An unexpected work trip on 20 January to London came up, lo’ and behold, this was right after the final day of the Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Quelle chance!

I had recently chanced across the exhibition and was captivated by a 13th century painting of a Japanese monkey that was loaned by the Tokyo National Museum. It’s remarkably detailed and I love the creature’s somewhat melancholic and contemplative expression. You have to see it in greater detail: click here.

Since I was little, I have always had a deep fondness for the monkey, for its agility, cheekiness, humane characteristics and intelligence. I thought that Sun Wukong 孙悟空, also known as Monkey King, of the “Journey to the West” novel was the coolest fictional character ever – more so than the bat/spider/super men. That was before Sherlock Holmes came along.

The real reason though is because of a rather childish personal connection that I had made in my young mind. You see, I was born in the year of the monkey in the Chinese zodiac. And I had decided that the monkey was the best in the animal kingdom (whatever “best” was supposed to mean).

Growing up, aside from Lego and similar construction sets, I had dolls and stuffed bears to play with. My favourite companion however was a dark-haired monkey with a long tail, huge eyes and a mouth into which I could stick its thumb.

I recently retouched a digital scan of an aged negative of a four-year-old me carrying the monkey and posted it on Facebook. According to one of my friends, the monkey is a Monchhichi doll. I suspect it is a copy of the original as mine has much crazier hair than Monchhichi dolls – but who cares, I love it!

Back to the exhibition at the V&A…

Because it was the last day of the Chinese painting exhibition as well as that of another major show at the museum, the queue on last Sunday morning was exceptionally long and it took about 45 minutes before it was my turn to buy a ticket. Not surprisingly, the exhibition space was crowded and because of the way the Chinese paintings were displayed and meant to be viewed – from right to left for horizontal scrolls – there was more waiting to be done.

It was worth it.

This was my first time seeing Chinese paintings in a formal context and it was interesting to learn more about this art form, its history and its development. It was amazing to see these ancient paintings in person: the intricate and delicate brushstrokes, a snapshot of everyday life, the faded patterns on the women’s dresses, the relationship between poetry and painting, religious symbolism, etc.

Patience was key. Not only for the visitors to the exhibition but also for the painters from centuries past who created these intricate masterpieces.

A perfect example is the 12-metre long “Propserous Suzhou” by Xu Yang which depicted daily life in 18th century Suzhou in astounding detail: workers loading and unloading goods at the harbour, a traditional marriage taking place in the family hall, scholars studying for the imperial examination, businessmen having a meal in a teahouse, busy streets with stalls selling cakes, boots and even examination answers.

Commissioned by Emperor Qianlong, “Prosperous Suzhou” was completed by a team of artists led by Xu Yang over a three-year period. Spread across the horizontal scroll are some 4,800 human figures, each no larger than the length of the nail on my baby finger. I must have spent some 15 minutes bent over, shuffling along and admiring the painting!

This is a photo of the “Prosperous Suzhou” display taken from the website of Stanton Williams, the company that designed the exhibition space at the V&A

The Harvard College website features an electronic version of this painting that you can scroll through, zoom in for greater detail and click on “hotspots” for additional information about certain scenes. Not the same as seeing it in person, but what a fantastic tool!

This excellent video produced by the Hong Kong Museum of Art for its 2009 “Prosperous Cities” exhibition also provides further information about “Prosperous Suzhou”.

What it didn’t mention is how few women there were in the streets – it would seem like men ran Suzhou and made it an affluent, thriving city. Which was the case. But I would like to think that it would not have been possible without the support of the thousands of women behind the closed doors (and thus unseen in this painting)!

To end this post, here’s a quote from a Wall Street Journal interview with the exhibition’s curator, Zhang Hong Xing:

We try to rotate some of the works halfway through the exhibition. Not only for conservation but also to remind people these paintings were viewed in this manner. The paintings were viewed like a treasure. It’s a fleeting, fleeting phenomenon. You see it and then it disappears.

