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.

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

News from China! The Shanghai Fabric Market by Caz St Quinton

Every girl has her dream dress. Unfortunately, these dreams rarely become reality. To get a dress design tailor made is often too expensive and rarely ends up how you once imagined it. However, in the bustling fabric market in Shanghai they will make you whatever you want, in whatever fabric you want and for prices you most definitely want.

The endless choice of materials and colours from one stall

Located in a massive four storey building sit hundreds of fabric stalls that together make up the Lujiabang Lu Fabric Market. Mountains of silk, cotton and chiffron in any colour or print you can imagine are hidden away in small dens where their owners sit waiting for customers. Men can be seen choosing the right fabric for their custom made £50 suit, whilst women take in photos of the latest red carpet gown and for around £40 get a replica made to measure. Sounds of haggling can be heard from every corner as customers bargain for the best price.

A stall in the fabric market


When a price is agreed two tailors begin to measure every inch of their new customer, carefully recording each number and nattering away in Mandarin. Before they can begin work on the dress discussions are made about the necessity of a lining. Decisions are made about how quickly it needs to be finished. Exclamations are made when the customer shows just how high she wants the slit up the leg to be, or how low the neck line.

Any design can be copied. A favourite here is the Chanel suit.


Braver tourists take in their own designs drawn on pieces of
paper. Simple clear drawings are presented to the tailors in hope of avoiding
the language barrier through pictures, although they have little to fear as
their English is often very good.

A taylor stands proudly next to the finished dress




Excitement builds in the market when girls come to try on their finished dresses. No doubt she will attract a small crowd around her as they murmur approvingly. The magical moment when one sees a custom floor length gown fitted and designed perfectly for its loving owner and knowing that three days previously it was a mere fantasy. A dream come true for the shoppers of Shanghai.





MoCA and the Marriage Market: is Shanghai a contemporary city? AHA alum Caz St Quinton explores

As cities go, Shanghai seems about as contemporary as they get. It is known for its sky scrapers and shopping, rather than its history and culture. Proving this point, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) has been recently refurbished. It stands shiny and proud in People’s Park, whilst its neighbour the Shanghai Art Gallery glooms in its shadow with eerily empty walls, the few pieces shown often only accompanied by those fatal words: ‘artist unknown.’

MoCA in People's Park Shanghai

However, artists themselves are no longer current enough for MoCA’s impressive new exhibition called ‘Mock Up.’ In their place are ten teams of architects that have been invited to create ten different living spaces. The installations consider Chinese living spaces and the relationship between people and their contemporary living environments. Microwaves, magazines and plastic furniture replace traditional Chinese interiors.

One of the spaces at MoCA made out of magazines

There is no hint of art being intended for the academic. In fact the spaces interact with the viewer by encouraging them to sit, climb and even play. People of all ages were playing in ‘The Kids Room’; a room that hangs from the ceiling so moves with you and is filled with big yoga balls that complete strangers end up throwing at one another.

At the end if the gallery it explains that the room is designed to imitate the rocking that we feel whilst in our mother’s womb and then the cradle, although most the people inside are having too much fun to bother reading it.

A girl playing in the Kid's Room at MoCA

If it weren’t for the mysterious gathering of people opposite MoCA, one could be fooled into thinking Shanghai has turned its back on all tradition. However, stray a little from the entrance of the museum and you will stumble upon the Marriage Market.

Personal advertisements litter the  pavement and trees as parents try to find suitable matches for their child. Parents spend their weekends sat next to their laminated piece of paper which contains information such as their child’s age, job, achievements and whether they own a house or car.

A woman exploring the marriage market

They sit hoping that another parent will find their offspring suitable, if this joyous moment happens then a date is arranged. The marriage market is a last resort for some parents as traditional arranged marriages are becoming harder to organise due to the uneven demographics of the population caused by the one child policy. A problem that will only get worse with an estimated 24 million bachelors in China by 2020.

Parents display their child's information on umbrellas

In Shanghai, marriage is obviously still an indicator to success and parents using a market to achieve this leaves the MoCA viewers questioning whether Shanghai is as contemporary as they once thought.