Ming: 50 years that changed China at the British Museum. A review by AHA alum Will Martin

Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!

Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province

In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.

The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)

The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.

Cloissoné enamel jar and cover with dragons, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.

Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.

Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum

For more information; visit www.britishmuseum.org

Where Communism and Commercialism Collide: Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shanghai’s M50, by AHA alum Helena Roy

China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.

Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing

Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.

The 798 Art District in Beijing
Graffiti in M50, Shanghai

Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.

A statue in the 798 Art District

Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.

ShaghART gallery and streets in M50
Political art depicting a PLA soldier in M50, Shanghai

But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.

Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.

The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.

Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.

All photographs by Helena Roy.

Have a go at Sensing Spaces at the RA, by AHA alum Annie Gregoire

 

Eduardo Souto de Moura's concrete installation

When you hear the word ‘architecture’, your mind probably conjures images of the shapes of buildings, their facades, interiors, materials and ornament. But hopefully it will also lead you to consider feelings, to think about light, scent, texture, comfort, space, and everything else that is architecture in addition to its aesthetic. This is the principle of the Royal Academy’s recently opened exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and is one that everyone should be urged to consider.

 

The RA has devoted the grand spaces of its main galleries to architectural installations created by 7 architects. Those chosen to exhibit stretched to every corner of the globe, from Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Japan, Ireland and Portugal. It is refreshing to visit n exhibition turning away from the ‘big dogs’ that tend to dominate the British architecture scene. In a setting in which the art lover is so accustomed to just looking, you are now invited to touch, smell, spin, sit, wander, at any pace you choose, and absorb your surroundings.

 

On top of the Portuguese architects' 'Blue Pavillion'

This time, there is no designated route by which to visit each room. As I entered, however, it was  hard to miss the enormous wooden structure designed by the Chilean couple  Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Its bold geometry contrasts starkly with the classical interior of the gallery itself in an exciting and arresting way. A little investigation will lead you to the foot of four spiral staircases – choose any one and it will take you to a raised platform. Looking out from the top of this edifice offers a novel and interesting perspective on the space, highlighting the design and ornamentation of the gallery ceiling that you may have never noticed, or certainly will have never seen this close. The installation is enjoyable to explore, and for me its success lies not in creating a space for you to sense but a platform upon which to sense the exhibition space itself.

 

 

Inside Li Xiaodong's hazel labyrinth

Next I found myself transported by the all-surrounding work of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong who creates walls of hazel twigs assembled in a fun but sometimes disorienting maze. The two installations designed by the Grafton Architects from Ireland also totally dominate and transform the spaces they are in, creating fantastic effects by playing with straight lined designs and the interception and transportation of light.

 

Tailored light in an installation by the Grafton Architects

 

Kengo Kuma's magical network of scented bamboo

Scent constitutes an important part of place, experience and memory and this is addressed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. He has devised two dark rooms in which stand floor-lit lattices of thin bamboo sticks omitting scents that vividly recall his childhood. The final installation is enjoyable and the smell is certainly pleasant, however I found the exploration of scent and memory perhaps a little too obvious in this instance and found myself craving another layer of meaning. In these rooms the viewer must also walk around the sticks which are placed in the centre in an arrangement which confuses the idea of the exhibition a little – the construction operates less as a creation of architectural space and more as a sculpture or piece of installation art. Perhaps this was a deliberate intention to explore the line between architecture and sculpture.

Diébédo Francis Kéré's honeycomb lattice with straws installation
Visitors can contribute a straw to Kéré's installation

The Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has created a bright and fun tunnel made of honeycomb lattices, very enjoyable to wander through and with the addition of reclining chairs that allow you to stop and consider the space from a different perspective. Kéré, coming originally from a remote village in Burkina Faso, is interested in community and creating architecture that everyone can contribute to and feel part of. He emphasises this in the exhibition by leaving a box of bright coloured plastic straws and inviting visitors to interact with the installation by adding one or two to the lattice. The experience reminded me of contributing a twig or two to a forest stick house (to which any child of the countryside might be able to relate). Kéré’s ideas are engaging and thought-provoking but perhaps more could have been done to add to the visitor experience in this instance.