Oh, and I didn’t get to see my Japanese monkey as it is very fragile and was only displayed during the earlier weeks of the exhibition before it was taken off. Perhaps I’ll have to visit the Tokyo National Museum sometime to see it…

16 replies on “Monkeys and Chinese Paintings

  1. Hello Angelina,
    I have been viewing your posts for a while now as I really like your photography as well as your writing. In doing so, I came across one of your past posts about Brutalist Architecture in Singapore and noticed that you once lived in Jurong West. I was wondering whether you knew a girl names Jaclyn Ong (Pei Ling). She would have lived in the same area and I know its a very long short but I am curious. We were very close friends in the past. As I said, a long shot, I know.

    1. Hello, I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by this name. Singapore’s not a big country but there are >5 million people living there now… It also depends on her age and what schools she went to. I wish I could be of more help!

  2. The monkey must have been a good friend to survive so long. My late brother’s toy dog is still going at over 60. I am a Rooster, which I discovered in 97 when I arrived in HK. I want to go to the links for the exhibits but will need to do it tomorrow as my iPad won’t do it for some reason. It’s great that you can visit such exhibitions. Such good timing. Lucky you.

    1. The monkey is now sitting behind a glass display with some books back in Singapore. My mum’s also a Rooster! I see you arrived in HK in the year of the handover – must have been an interesting period.

      Indeed, one of the perks of living in Brussels is the easy access to quality cultural exhibitions: Paris, London, Amsterdam, some parts of Germany – all within 2.5 hours of a train ride. I recently gotten into the habit of doing a quick research of photo / art exhibitions in cities that I’m visiting for work and this is turning out to be quite rewarding : )

      1. I arrived the week before the handover. What an experience that was. I must blog about it sometime but I think people like the bird theme at the moment so I’ll keep it in reserve. The week after the handover the Asian Financial Crisis kicked off in Thailand and the rest, as they say, is history. it determined my career for the next 15 years!

        1. Wow. Must have been interesting times. I like the bird theme even though I’m not usually interested in them : )

          When I think of 1997, it mainly brings to mind days of trying to stay awake in Chemistry, Physics, Economics and Chinese classes in junior college, and the haze (worst in Singapore in years, until last year’s set new highs)!

  3. You were right, i found this fascinating! Loved the video and the on line version. The painting in the V and A exhibition was more vivid and less faded that it appeared in the Youtube video?
    I’d have loved to have been able to look round on my own but it was really busy when i was there last year and there was a pressure to keep moving when I wanted to stop longer at certain things. I think your favourite monkey had gone by the time I got there too!

    Did you see the work in the courtyard? The massive lakes with mountains and features with the exposed smoke machines and recordings? It was just getting dark as I found that and it was beautiful at twilight…That was almost as impressive as Propserous Suzhou…

    1. Glad you enjoyed them 🙂 The video was produced in 2009, so perhaps the quality of the camera was not in high-definition?? I get what you mean about the pressure of moving on. After a while, I decided to move at my own pace and as a result, a gap opened up between me and the person before me, hence other visitors popped in (and out) without having to queue. Lucky them!

      I saw some sort of installation in the central courtyard with children running all over – didn’t realise these were supposed to be an imitation/recreation of the landscape paintings! Sounds really interesting. I didn’t stop to look further as I was going to the nearby Science Museum to see the “Made In England” photo exhibition (Tony Ray Jones and Martin Parr) – which, by the way, was excellent . Black & white photos of ordinary English people at the beach, carnival, little towns, etc. through the eyes of two British photographers.

  4. Love your posts with family photos from the past. 🙂 There’s just something different about old film (cameras).

  5. I had that monkey! I loved it too. I think it was called Chicco or something over here. They’re back in fashion again now and I saw one in our local toy shop! Sorry you didn’t get to see your monkey, but sounds like a fascinating exhibition.

  6. What an exciting exhibition to see! I often wish I had more interaction with Chinese art (or Asian art in general). I love the idea of scrolls and I even bought a long roll of Japanese paper while we were in Kyoto, though I haven’t dared unwrap it yet! (Oh how daunting it will be to make that first mark!) At some point I’d like to get more familiar with Asian art — at least to be able to distinguish some general periods, styles, etc.

    1. Me too. Maybe it’s ‘the grass is green on the other side’ syndrome/mentality. My previous associations with Chinese art were linked to (uninspiring) paintings that were displayed in people’s home for auspicious reasons. Can’t wait to see what you’d do with the Japanese paper scroll after having seen what you’ve done with the large pieces of paper!

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