Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Visions of the Sublime

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Visions of the Sublime

Article excerpt

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 V&A, until 19 January 2014 Exultant Strangeness: Graham Sutherland Landscapes Crane Kalman Gallery, 178 Brompton Road, SW3, until 16 November George Rowlett: East Kent and the River Thames Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter's Street, N1, until 15 November The V&A's remarkable survey of Chinese painting begins quietly with a beautiful scroll depicting 'Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk', from the early 12th century, which, with its bright colours, shallow space and lack of setting, invites comparison with a western masterpiece of a similar date, the Bayeux Tapestry. The crowded urgencies and narrative drive of the English/French embroidered cloth couldn't be further from the refined intervals and sophisticated relationships of the Chinese scroll, and yet both tell much about the cultures that produced them. However, neither should be read simply as historical documents: both offer rare aesthetic pleasures of quite different distillations. The Chinese elixir seems to me to be particularly effective in landscape painting.

The exhibition is in two halves, subdivided into six successive periods, with the works arranged both chronologically and thematically. The dim lighting conjures a reverential atmosphere suiting the Buddhist devotional images which next appear, though some exhibits are difficult to see in the conservational gloom. For example, the monochrome 'Reading the Memorial Stele' remains indistinct though it looks rather appealing in its tentacular frondiness. Here is an interpretation of landscape that is based upon imaginary visions of the sublime and eternal, rather than the real world. Look, for instance, at the 'Nine Dragons' scroll (1244), by Chen Rong, a fabulous bit of ink drawing with occasional touches of red, humorous and inventive as well as formally brilliant.

(The degree of abstraction here tempts one to christen Chen Rong the master of the curlicue. ) The dragons disport themselves among clouds, water and mountains, symbolising the dynamic forces of nature.

Hereabouts are a company of oval or circular vignettes, of which 'Bare Willows and Distant Mountains' and 'Wintry Forest' are fine examples, though the most memorable for me is 'Temple Among Snowy Hills', because of its resemblance to the drawing style of John Craxton. Echoes abound of modern British artists - Adrian Berg is another painter that came to mind as I wandered round this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, especially when admiring the jewel-like colour and sublime interlocking patterns of 'Saying Farewell at Xunyang' by Qiu Ying, from the first half of the 16th century. Poetry and image come together in a group of artists called the literati, who mingled painting, calligraphy and poetry to good effect, though often just this side of preciousness.

And when the Chinese began quoting and redoing western Old Masters, the effect could be rather disastrous.

In much of the later work, mountains are piled on each other in what amounts to a mannerism; these paintings simply don't have the naturalness of the earlier interpretations. Much purer is 'Bamboo and Rock' by Zheng Xie (c.1762), influenced by indigenous ancient stone carvings. I thoroughly enjoyed the captivating flow of syncopated forms and accents in 'Flowers on the River' by Bada Shanren (1697), depicting the life cycle of the lotus flower from budding through bloom to death, the great scroll ending with the challenging uplands of old age. …

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