The exhibition concludes with a video that introduces the figures of the exhibition and runs through a series of their meditations on architecture with a backdrop of film of their work outside of Sensing Spaces (it is a great feature of the exhibition that the installations are accompanied by very basic labels and fantastically little supplementary information that could get in the way of your physical and personal exploration of the spaces) . The video provokes some interesting thoughts on the subject of our environment, as well as demonstrating that the architects featured are indeed exceptional, and have created some of the greatest and most interesting buildings of today.

Sensing Spaces is n innovative and exciting exhibition, though I have to say I was a little disappointed. I think I visited in the hope of being swept away into other dimensions but I was always conscious of being in the gallery. Perhaps this was in part the point of the show – to explore architecture within architecture. The most fantastic element for me was that each visitor is able to respond differently to the spaces; you can wander them alone and reflect on how your environment makes you feel, or use them as a platform for discussion with others. This exhibition explores something I have not encountered in a gallery before,  and if it is encouraging people to think more broadly about architecture and experience then it is a great success.

 

Experience many interesting thoughts on architecture at 'Sensing Spaces'

 

Introducing Pick of the Week: this week by Annie Gregoire

Every Monday on AHA’s blog you will now find Pick of the Week – our recommendations of things you can do to spice up the week ahead, be it with art, music, theatre, travelling, food or anything else! We will review the best exhibitions on show that week, note exciting upcoming events, and maybe inspire you to take a visit somewhere different or try something new – across the UK and the globe.

Pick of the Week will tell you the things to look out for and incorporate into your week, discuss people and places that inspire, or introduce interesting ideas and matters that will offer something to think about in the following days.

There is loads to look forward to to in 2014. In the coming fortnight don’t miss the V&A’s exhibition ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900’, on until 19th Jan. You can even join us for a lecture, lunch and exhibition day for this show on Thursday. There will be opportunity to experience more of the country’s unbelievably rich cultural history – which most of us know embarrassingly little about – and learn about a pivotal period of world history in the British Museum’s ‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’ exhibition that opens in September. With a range of some of the finest and most intriguing objects you will have ever seen on display, it promises to be a sensational show.

A 15th Century Ming Cloisonée Jar © Trustees of the British Museum

Feminist issues remain incredibly important in the modern day but in all the discussion have we forgotten about the men? Grayson Perry, Jon Snow and Billy Bragg, among others, will be at the Southbank Centre’s ‘Being A Man’ festival at the end of the month, where they will be talking about just that. This look to be an exciting event and a platform for the important discussion of what often remains undiscussed. (Being A Man events taking place at Southbank Centre Fri 31 Jan- Sun 2 Feb)

Brazil will be talked about a lot this year and Roche Court arts centre and sculpture park in Wiltshire (a hidden gem of the south) will host an exhibition of new work by David Batchelor – bold and colourful sculpture that reveals his interest in Brazilian concrete art. (David Batchelor: Concretos, 8 Feb – 16 March 2014, Roche Court, Wilts)

Visit the blog on Mondays from now on to discover something to excite and enliven each week!

David Batchelor, "Contretos" at Roche Court. Photo: sculpture.uk.com.

Nostalgia for China: Helena Roy reviews ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’, at the V&A

The twenty-first century has been heralded as the century of the East. Asia is rising exponentially on the global stage, while Western dominance is undeniably waning. The star of this exotic movement is China. Impossible to pin down and infinitely mysterious, growing interest in China is currently evident in the V&A’s exhibition, ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’.

