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

Manet: Painting Life. A review by AHA alum Emma Greenlees

“Painting begins with Manet” is the proclamation that faces the entrance to a jam-packed Manet: Painting Life on a cold winter Saturday. The hype so often a prerequisite for top London exhibitions is evident even before we reach that stage; the queue for tickets stretches the whole length of the square at Burlington House. But is the hype correctly directed? Is this an exhibition which looks to the successes of Manet as an homage to him, or as a historical map of his achievements and of the role of painting in his contemporary Paris?

Split into 8 rooms –  The Artist and His Family, Music in the Tuileries Garden, Manet’s World, Manet’s Cultural Circle (I  and II), Manet’s Status Portraits, Manet’s Models and Victorine Meurent – we get a very clear idea of that it is that is meant by ‘Painting Life’: it is Manet’s life and not everyman’s. Born to a wealth Parisian family in 1832 and mixing with Paris’ elite later in life, Manet was, far from painting the lives of the proletariat, depicting his own surroundings and his own friends. Dedicating an entire room to “Music in the Tuileries Gardens” (1862) underlines the variety and number of Manet’s influential circle. Not only that, but it makes clear the influence that the painting of his wife’s heritage had upon his work. By painting a group portrait of many around him who shared his values, Manet is engaging with a 17th Century Dutch tradition, as well as mirroring Baudelaire’s belief that music is the highest form of art.

By painting such a clear image of those who surround the artist, the exhibition echoes Manet’s own reluctance to paint self-portraits. What we see here is what he saw and the way that he saw it. It’s extremely easy to forget (and just as important to remember) how rapidly that world was changing. Manet lived in a moment of transition; the time of Modernity. He was born just seven years before the invention of the first photographs (Daguerreotypes) and yet grew up in a culture which still observed the tradition of the Paris Salon. He lived in a Paris of change; from Second Republic to Third Republic, through Prussian Occupation; a Paris of modernity but which still held the Salon up as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. It was a world of contradictions, which was simultaneously clinging onto the past and running tirelessly into the future. What Manet did so expertly was to navigate and pioneer his way through this moment of transition into the full swing of modernity. He fused the genre painting with the portrait at the same time as marrying modernism and realism. He was echoing his contemporary surroundings in his work: his portraits coincided with the photographic portrait’s growing popularity, and the curator has placed a number of Cartes de Visite alongside Manet’s work to make this clearer.

And so, to see the exhibition as a retrospective of Manet’s work would be a mistake. If it were just an examination of his canon, then it would be missing certain very key pieces: Olympia is not here, for starters. Nor is the Dejeuner sur l’herbe (only a study hangs here). The sad thing about an exhibition of this type is that it does seem to be perceived by many of the gallery-goers as precisely this sort of retrospective. Manet is a well-known name, and so going to the exhibition at the RA has become a task to check off the list, while the Mariko Mori exhibition has been relegated to Burlington Gardens, around the corner.

What we do see is an impressive selection of Manet’s portraits, and particularly the blurred line between Manet’s portraits and the tradition of genre scenes, which is perfectly encapsulated in “The Luncheon” (1868). It is very effective in foregrounding the progress of Paris in the late 19th Century, and the changes in artistic trends (both photographically and in painting).

What this exhibition does is to map out the progress of modernity in late 19th Century Paris. As a history of modernising Paris, it is very successful; as an exhibition of Manet’s work, it is not.

Be amazed and uplifted by Thomas Heatherwick’s designs

As the Paralympics open today, remember the Olympic cauldron, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and his studio.

Thomas Heatherwick's amazing 'Cauldron' for the opening ceremony of the Olympics

If you do not know about Thomas Heatherwick and you are interested in art, then you should follow these links, book into the V & A exhibition, and look out for his design.  Described as the Leonardo da Vinci of his age, he is young and has much more to come.  Any image of his work tells it’s own story.

The Heatherwick Studio website will take you to his projects revealing a range of work from handbags to the new Routemaster bus.  His studio has designed buildings, boats and bridges.  His use of materials is elaborate, varied and without hierarchy.  It is the range of material and object which makes the comparison to Leonardo valid.

Design for Heatherwick's Routemaster London Buses
Design for a boat (!!)

An exhibition of his designs continues at the V&A until 30th September: V&A Heatherwick Exhibition.  Below are some helpful links, but click www.heatherwick.com and be amazed and uplifted.

http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital/2012/05/review-making-thomas-heatherwick

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/heatherwick-studio/about-the-exhibition/

Thomas Heatherwick: Building the Seed Cathedral. TED talk