Christopher Allen and the art of Emperor Qianlong at the NGV
THE JESUITS ADOPTED CHINESE DRESS AND CUSTOMS AND, MOST IMPORTANT, MASTERED THE LANGUAGE
A Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor, 1736-95 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until June 21.
This exhibition deals with a period late in China’s long history, many centuries after the great ages of the Tang (618-907) and Sung (960-1279) dynasties. In the 13th century, the Mongolian Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, established the Yuan dynasty, but Han Chinese rule was restored with the Ming dynasty in 1368. After the decline of Ming power in the early 17th century, and taking advantage of peasant revolts in the south, the Manchu invaded from the north and established the Qing dynasty, which endured until 1912.
Even more strikingly than the Mongols, the Manchu illustrate a principle that we can also see in the Turkic invasions of Persia, the Arabic invasion of large parts of the Eastern Roman Empire and of Persia, and the Germanic invasions of the Western Roman Empire: that when barbarians conquer a civilised people, they are in turn, sooner or later, transformed by the superior culture they encounter.
In the case of the Manchu, the assimilation appears to have been more rapid and deeper than that of the Mongols, who never seem to have learned to write Chinese. The Manchu also were fortunate to produce competent and long-lived rulers such as the subject of the present exhibition, who took the reign name Qianlong and who lived to 89, and his grandfather, Kangxi, whose even longer reign, from 1661 to 1722, was almost contemporary with that of Louis XIV in France.
One positive consequence of the Manchu’s foreign origins was no doubt their greater openness to diverse cultural influences and a broadly tolerant policy towards different religions, in contrast to the Ming, who tended to promote the native Chinese traditions of Taoism and Confucianism, and to discourage if not persecute Buddhists. Christians were particular beneficiaries, and of these the Jesuits were the most successful.
Earlier missionaries looked and behaved like foreigners and used translators when they preached. The Jesuits adopted Chinese dress and customs and, most important, mastered the language, producing in the process the first grammars and dictionaries of Chinese in Europe. They were also tolerant of local cultural practices and traditions, which led to complaints by their rivals that they were compromising with paganism.
One Jesuit — a lay brother rather than a priest — is particularly prominent in this exhibition: Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), also known by his Chinese name Lang Shining. He arrived in China in 1714 and spent the rest of his life there, developing a unique fusion between a modified European style — bright, flat and without chiaroscuro — especially for figures, horses and buildings, and a traditional Chinese manner for landscape, rocks and plants.
Castiglione became the pre-eminent court artist of Qianlong’s reign and influenced many local painters, and it is his image of the emperor in a full-scale equestrian portrait that greets the visitor at the opening of the exhibition. The figure is majestic and executed in incredible detail and an almost hyper-real level of finish — seemingly recording every stitch of the elaborate brocaded costume with its five-clawed imperial dragons — yet oddly soft, flat and disembodied compared with the way the same sort of subject would be treated in oil paint and in Europe.
All around and in the following rooms are paintings by the same artist: seated portraits of the emperor and a high-ranking concubine who became the mother of his successor, and views of Qianlong engaged in elaborate court ceremonies or returning with an innumerable train of followers from a deer hunt in the mountains.
In the early rooms, the artistic personality of Castiglione is almost as striking as the image of the emperor, for all the grandeur and the meticulous detail of the paintings he executed in commemoration of his patron. But as we go on we realise that the exhibition has been designed with considerable skill as a portrait of the ruler that leads us progressively from the exterior visible to most of those who would have had the opportunity to see him in life, towards the more private individual known to far fewer of his contemporaries.
Thus the early rooms emphasise his ceremonial image, wearing the sumptuous but stiff court costume that combined traditional Chinese design with certain features, such as the form of the sleeves or the formal headdresses, that alluded to a specifically Manchu identity. They show him engaged in the official public activities of the monarch, which were even more
complicated and theatrically staged than those of Louis XIV at Versailles.
A later room deals with the question of religion and takes us, for the first time, past the official image and closer to the man himself. The original religion of the Manchu was shamanism and they had established shamanistic rituals, no doubt to the disgust of Chinese traditionalists, as part of the routine of the court. But, as already mentioned, they were tolerant of wide variety of religions that were practised within the empire.
Qianlong himself was drawn to Buddhism, particularly to Tibetan Buddhism. His personal guru and spiritual adviser belonged to the same tradition today represented by the Dalai Lama. There are several fine works — sculptures and a beautiful jade bowl inscribed with a sutra in gold characters — that allude to this tradition, but most revealing are two portraits of the emperor in the guise of important Buddhist figures.