Inside the exhibition at the V&A

From tiny intimate works by monks, to huge 14-foot scrolls by the literati, the exhibition charts the evolution of style and subject in Chinese art over a 1200-year period – with many paintings never seen before in the UK. Videos show the artistic process of painting on silk; and in the dark exhibition rooms, pale-lit scrolls are eerily luminous. Chinese paintings were not made for permanent display (with the exception of murals), but were treasured possessions, often stored away in boxes to be observed for set special periods. Subjects are portrayed on scrolls, banners and fans – all very tangible objects that act as alternative canvases.

The display starts with painting for religious purposes in the Tang and Five Dynasties period (700-950). A selection of Buddhist banners and deities are adorned with intense colour; tigers with gleaming eyes prowl around monks clad in red and orange robes. Monks are cluttered with swirling clothes and excessive, ribbon-like detail while their portraits are encased in circles offering serenity. Stories are laid out on scrolls, to be read like a book, allowing subjects to develop in a way traditional Western painting does not.

With the Song Dynasty there was a quest for reality (950-1250). Gone was the exuberance of the Buddhist era: artistic impetus was now for a momentous, monochrome aesthetic – against light brown silk scrolls, scenes are painted with porcelain precision. Guo Xi, a landscape painter, commented in 1117 that ‘without leaving your room you may sit to your heart’s content among streams and valleys. The glow of the mountain and the colours of the waters will dazzle your eyes glitteringly. Could this fail to quicken your interest and thoroughly capture your heart?’ Mountains drape gracefully into lakes and streams (the Chinese word for ‘landscape’ means ‘mountain and water’), with trees tripping down the edges of cliffs. Dragons and seas are meshed, appearing in the form of smoke as charcoal-like ink is waved across silk.

'Nine Dragons' (detail) by Chen Rong (1244)
Yan Wengui's 'Landscape with Pavillions' (10th century)

Monks and scholars later embraced solitude (1250-1400), uniting calligraphy, painting and poetry in a contemplative manner. During this period, the Chinese saw poetry as painting without image; painting as wordless poetry. Art became laden with literary, philosophical and political meaning. Stark black ink on white paper became the means of expressing creative solitude. Lone blossom, trees and orchids symbolised endurance and regret of the lost past.

'Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonising their Minds', attributed to Shi Ke (13th century)

Stability and prosperity during the Ming Dynasty led to an enthusiastic artistic explosion (1400-1600). Paintings became status symbols; with romanticism and decoration taking over, and instances of portraiture rising. Roosters were portrayed as elaborate birds of paradise, flowers enlarged and women’s gowns elaborated. From 1600-1900, art challenged the past and increasingly looked to the West; artistic rivalry festered, and the slow seeping of European influence into China took effect on painting too. Jesuit missionaries introduced western styles in the late 16th century, importing greater linear perspective, realism in portraits and chiaroscuro.

'Saying Farewell at Xunyang' (detail) by Qiu Ying 1494-1552
'Portrait of Gao Yongzhi as Calligrapher-Beggar' by Ren Yi (1887)

Much of the art in the exhibition is anonymous. This groups the pieces, giving them a unified national identity that dominates over its artistic identity. Though the painting is beautiful, it is overrun by the study of China. Though not necessarily a negative, this makes it less an exhibition of art, and more a study of history and a nation. Interesting nonetheless, but possibly not what the artists would have wanted.

‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’ runs at the V&A until 19th January 2014. For more information visit http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/masterpieces-of-chinese-painting/.

Art History Abroad are running a Dilettante Lecture, lunch and Exhibition day on Thursday 16th January for which there  are a few places left. Click here or contact Charlie Winton at charlie@arthistoryabroad for more details or to sign up.


With thanks to the V&A for photographs.

Lichtenstein: the view of a novice, by AHA alum Maddie Brown

 

I wish I could sit here and give a discerning review of the retrospective exhibition currently taking place at the Tate Modern, celebrating the work of the American artist, Roy Lichtenstein. Honestly if you are looking for that, it is probably best to google it.

I am going to give you the view of a novice; the view of a girl who really does not know all that much about modern art.

Now of course I have heard of pop art before.

