The western predilection for gorgeous goods was perpetuated in the European mind from early in the thirteenth century by Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, whose book related fascinating stories about visiting the far off luxurious land of Cathay.
Seemingly filled with precious gems, exotic spices and glorious rustling silks, the east was believed to be lived in by an amenable people who whiled away their hours posing pleasantly in perfect pavilions set in ethereal landscapes.
It is perhaps extraordinary to us today that one man’s personal view of the East, played such a vital and in many ways, unique role in the development of international foreign trade and political relations. But it did.
Marco Polo said words to the effect ‘let us now travel into Cathay, so that you may learn something of its grandeurs and treasures’ inspiring the notion at Cathay was a land, unlike any other.
This idea found fertile ground in the imagination of western people who were lured by its exotic charms and promise of excitement.
Initially Europeans could not differentiate between Chinese, Indian, Japanese South East Asian, or Middle Eastern peoples, so the vision they had was vast.
The exhibition The Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795) is coming to the National Gallery of Victoria from 27th March – 21st June 2015.
Tony Ellwood, Director NGV, said, “This exhibition tells the fascinating narrative of one of China’s most influential rulers and a great champion of the arts, whose passion saw him become one of China’s foremost collectors and conservators of art.”
It was 1685 when the Manchus began their ascendancy towards the splendour and power achieved during the eighteenth century and reign of three Manchu Qing dynasty emperors Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735 and Qianlong (1736-95).
China emerged as the greatest Imperial power in Asia under this trio of Emperor’s enlightened guidance. They ensured the China Trade with the west flourished.
Hung-li came to the Throne of Heaven taking the name Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung) at the age of twenty-four.
A warrior and hunter of the first rank, he reigned for sixty years (1736-1795) at a time when China was the wealthiest and most populous nation on earth.
A man of letters, calligrapher and passionate poet, Qianlong was fourth emperor of the Manchu dynasty and his name was associated with works of literary importance.
He is said to have written more poetry than the poets of the celebrated Tang dynasty (618-906).
The NGV International on St Kilda Road will devote 1,100 square metres of its gallery space for this exhibition, which uncovers the richness of Chinese history and culture, and reveals the human interests of a governing emperor.
Splendid silk court robes, precious-stone inlayed objet d’art and portraits of the Qianlong emperor, his empress and imperial concubines will be part of the display, with silk paintings, dragon-embroidered silk court robes and precious objet d’art in gold and jade.
The treasures that make up this special show are coming from Beijing’s splendid Palace Museum, sited within the once Forbidden City. They will give visitors an unprecedented opportunity to view and study some 120 works from the collection.
The Forbidden City was the preserve of the Emperor, his family, a vast number of retainers, eunuchs and maintenance people, with entry forbidden to everyone outside its walls. Families would sell their sons to be eunuchs knowing they would never see them again.
The exhibition will spotlight all the objects shown in themes; Manchu Emperor, Son of Heaven, Imperial Art under the Patronage of the Emperor, Imperial Art of Religion and Chinese Scholar, the Foremost Art Connoisseur and Collector.
Chinese history, its art and trade wares attract a great fascination and have done so since Roman times. Her reputation for being inscrutable derives from her having been, throughout her long history, almost inaccessible behind a great barricade of mountains.
Arabian writers speak of fleets of large Chinese junks in the Persian Gulf as early as the 9th century.
When contact with the west was finally established this idea was reinforced because they found it impossible to engage her interest, because there was really nothing that China wanted or needed from us.
China emerged as the greatest Imperial power in Asia under three of her Emperor’s enlightened guidance and during their reigns the China Trade with the west began to flourish.
During his lifetime, Qianlong Emperor had some thirty six thousand volumes from imperial and private collections copied and assembled in a vast encyclopaedia.
He was devoted to art and architecture and corresponded regularly with France’s King Louis XV (1710-1774).
He becoming an avid collector of French clocks so much so that when the French ship L’Amphitrite arrived with European clocks on board in 1699, the court of the Qing Emperor established its own shop to make timepieces.
