Nine Dragons - detail

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the V&A (until Jan 19) is an exquisite exhibition and a fine education for those intrigued by traditional Chinese art. For curator Hongxing Zhang  five year’s work have gone into fulfilling  his  ambitious dream of assembling the finest examples of Chinese painting created  between  900-1900AD.

Art and calligraphy were integral to the Chinese idea of civilisation emphasising the power of the brush and pen. When on August 18 ,1966 Chairman Mao’s deputy Lin Biao urged  a million teenagers gathered in Tiananmen Square “ to smash the four olds” and  to “destroy old customs, old ideas, old culture and old habits,”  his words threatened  the destruction of 2000 years of art. Much was destroyed but Hongxing told me that the museums were protected. The items in this exhibition have been sourced from around the world.

The exhibition is organised chronologically and thematically and successfully shows the changing styles and subject matter. Hongxing Zhang’s aim is to tell the story of Chinese art including early Buddhist  art. The Buddhist banners and screens painted on silk have come mostly from the remote region of Dunhuang where they survived away from rampaging Red Guards.

The Buddhist period was followed by a romantic and Daoist enthusiasm for the natural world. Mi Youren’s Cloudy Mountains painted in 1074 warrants the description impressionistic. He was nicknamed Mi-dots!

Wengui’s Landscape with Pavilion was one of the earliest paintings on paper. My favourite in this section is the fabulous Nine Dragons by Chen Rong. (PIC)  These mythical creatures represent the dynamic forces of nature in Daoism.

There is a section of works by independent scholar artists whose aim was ‘to write painting’. Away from the court, their paintings were more austere. They abandon colour and paint only in black but in four shades of black.

 The Court in 1112 was ruled by an artist emperor, Emperor Huizong. (1082-1135)   His is the charming painting titled Auspicious Cranes.  He encouraged calligraphy and regarded painting as ‘wordless poetry.’ The calligraphy in this exhibition is mind-blowingly beautiful.  Reith lecturer, Grayson Perry, is likely to enjoy this exhibition partly because of the appreciation of textiles but also because it is hard not to use the term ‘beautiful’ , a word no longer loved in the language of contemporary western art.  

The section called The Pursuit of Happiness 1400-1600 covers a period of unprecedented prosperity and the court paintings like Saying Farewell at Xunyang (PIC) have that fairy tale quality we often associate with Chinese art

 Saying Farewell at Xunyang - detail

 Was football first played in China?  Du Jin’s Ladies in the Inner Palace show them playing football in the period before foot binding became common place. (lateC15th) 

Women were hard to spot in the fourteen meter long scroll depicting urban life called “Prosperous  Suzchou”  (1759). Scrolls were unrolled slowly from right to left and then stored away. The Japanese, who bought Chinese art, treated the scrolls differently and mounted sections on gorgeous textiles to hang on walls.

 At the Ashmolean earlier this year, we enjoyed Landscape Landscript by acclaimed contemporary artist Xu Bing. He has transformed the Madjejski garden with a new installation Travelling to Wonderland using thinly cut stones to represent mountains. I asked Oxford’s own Manchurian artist, Weimin He, if Chinese artists, like Xu Bing, are looking more to traditional Chinese art and less to The West for their inspiration?

“In the last decade, Chinese artists have come to value more highly the Chinese tradition and they try to inject new life into the tradition using their personal style and a contemporary concept,” said Weimin.

I asked the curator of Chinese Art Shelagh Vainker what’s coming up at the Ashmolean? She said,

“Michael Sullivan a great supporter of the Ashmolean died recently aged 96. He acquired several hundred paintings from Chinese artists over a period of 70 years. Next year we shall exhibit works from his collection showing the development of contemporary art in China throughout the last three-quarters of a century .’