Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 30, 2007
Lin Po-t’ing, ed. Grand View: A Special Exhibition of Northern Sung Painting and Calligraphy Exh. cat. Taipei: National Palace Museum, 2007. 495 pp.; 196 color ills. Cloth (1009503912)
Exhibition schedule: National Palace Museum, Taipei, December 25, 2006–March 25, 2007

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, there is a scene in the Forbidden City after the 1911 Republican Revolution in which the already abdicated last emperor P’u-i (John Lone) warned his two chief eunuchs with these words: “I’ve recently learned that many pieces from the imperial collections were on sale in the antique stores of Peking!” Palace eunuchs were notorious thieves of imperial treasures. The Forbidden City, first built from 1406 to 1420, was not only the world’s largest palace complex for the twenty-four successive emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, but also the home to the magnificent imperial collections of art and artifacts. When the Forbidden City was turned into the Palace Museum in 1925, a twenty-eight-volume inventory of the imperial collections listed more than 1,170,000 items. In 1933, to protect these treasures on the eve of the Japanese invasion, the finest of them were packed into 13,500 crates and bundles and shipped out of Peking for safe-keeping. In 1948–49 before the Communists’ takeover, the Nationalists selected 232,629 items in 2,972 crates and shipped them to Taiwan. Finally in 1961 the building of the National Palace Museum was completed in Taipei as a home to the shipped treasures, including a world-renowned collection of Northern Sung painting and calligraphy. Not a single item was damaged or lost during the decades of turmoil, thanks to the great care of the museum’s dedicated curatorial staff, without which so magnificent an exhibition like Grand View: Painting and Calligraphy of the Northern Sung would not have been possible.

The Grand View exhibition comprises forty-six paintings and thirty calligraphic works, all from the National Palace Museum’s permanent collection shipped in 1948–49, except for two paintings and one piece of calligraphy on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and another two paintings from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. The paintings are classified into six categories: landscape, genre and narrative, the animated world, figures of likeness, building and architectural subjects, and nomads of the north. Similarly, the works of calligraphy are grouped into three themes: collecting antiquity, calligraphy as painting of the mind, and life’s elegant pleasures. For conservation’s sake, a number of the designated “restricted-viewing” masterpieces are exhibited only in one of the two scheduled rotations, December 25, 2006–February 7, 2007 or February 8–March 25, 2007.

To approach the six galleries of the Grand View exhibition on the museum’s second floor, one must first climb, full of anticipation, up two long flights of stairs reminiscent of the long stairways of the Forbidden City. The entrance to the exhibition is an extended hallway. On the left is the introductory wall text written in the sequence of the museum’s three major languages of Chinese, English, and Japanese. It addresses the significance of Grand View both in the history of the museum and in the study of Chinese art history, not only because works of Northern Sung painting and calligraphy are extremely rare today and the National Palace Museum’s collection is the largest and most important of the kind worldwide, but also because an exhibition of such scale and caliber is “truly a once-in-a-lifetime event,” as stated repeatedly in all printed and virtual publicity materials. On the other side of the hallway, Hsü Tao-ning’s Fishermen (ca. 1049, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, cat. 8) marks the beginning of the exhibition—a somewhat odd, low-key choice, but the horizontal format of the scroll fits the hallway. Hsü started his painting career as an herbal medicine vendor on the capital’s streets and would wrap purchases with his sketches of trees and rocks to make his name known. His landscape art was praised in his time for meticulous precision and refined subtleties, all of which are evidenced in Fishermen.

The change from the dim narrow hallway to the High Gallery is theatrically dramatic, as one not only steps into a well-lit, high-ceiling space but also faces the conjoined hanging of four monumental landscape scrolls inside a giant glass wall case that is around thirty-feet tall and fifty-feet wide. Fan Kuan’s Travelers among Mountains and Streams (ca. 1000, cat. 6) and Kuo Hsi’s Early Spring (1072, cat. 9), the two foremost surviving hallmarks of Northern Sung landscape art, are placed in the center like a double-charged magnet, immediately attracting every visitor’s attention. Although the pairing of the two has been a frequent classroom exercise of comparative analysis for almost every student of Chinese art, exploring them in their true appearances and colors in the gallery is an endlessly eye-opening and gratifying experience. To the right of Travelers is the controversial Riverbank (Metropolitan Museum of Art, cat. 3). The painting bears a signature of the tenth-century Tung Yuan but its authenticity and date have been openly challenged by other scholars. The hanging of Riverbank alongside Travelers and Early Spring offers a rare opportunity for connoisseurship study. Li T’ang’s Whispering Pines in Myriad Valleys (1124, cat. 14) on the extreme left marks the end of Northern Sung monumental landscape painting with a new closer-up spatial conception. These paintings by Fan Kuan, Kuo Hsi, and Li T’ang chronicle the development of the three major brush idioms of Northern Sung landscape painting: respectively, the “rain-drop” strokes that define mass and volume; the “floating-clouds-like” graded ink washes that transform mass into motion; and the “ax-cut” technique that describes surface textures. Clearly, the High Gallery is the heart of the exhibition and the paintings on display there are intended to dazzle both the eye and mind of the viewer.