These were produced by Chinese artisans under the aegis of court appointed European engineers.
Also, from this period on ‘French clocks’ began appear on many Chinese objects from the period, like this stunning carp bowl with its Imperial Yellow background.
During the Qianlong Emperor’s reign ceramic production became completely industrialised.
He became so fond of antique pieces, he didn’t hesitate to have copies made of objects from earlier periods in Chinese history.
French porcelains also influenced the design of Chinese porcelains of the period.
A wine set of cup and saucer produced during his reign in glorious enamels and gold were never meant to be used.
The Qianlong Emperor set the art scene himself, attracting Italian and French painters for the court.
One of those was the exceptional Jesuit priest Giiuseppe Castiglione – painter at the court of three Chinese emperors.
What the Jesuits achieved and accomplished in China is striking in both its scope and diversity.
They were patient men of science, wring books on the subjects of mathematics, physics, geography, history, music and perspective to name a few, as well as numerous books on religion.
These included translations of Chinese classics, which they sent to Europe.
During the course of his long stay in Peking (he died there in 1766), Castiglione managed to achieve a remarkable synthesis between the traditions and techniques of European painting and those of Chinese painting.
Castiglione was favoured by all three Emperors, acknowledged as an artist of high accomplishment. His exceptional talents won him favour, especially when he introduced the art of perspective into Chinese art.
He became the First Painter to the Imperial Court, his own works enriching the collections of the Imperial palaces.
One of his greatest achievements was when the Qianlong Emperor built an outstanding European style palace.
It was known as the Yuan Ming-yuan and was built inside the compound of the Summer Palace.
For its time it was all about the art of creation. It had a great deal of European influence with Chinese overtones in a polyglot of styles.
Nothing had ever been seen like it in China before or since, and it was packed with remarkable treasures.
The only known representations of what the Yuan Ming-yuan Palace and its gardens was like, are copies of the original drawings made by the Jesuit missionaries.
They had brought with them to China engravings of European palaces, which fascinated the Emperor.
He instructed Castiglione, who was his favourite painter, to draw up the plans for it and choose his collaborators.
Built six miles north of Peking, it was an extraordinary achievement, its various pavilions forming with a garden, a precinct of ‘summer palaces’.
When he turned 70 years of age, the Emperor who revered age, gave Castiglione a ‘birthday party’.
‘Festivities were held in the palace of Yuan-ming-yuan. The gifts given by the Emperor to Castiglione ‘… were six pieces of silk of rare quality, a mandarins robe and a large agate necklace’.
However far more precious was the message of congratulations written in the Emperor’s own hand.
A grand procession with musicians, mandarins and soldiers ‘made a great deal of noise’ and the well-planned ceremony went off without a hitch.
When Giuseppe Castiglione died the Emperor, who reports reveal was sincerely attached to the old missionary, wrote an epitaph to be engraved on his tomb himself.
The coffin of gilded and lacquered wood rested on a stretcher under a richly ornamented canopy supported by four columns. Covered in white silk, linked by festoons of coloured silk, it was carried by 60 – 80 men divided between its two sides.
Reading the description of Castiglione’s funeral splendour again recently, reminded me of a poem by Li Po the renowned classic Chinese poet…
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 we may not get the chance of a meeting again, such as this…!
Comprising an extraordinary group of buildings, the Yuan Ming-yuan was pillaged, ravaged and destroyed by the British and French during the 1860’s and the opium wars.
There is hardly anything left today except a few stone fragments embellished with relief carving, to bear witness to the magnificence of the work of Guiseppe Castiglione and his brother Jesuits in building the Palace complex.
When the Fantastic Summer Palaces of the Emperors of China went up in flames delirious soldiers tore down the glorious tapestries threaded with silver to put out the blaze.
The jades, bronzes and porcelains were all pillaged.
Some survived and are now displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and at the Palace of Fontainebleau in Paris.
This should be a great show. Can’t wait!
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
27 Mar 15—21 Jun 15