The tallest secular building in ancient China could only be two stories high. There was an unwritten rule: you should not build your own mansion taller than the neighboring one, all for the sake of maintaining good relations in the community. However, already in the days of the Song dynasty, reigning in the 10th to 13th centuries, there were government-approved norms of urban design as well. We learned about this at the “Palace in the Mountains” exhibition, which continues at the National Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Art. The exhibits include 24 scrolls dating to the 18th through 20th centuries, as well as Chinese works of decorative and applied arts, all coming from the collection of the museum.
A PICTURE AS A DRAWING
Chinese understood the importance of the type of space created by a person. Thus, there was even a separate genre of painting which depicted buildings, called jiehua, that is, “picturing the world.” Thanks to Chinese artists’ liking for copying classic models, the Khanenko Museum lets one to get an idea of the different periods of the genre’s history, because many of the works presented are remakes of more ancient works.
“Chinese architectural painting is a variety of the genre of ‘mountains and water,’ that is, landscape. Buildings should fit into the landscape where mountains, water bodies, clouds, trees, lumps of stone have already been harmonized. Into this inconceivable, arbitrary, to some extent chaotic, natural environment, the artist should insert something that has precise measurements and is painted with the help of a ruler,” said Marta Lohvyn, the curator of the exhibition and a leading research fellow at the Oriental art department of the Khanenko Museum.
A ruler is not a metaphor. There was the gongbi style, literally meaning “meticulous brush.” It demanded very careful detailed painting, even down to a bird’s feathers, and clear lines, so the buildings were painted with the help of a special ruler without a scale. Moreover, such paintings could serve as drawings, allowing one to construct a real mill or distillery. However, Lohvyn added that this skill had been lost after the Song’s demise.
DREAMING OF A HUT
In contrast to the gongbi, there was also the xieyi style, that is, “conveying meanings.” Its main feature was to convey the general impression of a subject. An artist, often a titled and enlightened individual, conveyed the shape of, say, a mountain temple with several impetuous lines. This style was popular under the Ming dynasty, which lasted from the 14th to the 17th century.
“Court intrigues meant a lot at the time, and courtiers dreamed of becoming hermits, they liked to paint it at least,” Lohvyn said. “Courtiers believed that only artisans were interested in making a precise engraving of something in stone, lacquer or ivory. Meanwhile, these free artists and scholars sought to get rid of social conventions and paint figuratively. For example, they painted hermits, with whom they identified themselves. Also, they left on scrolls many inscriptions, telling about themselves, their sources of inspiration and other things.”
However, the emperor probably never tired of the magnificence and detail. Lohvyn mentioned the story of Qiu Ying, a 16th-century master who first created lacquered items, and then mastered painting and very accurately depicted architecture in his works. The works of this artist impressed the supreme ruler so much that he made the painter a courtier.
The skill of Chinese artisans is really impressive. The exhibition “Palace in the Mountains” displays a 19th-century bamboo stack for brushes, which surprises the viewer not only with the accuracy of landscapes, but also with their three-dimensional nature.
A PR PICTURE
Along with huts, Chinese artists painted also palaces, both real and fictional. For instance, one of the scrolls depicts white-robed saints taking a walk on the terraces of a grand building far away in the mountains.
Images of real palaces could become political advertisements as well. For example, look at a picture of the legendary Pavilion of Prince Teng. It was built in the 7th century and described in folk songs, but it suffered a lot throughout its history from civil strife, experiencing 29 rebuildings. The picture of the rebuilt monument, painted in the 19th century, shows the wisdom of the then rulers.
Some palaces captivated imagination of artists for many centuries. Jade Terraces on a Spring Morning is the poetic title of a painting done in the manner of Li Sixun, who lived in the 7th and 8th centuries. It depicts a palace of the Han era, which lasted from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. In his time, Li was inspired by the grandeur and scale of ancient palaces, and his take on this subject became canonical, so that paintings from different centuries which are based on his work are held by museums all over the world.
A DIZZYING LANDSCAPE
The Old Toper’s Pavilion is the oldest such building in China, having been constructed in 1045. The “Palace in the Mountains” exhibition displays a painting depicting it, which was created in the manner of the abovementioned Qiu. The pavilion is still there after numerous alterations, but the artist portrayed it in a free manner, adding something from himself.
The structure has nothing to do with topers, or drunkards, apart from the fact that one can get drunk from the landscape that can be observed from it, because this monument is located on a dizzying mountain winding road. “It was built by a very talented writer, historiographer, and calligrapher Ouyang Xiu,” Lohvyn said. “He was a courtier, occupied a high position, but his wife’s relatives fell into disgrace through some intrigue, and he suffered with them. Ouyang was sent to a noble exile where he served as imperial governor of the remote Anhui province. The scholar was only 38, but he felt tired of life and invented his pseudonym ‘Old Toper.’ On the scroll, we see a text of his authorship, an elegy about this pavilion.”
Ouyang was the author of the pavilion’s idea and helped with attracting workers. His monk friend designed the structure, and a local moneybag funded construction.
A MYSTERIOUS BIRD
Among the scrolls on display, there is a horizontal one, entitled A Goose Released. It is three meters long, so spectators can see only a small part of it. In general, such scrolls were never hung on the walls, as they were watched like filmstrips instead.
“Spectators went from right to left. They unwrapped the scroll one cubit a time, watched the opened fragment, rolled it in and moved on, unwrapped another fragment, and so on to the end,” explained the curator of the exhibition. “A small company could gather for that purpose, people ate delicious meals, drank wine, watched the scrolls and discussed them. Then they could write something on colophons, which are special strips of paper which are added in front or behind a scroll, creating something like a book of reviews.”
The painting tells the story of a man who has released a bird. At first, this work was stored in a museum under the title A Swan Released. This identification was based on the description made by the secretary of the diplomat Andre Stefane Jaspar, whose collection the work previously belonged to. Swan’s Chinese name is literally translated as “heavenly goose,” so the researchers later decided that it depicted a goose. And only recently, having read the author’s signature on the scroll itself, Lohvyn realized that the bird was actually a crane.
“But whatever bird is depicted here, it is barely outlined on the scroll, and we show the part where it is absent,” Lohvyn smiled. “Here we were interested in the diversity of different buildings: houses on piles and on the ground, boats, and a pass with a check point housing a temple.”
A PATRON’S GIFT
The scrolls from the exhibition came into the Khanenko Museum in 1959, donated and sold by Taisia Jaspar. She was the wife of the aforementioned China-based French diplomat Jaspar, who owned a collection of Chinese art. Subsequently, Taisia Jaspar settled in Kyiv. After the death of her husband, she inherited most of his collection, which she then donated to the museum.
“We showed one scroll from this project at an exhibition in 2014, and several others at another exhibition a few years ago. Others have not been shown before at all,” Lohvyn added.
Going by ancient Chinese standards, the exhibition at the Khanenko Museum is a manifestation of great generosity. In the Middle Kingdom, scrolls were hung on display for several months, and then wrapped up and kept carefully.
So, do not miss the opportunity to take a walk amidst Chinese architectural landscapes. The “Palace in the Mountains” exhibition will run until May 13.