Leaving the High Gallery and passing through another narrow hallway, one arrives at the Main Gallery, a large T-shaped open space that holds the remaining forty paintings. These works are in the formats of vertical or horizontal scrolls, fans, or album leaves, each with different sizes and measurements. Their installation shows many thoughtful considerations by the curatorial staff that enhance the visitor’s viewing experience. For example, landscape paintings are placed at the entrance to connect with those in the High Gallery. The wall of four imperial portraits, including the artist-emperor Hui-tsung’s, is followed by the large hanging scroll Literary Gathering (ca. 1101–1125, cat. 24) attributed to Hui-tsung on the next wall. An LCD flat-screen monitor nearby plays a digital video showing recent conservation of the painting. An additional and larger LCD monitor displays other educational videos in a multimedia room next to the main gallery. Rows of benches and a table of exhibition catalogues are arranged for visitors’ convenience. The T-shaped gallery with its openness and turns is ideal for both exhibiting and viewing, and accommodates the flow of traffic well. Because of the fragility of the traditional mediums ink, color on silk, or paper, the gallery’s lighting is kept dim but still sufficient enough for the viewer to see details of the paintings and to read the Chinese-English bilingual exhibition labels.

In Northern Sung writing about art, imperial portraiture was always listed among the first, with entries describing figurative and religious paintings, a long-established hierarchical convention followed to the present day. For example, in the National Palace Museum’s 2000 exhibition of Sung art and culture, China at the Inception of the Second Millennium: Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, 960–1279, four imperial portraits were used to mark the beginning of the exhibition. In Grand View, however, the (different) four imperial portraits (cat. 35–38) are placed only as the fourth in the sequence after landscape, genre/narrative, and birds and flowers. This change of position, whether due to space limitations or curatorial choice, is at odds with the strong emphasis on the Northern Sung emperorship and imperial patronage of art in the exhibition’s publicity materials: the title “Grand View” (Ta-kuan) is a direct borrowing from the title of Hui-tsung’s reign era of 1107–1110; the calligraphy of “Grand View” is derived from Hui-tsung’s distinct “Slender-Gold” style; and the exhibition poster features none other than a portrait of Hui-tsung (cat. 37)! Visitors would expect to see the imperial portraits when they walk into the exhibition.

Twenty-eight of the thirty scrolls of calligraphy (with two on rotation) are divided into three groups and installed in three small wing-like galleries adjacent to the High and Main Galleries. By the time of the Northern Sung, calligraphy had long been esteemed as a higher form of art than painting because of its close ties to classical education and literature and its unique form of linear beauty and emotional expressiveness. Works of past masters were among the most sought-after treasures for the early Northern Sung emperors. During the eleventh century calligraphy developed into a form of individual expression as the “painting of the mind” for the rising scholar-official class, many of whom experienced frequent political exiles. This new calligraphy was best represented by the “Four Great Masters”—Ts’ai Hsiang, Su Shih, Huang T’ing-chien, and Mi Fu—and specimens of their best surviving works are included in the exhibition. Enthusiasts of Northern Sung literati calligraphy might feel moved by Su Shih’s Rain on the Cold Food Observance (cat. 57) written in 1082 during his first exile, Huang T’ing-chien’s Poem on the Hall of Whispering Pines (cat. 62) written in 1102 after his own exile and Su Shih’s death the year before, and Mi Fu’s Poems on Szechwan Silk (cat. 63) written in 1088 for a senior official colleague and friend. Although the installation follows a clear chronology of the artists and their exhibited works, the intended timeline is much interrupted by the physical separation of the three galleries on the different sides of the High and Main Galleries.

The catalogue is a handsome and substantial volume, both a visual feast to the eye and an invaluable study source with an updated bibliography. Three features are immediately noticeable: all illustrations are printed in full color; each full-view illustration is supplemented with between one and four details; and most of the illustrations are full-page or even double-page in size. The catalogue does not have any introductory essays. Part of the reason may have been the exhibition’s conjunction with a four-day international conference organized by the National Palace Museum, February 5–8 (a volume of the conference proceedings will be published next year). The shift of the two exhibition rotations took place on February 7, so that scholars and other participants of the conference were able to see the complete works of the exhibition.

The catalogue entries, a collaborative work by an able fourteen-member curatorial staff of the museum’s Painting and Calligraphy Department, aim to reflect rigorously the latest scholarship, including scholarly disagreements and debates (e.g., cat. 1, 10, 13, 21, 39, 42, 51, 55). It seems that despite all the advancements, issues of connoisseurship remain essential to our further understanding and interpretation of Northern Sung art. These catalogue entries are easily adapted into succinct and jargon-free gallery labels. There is, however, confusion in a number of entry texts and their corresponding gallery labels, caused by ambiguous and even contradictory attributions and dates. For example, Traveling in a Mountain Pass (cat. 2) is listed both as a work of Kuan T’ung (mid-tenth century) and as a mid-eleventh-century anonymous work. So is Sitting Alone by a Stream (cat. 7), another landscape painting listed under Fan K’uan’s name, but also dated two centuries later to the thirteenth century. Mountain Villa (cat. 13) is listed as a work of Li Kung-lin but discussed in the entry text only as one of several later copies of Li’s original. These obvious inconsistencies should and could have been solved or at least explained to readers. In addition to the painting and calligraphy exhibition, Grand View includes two smaller exhibitions: Ju Ware of the Northern Sung and Sung Rare Books. Each is also accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue.

More than half a century ago the study of Northern Sung art in the United States began. Over the decades it has grown enormously, thanks to the contributions from a generation of pioneering scholars, including the late Benjamin Rowland, Max Loehr, and Wai-kam Ho, and the recently retired James Cahill, Wen Fong, and Richard Barnhart, among others. These recent retirements in particular have resulted in early signs of decline of PhD programs in Northern Sung art at U.S. universities, which accordingly affects the field of Northern Sung art study. In this regard, the Grand View exhibition, together with its international conference, comes as a timely rain to stimulate fresh interest in Northern Sung art and to inspire a new generation of students to become specialists in this immensely rich yet still much understudied field of Chinese and world art history.

Heping Liu
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Wellesley College

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