Art of China

Andrew Graham-Dixon has done several series for the BBC about the art of various places - one of the more recent was about China and we watched it earlier this year. He covered the art of this vast and long-lived culture in chronological order, so the series also provided an overview of the history of China. Even though it was chronological the three programmes also covered different themes - starting with the art of & for death (and religion), then art concerned with the natural world and finally art influenced by the world outside China.

The first programme started with prehistoric art - even pre-China art. The first objects Graham-Dixon looked at were a collection of bronze masks (of varying sizes) which had large staring eyes as their most prominent feature. These objects were buried in a way that suggests they were once used for ritual purposes but then were no longer necessary - as if the culture/religion/tradition that they were associated with had been superseded but they were still given respect for their previous significance. There doesn't seem to be any continuity between this culture and what later became China as we know it.

The next objects were more bronzes, but these were associated with the cultures that lead up to China proper - the Shang and Zhou bronzes. These are mostly ritual vessels for food and drink that would be buried with people - perhaps also used in the burial rituals themselves. These vessels are highly decorated, with a distinctive style. Concurrent with the vessels is the development of the Chinese writing system, which is an influence on a lot of later Chinese art. Graham-Dixon showed us some of the actual oracle bones which have the first writing on them - annotations as to the question asked of the oracle, the answer given and the eventual outcome. This last makes them a critical historical resource for this period as the questions the kings asked tended to involve matters of state. I've read about these more than once, but never seen one so this was pretty cool to see :)

The programme then moved on to China proper with the First Emperor, who is the emperor who was buried with the terracotta army. This is a particularly extreme example of taking everything with you when you go, and Graham-Dixon also pointed out that this was the First Emperor planning to conquer the afterlife as he'd conquered the known world in this life! The following dynasty (the Han) also provisioned their tombs with all the items they needed for the next life, and this has lasted through to the modern day to some extent. Graham-Dixon visited a place that makes paper models of everyday objects for funerals, like computers and cars and so on - these are then burnt to transfer them to the afterlife for the deceased to use. The last section of the first programme looked at Buddhist art of the afterlife. This depicts a completely different class of thing. Instead of physical items and provisions the art is concerned with transcendence and joy, or with damnation.

The second programme looked at the period of history from the Song Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, which is in many ways a golden age of Chinese art. The two primary media of art in this era were ceramics and painting. Chinese painting is made using the same techniques as Chinese writing and the same tools. A scholar of the time was both writer and painter. Nature features heavily in the paintings, although the scholars rarely painted whilst in front of the thing they were painting. The natural scenes (whether real or imaginary) were intended to summon up a mood - often melancholy or isolation. The most iconic pieces often come from scholars who had retreated from court or official life - who felt disaffected or displaced by a change in regime for instance after the Mongol Yuan Dynasty conquered China. The Yuan to Ming transition also displaced many court officials who were loyal to the preceding dynasty.

The art style of this era was heavy on symbolism and meaning. To illustrate this theme Graham-Dixon talked about the last Yuan Emperor, who came to the throne unexpectedly after several preceding heirs had died. He'd been brought up as an aesthete not a ruler and as his empire began to crumble around him (due to his lack of administrative skill) he tried to reverse the situation by commissioning and painting pictures of good omens and good fortune. Unsurprisingly this didn't work out so well, and more time spent on administration might've been a better bet ;)

The third and final programme covered the last dynasty of Chinese Emperors (the Qing) and modern China. The theme of this programme was that the art of the period was influenced by the outside world, primarily the West. In some ways this was a manifestation of the early Qing dynasty resting on their laurels - they "knew" they were the most sophisticated culture in the world, so looked to the outside world for trinkets and art. Forward momentum in the sciences was lost at just the time that the West was beginning to go through the Industrial Revolution. There were still obvious ways in which the Qing art was continuous with the previous traditions & Graham-Dixon spent a bit of time talking about the Forbidden Palace (first built in the Ming Dynasty) and also the way the ceramic art traditions continued & changed in the Qing era. For the latter he particularly pointed out how the elegant simplicity of Ming ceramics gave way to brightly coloured and decorated Qing ceramics which were often rather garish in comparison.

As the Qing dynasty continued their relationship with the European nations changed in character - from cultural exchange as equals to occupied nation. Graham-Dixon covered the history of the 19th Century with the Opium Wars, and the destruction of Chinese sites by British colonising armies. This rather shameful period of British empire building did lead to developments in Chinese art and not just destruction. In particular Shanghai was one of the towns where the British forcibly established a trading base, and the art produced in the town became a hybrid style between Chinese & Western. Instead of painting on scrolls or long wall hangings as was traditional artists began to paint pieces designed to be framed and hung on walls. The traditional pallet of blacks & greys (and perhaps red) began to be replaced by bright colours. The subject and the style, however, remained traditional.

By the end of the imperial period in the late 19th Century & early 20th Century some Chinese artists were training in Paris and using western techniques and styles in their paintings - but still painting Chinese subjects. Some of these artists embraced the "old-fashioned" traditional techniques of Western art and painted large representational oil paintings - for instance Graham-Dixon showed us one that depicts a key scene from a Chinese hero's story, yet it wouldn't look particularly out of place in a gallery of early 19th Century art. Other artists embraced the new modern art movements that were coming to life in 20th Century Paris.

The rise of Communism in China put an abrupt stop to this flirtation with Western styles and techniques. Mao's suppression of intellectuals in general also had a particular focus on rejecting Western influences. Artists who had produced un-Chinese art were persecuted and sent to labour camps, their paintings and sculptures destroyed. Since the change from Maoist communism to the current pseudo-capitalist communism there has been a bit of a relaxation of that attitude. Graham-Dixon finished the programme by talking to current artists and looking at their work - most are consciously looking both to their roots as inheritors of a long artistic tradition, and to the modern globalised world.

I enjoyed this series - good to see both the sweep of Chinese history from another angle, and to learn more about the themes & purposes of the art of the country.