85 stars that light up the heavens
There are just 85 stars up there, but my, how they shine! Those stars, Chinese paintings and calligraphic works on display in new sections of the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang, were selected to present a concise history of Chinese fine art as the extensions were officially opened on Aug 17.
“The exhibits include not only the most precious ones in the early stages of Chinese paintings, such as in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but also those of different schools of literati painting in more recent periods,” says Yang Yong, curator of the exhibition.
“What we wanted was a panorama.”
One of the most celebrated is Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair With
Flowers, a masterpiece that will take many viewers back to their childhood, when they would have seen the picture in school textbooks. In more recent years it gained global recognition when it was given a role in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.
“You can see just how elegant these ladies were,” Yang says. “They wore filmy long dresses that dragged along the floor, and there were flowers on their aristocratic chignons.”
The women are accompanied by two small dogs.
The 1.8-meter-long painting on a silk scroll is commonly attributed to Tang Dynasty artist Zhou Fang. It is widely regarded as one of the most important surviving ancient Chinese paintings and as a reference point for studying the Tang Dynasty, an apogee of social development in ancient China.
“Who had painted this work long remained a mystery, until it was finally credited to Zhou relatively recently,” Yang says. “Still, this painting exudes an aura that bears the unmistakable signs of the exquisite Tang Dynasty technique of painting.”
The painting has been remounted many times, Yang says, and during the most recent of these, in the 1970s, it was realized that the work consisted of several connected parts. The dogs, for example, were painted on a separate piece of silk. This strongly suggests the painting was originally used on a folding screen rather than a scroll, he says.
While Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair With Flowers takes pride of place in the Liaoning exhibition, the 38 other stars do their utmost in vying for attention, one of the most prominent among these being the 6.46-meter-long Nymph of the Luo River.
The original scroll by the fourth-century master of fine art Gu Kaizhi, based on a well-known piece of poem-prose about romance with the same title from the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), is the earliest known Chinese painting that narrates a story. However, it was lost to history.
The one on display in Shenyang is a Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) facsimile, Yang says, one of the two best facsimiles that survives, the other being in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
“This facsimile faithfully represents the spirit and artistic style of Gu Kaizhi’s time,” Yang says. “The goddess in bright colors is of noble vintage.”
The Northern Song Dynasty was a peak era for fine art, a national painting academy being established under direct supervision of Emperor Huizong, or Zhao Ji (1082-1135).
There is no doubt that Zhao had his shortcomings as a ruler, but in the arts he was a prolific genius.
One of the Shenyang exhibits, Auspicious Cranes, which Zhao drew when he was 31, is one of his most recognizable works for its eidetic portrayal of 20 cranes hovering or resting on a city gate.
“Unlike with other literati paintings executed in a simple, elegant style, the emperor is able to show off his skills in a complex, flamboyant way,” Yang says.
“This is a rarity, too, in that it includes in one work his painting, calligraphy and seals.”
In calligraphy, Zhao also created a vigorous script called Slender Gold whose characters resemble gold filament. Such writing can be seen in Auspicious Cranes.
Calligraphic works by Zhao in other styles are not as well known, but his One Thousand Characters Classic in cursive script offers a new facet. It leads another all-star cast in the opening exhibition of the Liaoning museum’s calligraphy gallery, in which 46 works are on display.
“Studying the strokes, you can discern that Zhao wrote the 1,000 characters almost nonstop on an 11.72-meter-long scroll,” says Dong Baohou, curator of the calligraphy exhibition. “That is a great artistic achievement.” The long paragraph is composed of 1,000 characters, all different from one another.
“The paper itself is very significant culturally,” Dong says. “It tells us about papermaking techniques of the Northern Song Dynasty.” This calligraphy is cited in Sciences and Civilization in
China, the seminal work by the British Sinologist Joseph Needham, who explained its scientific significance.
Dong also especially recommends another item in the exhibition catalog, a Buddhist scripture in running script
(xingshu) by Ouyang Xun. Ouyang is hailed as one of the most important calligraphists during the Tang Dynasty. His works are still widely used in standard calligraphy textbooks today.
“Most of those who know his works are familiar with them through rubbings from stone inscriptions,” Dong says.
“The one on display is a precious exception that gives us a firsthand understanding of his characters.”
In the process of transferring characters to stone, a lot of information about the calligraphy that would have been evident in the paper renderings has been lost.
At least one sample of Ouyang’s calligraphy is known to survive today — the one on display in Shenyang. In addition, there are three that some scholars suggest are his, though others scholars are skeptical.
The exhibition even includes a cursive script ( caoshu) on four old poems credited to Zhang Xu, another celebrated Tang Dynasty calligrapher. It is the only surviving work believed to be his.