In one he appears as Vimalakirti, who was a contemporary and early supporter of Gautama Buddha. In this painting he sits in conversation with Manjushri, Bodhisattva of wisdom. In a second, even more striking work, executed in the flat and stylised Tibetan manner, the emperor is shown as the Bodhisattva himself, surrounded by lotuses and with his guru represented in a roundel above his head.
The last room introduces us to the most intimate level of this complex portrait. Here we discover the ruler as collector and connoisseur but also as painter and poet, assuming and embodying the Chinese ideal of the scholar-artist. Instead of the formal and elaborately embroidered ceremonial costume of Castiglione’s official portraits, we find him dressed in the loose clothes of the Chinese intellectual.
Nothing further from the official pomp of the court can be imagined than a mountainous landscape in which the monarch is seen sitting on a rock in the middle of a clearing, accompanied only by a boy who prepares tea over a charcoal brazier: a scene familiar from older paintings of similar subjects and from Chinese writings that catalogue the best ways to enjoy natural sites, music or poetry. His genuine love of art is clear from a painting attributed to Ming period master Ni Zan, representing a garden that the artist himself had laid out in collaboration with a Buddhist abbot. When the emperor was in the south on an official tour and realised that the garden was still in existence, he sent for the scroll so that he could compare the painting with the site that had inspired it.
We know this because he added an inscription to the original scroll. He also made a copy of the painting with further annotations and poems. These and other examples of his painting, poetry and calligraphy demonstrate his complete assimilation of the practices that, within the Chinese tradition, represented the most refined expressions of the civilised mind.
All of this is particularly interesting when we know the emperor also strongly supported Man- chu traditions and the Manchu language. He wanted to protect and preserve the specific tradition of his family and people, but at the same time he aspired to personify the ideals of an undeniably more sophisticated culture. Perhaps this was even more important as the territorial expansion that he and his forebears had achieved had turned China into a vast and multi-ethnic empire.
A couple of works reveal even more surprisingly private aspects of the emperor’s personality, such as a beautiful landscape of 1763 that is copied from another Ming period master, Xiang Shengmo, representing a scholar in his study looking out on to a snow-covered landscape, with the scholar repainted as a portrait of Qianlong. In the accompanying inscription, he rather touchingly admits that because of his inexperience in painting figures, he had asked Castiglione to execute the portrait. The emperor was about 52 at the time, and his Jesuit friend, who after close to a half-century living in China must have absorbed the culture almost as deeply as the monarch, was 75.
Much later and after Castiglione’s death, there is a mysterious double portrait of Qianlong that is signed by the emperor but must be mostly if not entirely painted by court artists, because it is in the precise and illustrative style of professional painters rather than the more informal manner of the amateur scholar paint- er, which has always been most highly esteemed in the Chinese tradition and was practised by Qianlong.
He is seen sitting in a study surrounded by the antiquities that he collected and annotated in vast numbers — jades, bronzes, ceramics, mirrors — while a boy pours wine into a cup. The portrait itself is repeated in an identical but reversed bust hanging on a scroll behind him, while the poem inscribed by the emperor muses over whether he is one or two people, a follower of Confucius or of Mozi, who rejected the legalism and family or clan attachment implicit in the Confucian tradition in favour of a more personal sense of integrity and a doctrine of universal love. He seems to conclude, perhaps in a Taoist spirit, that such either-or questions are irrelevant.
The most fundamental political principle of Taoism is that the good ruler exercises his influence not by acting but most essentially by being wise and in a state of harmony. In this spirit, the pursuit of aesthetic and spiritual development can be understood as having a political dimension, even if in reality we know that some of the ministers to whom the practical administration of the state was entrusted were corrupt in the later years of the reign.
At any rate, the sincerity of the emperor’s pursuit of personal cultivation is not in doubt. His collections were not intended to impress others, for they belonged to his private world, and his practice of painting attests to his love of art and his profound feeling for nature. One work in the final room is a large landscape that he executed, depicting a favourite mountain retreat. Every time Qianlong visited this place where he could no doubt imagine himself as a reclusive scholar communing with nature, he would take out his painting and inscribe a new poem. After many years and many sojourns, scarcely a spot remains uncovered by his calligraphic meditations.
From far left, Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback
(1839) by Giuseppe Castiglione; Spring’s Peaceful Message Depicting Prince Hongli (Future Qianlong Emperor) and His Father Emperor Yongzheng (c. 1736) by Castiglione; Qianlong Emperor Appraising (1780); Chinese empress’s sleeveless ceremonial surcoat