Indeed I had to create my own pop art piece at the tender age of 12 when my class spent a few weeks looking at movement. The primary colours, the dots (called, as I now know, Benday dots)…that was about all I could remember. Well that and the unnatural primary red of my art teacher’s hair at the time.

The exhibition includes iconic pieces that you will have seen before like ‘Oh, Jeff… I love you, Too…But…’ and ‘Look Mickey’.

 

Photos were taken of postcards- my camera was turned away at the door unfortunately.

 

Yet my favourite pieces were the ones that surprised me; Lichtenstein’s lesser known works. Room 13 holds the artist’s Chinese landscapes. These pieces, which were created during his later years, are a far cry from the dramatic scenes and bright colours dominating his earlier work.

 

Torpedo...LOS! 1963

 

 

I find the primary colours used in his earlier work almost too bright, too overwhelming; particularly when you have gone through several rooms holding pieces of this form. Lichtenstein’s take on the highly stylised paintings of the Song dynasty (960-1279AD) give a sense of peace and harmony to the viewer. The artist’s characteristic use of Benday dots remains but the lighter and more delicate colours used are gentler on the eye and convey the atmospheric quality and subtle gradations of original Chinese landscapes.

 

Landscape in Fog 1996

 

By the time the viewer reaches room 13, the tension created by all that colour, the defined black lines, the distinct Benday dots and melodramatic scenes, is allowed to settle. It seems it is the contrast of these more harmonious pieces to his earlier work that is most enchanting.

Can I refer to it as an example of intelligent curatorship? I wouldn’t know- I’m just a novice.

 

A novice with her postcards

What does China have to offer? AHA alum Laura Moore reviews the exhibition ‘Art of Change’ at the Hayward Gallery

When I heard we had a field trip to the Haywood Gallery to see an exhibition by Chinese artists I was intrigued.  I know very little about the Chinese culture, mostly learnt from Disney’s Mulan, but I was very surprised at the works I saw, and they were very unexpected.

The exhibition was called ‘Art of Change – New Directions from China’ and I thought it would be full of unusual postmodern art that makes you think about the world from a completely different viewpoint.   The gallery was full of such a wide range of art that it was quite confusing to work out whose work it was.  They did have a catalogue but most of the work was unlabelled which added to the confusion.  However, there were a few interesting pieces of work hidden between gym equipment and x rated clay figures.  There was one in particular which was a piece by Xu Zhen called ‘In just a blink of an eye’.  The work consisted of a man that looked as if he had fallen.

"He is alive"

As we entered the room, we couldn’t work out whether this was an incredibly life like sculpture or actually a person.   As we began to inspect the body, we realised that he was breathing.  I thought this piece was absolutely inspired as it made the viewer engage in it so much more than just a painting on a wall.  It also made me doubt my eyes, as I couldn’t believe that they were alive as they were unbelievably still and it is impossible to stay in that position.  It was only until I saw him blink that I fully believed he was real.  It was then that I cried ‘He is alive’ and as a result making him laugh which convinced the rest of the room.

I was then really excited about the rest of the exhibition and couldn’t wait to see what was in the next room.  Unfortunately I was greeted by a life size Rhinosarous and an Anchiceratops. Yes they were very detailed and I could appreciate the craftsmanship but I just couldn’t see the point of this work and what it represented.

Wonky Wick Whack

However, my day didn’t end on a low, as there was a jagged, uneven Ping Pong table that the viewers could play.
This gave me great amusement and it proved tremendously difficult to return the ball.  We were having a great match until we saw the sign that read ‘Please hit the ball ONCE’.  That slightly killed our fun.  I did enjoy the exhibition but I felt that I didn’t really get a sense of what the art movement in China was doing and where it was going.  There was just too much randomness and pointlessness for me and I am very open-minded when it comes to modern art.  It was fascinating and I would recommend going to see this exhibition though, even if it is for the Ping Pong.

Art of Change: New Directions from China continues at the Hayward Gallery until 9 December