Curator's choice: highlights from 'Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900'

Six works to seek out at the V&A's autumn show, as chosen by its curator, Hongxing Zhang

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Ahead of the V&A’s major autumn show, which covers more than 1,200 years of Chinese art, curator Hongxing Zhang guides us through the dynasties and selects a key painting from each period.

  • Tang dynasty 618-907AD

    ‘Apsaras’, unknown artist (c700-800)

    Under the Tang Dynasty, China became the largest and most powerful empire in the world and attracted a proliferation of artists. Buddhism was a major influence in Chinese culture and an astonishing numbers of Buddhist paintings were produced during this period. Much Buddhist art was destroyed during a period of persecution in the ninth century as the Tang’s strength declined. Most surviving paintings from this period are Buddhist banners and screens, painted on silk and characterised by their bright colours, like the one above (apsaras are Buddhist spirits, something akin to angels). They were discovered intact in 1900 in a sealed cave near remote Dunhuang on the gateway to the Silk Road.

  • Five dynasties 907-960

    ‘Guanyin of the Thousand Hands and Thousand Eyes’, unknown artist (c943)

    The political and military decline of the Tang Dynasty continued for many years until no central power remained. Rival groups across the empire vied for supremacy, leading to the quick succession of five dynasties ruling much of northern China. Ten other independent regimes also dominated parts of Southern China. This era of political upheaval resulted in a brief but artistically fertile period as the regional courts sought to emulate the Tang traditions.

  • Song dynasty 960-1279

    ‘Auspicious Cranes’, attributed to Emperor Huizong (c1112)

    The Song emerged to reunify the old empire, developing a golden age of culture. The first period, the Northern Song, saw it rule most of the traditional empire of China, followed by the Southern Song era which saw it lose control of this area but re-establish throughout the south. Although sometimes viewed as a nostalgic time, painting during the Song reign thrived, with growing enthusiasm for the natural world and great advances in landscape. The emperors like Huizong, a renowned poet, calligrapher and painter, took a genuine interest in the arts with the imperial courts of the palace becoming a hub of artistic activity.

  • Yuan dynasty 1279-1368

    ‘Emaciated Horse’, Gong Kai (c1280)

    The conquest of China by the Mongols saw China occupied by a foreign power for the first time. With many Chinese scholars and painters working in public service, they were forced into either living in reclusion or pursue an unrewarding life of working for the harsh Yuan government. The period is characterised by style and expression imbued with philosophical and political meaning with an austere approach to colour. The most striking innovations came from a small group of secluded monks and scholars who were equally skilled in painting, calligraphy and poetry. In strong contrast to the Song Dynasty, it also saw the rise of amateur painters.

  • Ming dynasty 1368-1644

    ‘Dwelling by the Stream in Spring’, Zhou Chen (1475)

    Following a vicious war, the Ming re-established a stable native Chinese government which saw great economic prosperity. The court was a major patron of artists and the early Emperors revived the cultural and artistic supremacy of the past, adding new styles. A great age of painting, poetry and calligraphy followed and demand from all levels of society meant that painters found work in the cities as well as the court. Artists returned to working on silk and using expensive pigments and subject matter ranged from romantic characters or episodes in history and literature, to topographical views of famous sites and gardens and rare animals and plants.

  • Qing dynasty 1644-1911

    Detail of ‘Prosperous Suzhou’, Xu Yang (1759)

    The Ming was violently deposed by the Qing, composed of Manchus from northeast China. While initially unpopular, the regime became enthusiastic patrons of art and was influenced by Western ideas, technology and artistic traditions. This era saw the re-examination of past traditions whereby painters either rivalled their contemporaries and the great masters or were passionate about the grand painting traditions and identified themselves as heirs to this heritage. Contact with the West increased, particularly through Jesuit missionaries and trade and Western styles and techniques such as linear perspective began to influence painting. China became increasingly subject to international demands and a combination of natural disasters and domestic problems contributed to the collapse of the last dynasty and the 2000-year-old imperial system.

Tang dynasty 618-907AD

‘Apsaras’, unknown artist (c700-800)

Under the Tang Dynasty, China became the largest and most powerful empire in the world and attracted a proliferation of artists. Buddhism was a major influence in Chinese culture and an astonishing numbers of Buddhist paintings were produced during this period. Much Buddhist art was destroyed during a period of persecution in the ninth century as the Tang’s strength declined. Most surviving paintings from this period are Buddhist banners and screens, painted on silk and characterised by their bright colours, like the one above (apsaras are Buddhist spirits, something akin to angels). They were discovered intact in 1900 in a sealed cave near remote Dunhuang on the gateway to the Silk Road.


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