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!
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…