“Some people are skeptical about that, too, because there is no other Zhang work to compare it with,” Dong says.
Other big names, such as Ouyang Xiu of the Northern Song, Zhao Gou, an emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and Zhao Mengfu of the Yuan Dynasty (12711368), are also represented in the exhibition.
This all raises the question of why so many top-level national treasures are in the possession of a provincial museum in Northeast China — and most, Yang says, from the Forbidden City in Beijing, also known as the Palace Museum.
It functioned as China’s imperial palace from 1420 to 1911 and is home to myriad former royal collections. Many emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) were avid antique collectors, and among these, paintings and calligraphic works held a special place. Of those collectors, Emperor Qianlong was probably the most zealous.
He left comments on many works. On at least one he wrote: “This is without doubt the original.” That comment relates to text that precedes calligraphy by Ouyang Xun that is on display.
After Qing rule ended, the last emperor, Puyi, continued to live in the Forbidden City until 1924. In that period he secreted many paintings and works of calligraphy out of the palace, ostensibly as gifts for his brothers.
As so-called emperor of “Manchukuo”, the Japanese puppet state in Northeast China that lasted from 1932 to 1945, Puyi held these pieces in its capital known as Xinjing — today’s capital of Jilin province, Changchun — and housed them in his “imperial palace” there.
Puyi abandoned Changchun on the eve of Japan’s surrender, which ended World War II, and many artworks were scattered to places unknown. Puyi also took some artworks by hand and planned to flee to Japan, flying from Shenyang.
However, soldiers of the Soviet Union managed to stop
the aircraft just before it took off, and treasures including Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair With Flowers were prevented from going overseas.
The recovered artworks were later put in the custody of the Northeast Museum, which has become the Liaoning Provincial Museum.
“Along the River During the Qingming Festival also got into our collection this way,” Yang says, smiling, “but it was eventually returned to the Palace Museum.”
Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by the Northern Song painter Zhang Zeduan, is without doubt the most famous ancient Chinese painting. When it last went on public display, in 2015, there were long lines as people waited just to get a glimpse of it.
The new Liaoning Provincial Museum covers 100,000 square meters, making it the biggest provincial-level museum in China. It is the product of the old museum being reestablished in another location, and it opened three years ago.
With the opening of ancient painting and calligraphy galleries, all of its 22 exhibition halls are now fully open to the public.
“We’ve come so late,” says Ma Baojie, the museum’s curator. “But we’re well prepared now. You can be sure that more than 70 percent of these exhibits are at the absolute pinnacle of quality.”
Ma, thus allowing a little room for modesty, says the collection is not big enough, given that the museum houses only about 10,000 ancient paintings and calligraphic works. The Palace Museum has more than 130,000 such artifacts, and after any of its paper-based works are shown, they are put into hibernation for at least three years.
For the Liaoning museum to support permanent galleries, putting works on ice for such long stretches is no doubt out of the question, but Ma stresses that no matter how famous an item is, it can only be exhibited for three months at most in one rotation to leave enough time for everything else.
Works will be rotated three times a year, and the two galleries will be closed for three months each year, Ma says.
Late last year and early this year, the Liaoning Provincial Museum and eight major museums nationwide took part in National Treasure, a China Central Television variety show, and three artifacts from the Liaoning museum, including Nymph of the Luo River, were presented to TV audiences with a comprehensive telling of the stories behind them.
On the back of the program’s phenomenal success, the number of people visiting the Liaoning museum and others featured in the program swelled considerably.
Higher visitor numbers in museums throughout China are placing huge stress on their managements, and one way they are trying to deal with this is by introducing digital displays of exhibits. However, Ma says it is essential that the museums continue to offer “something real”.
“For visitors, seeing original artifacts for themselves cannot be beaten. The use of digital methods or derivative cultural products can only be additional to that. Top-level treasures need to be exhibited more often.”
His plan is to use technology to ensure that the atmospheric conditions of exhibition cases approximate as near as possible those of the warehouse in which they are stored, the temperature being kept between 18 C and 20 C and humidity at between 55 and 58 percent.
“However, the main thing is to keep an eye on the wellbeing of the works, and if any abnormal data are detected, to remove them from display.”
Setting a daily cap on visitor numbers to painting and calligraphy galleries is also a possibility, he says.
The Liaoning Provincial Museum says about 5 percent of its total collection is on display at any one time — one of the highest among Chinese museums.
Eighty-five star paintings and calligraphic works are on display at the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang.
AuspiciousCranes by Northern Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong, or Zhao Ji (1082-1135).
Eighty-five star paintings and calligraphic works were selected to present a concise history of Chinese fine art.
A Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) facsimile of fourth century master of fine art Gu Kaizhi’s NymphoftheLuoRiver.
Court Ladies AdorningTheir Hair with Flowers