all about ‘expanding in wealth’ and that does not just mean money, although it helps when expanding in wealth through arts and cultural conversations.
Knowledge the greatest wealth of all.
There were eight revered immortals, Zhongli Quan, Zhang Guolao, Lü Dongbin, Cao Guojiu, Li Tieguai, Han Xiangzi, Lan Caihe and He Xiangu who represented longevity and prosperity and the different conditions of life. .
There is also a great classic story about three bamboos encapsulating the vicissitudes of life that although the strong winds of difficulty and devastation may lay the bamboo very low it never breaks.
Making haste slowly was the order of the day for the curator of the exhibition Dr Mae Anna Pang, the Senior Curator of Asian Art at the NGV and her delightful guided tour of the show for those present was indeed helpful.
She and her colleagues would have spent an extraordinary amount of hours bringing this stunningly presented exhibition to Melbourne with mutual respect and patience high on the agenda.
These are disciplines of both mind and body appreciated in China way before the west.
Dr Pang told an interesting story about the Empress who at one stage apparently threatened to become a ‘Nun’.
The works on show reflect Qianlong’s passion for collecting and his fondness for Jade and other arts in the Chinese tradition.
However he also developed a taste for European decorative arts especially painting with enamel, snuff bottles, European clocks and Chinoiserie, the European evocation of what they believed China to be.
He corresponded with France’s King Louis XV and with Castiglione’s assistance built a French architecturally influenced palace complex called the Yan ming-yuan, later destroyed and pillaged in 1860 by soldiers of Franco-British troops led by Lord Elgin and General Cousin-Mountauban.
An account has the ‘delerious soldiery’ tearing down tapestries threaded with silver to put out the fires they started.
Castiglione had designed the interior of the places taking into account the Emperor’s tastes without staircases as the Emperor did not want to ‘live in the air’ like Europeans.
It would have been symbolic of poverty, because Qianlong knew what we know today, that space is perhaps the most luxurious symbol of life we have.
The smaller palaces within the larger complex would have been filled with glorious objects as in this amazing show, the Comte d’Herisson writing in his diary ‘Every trooper had his bird, his music box, his alarm clock and his rabbit…’ as they enjoyed the extensive collection of automata the Chinese emperors had received from Western sovereigns’
As I pondered the especially chosen objects for the last time before I had to leave a poem by Yuan Chen, who was perhaps one of their most famous poets in Chinese history came to mind…
Do not scold me for still being here! I know I have stayed too long;
I have tried hard to say good-bye, but words will not come
Let me stay, for few are left of our grey-headed band;
Tomorrow you may not get the chance of a meeting such as this
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
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