Scrolls and Mountains: Sublime Art and Politics

My husband and I recently went to the V&A – yes that museum again – makes a change from the British Museum exhibitions I guess – we are definitely going there again to see the Vikings – but I digress.  He wanted to see the Chinese paintings they were  exhibiting as he was very interested in them when we went to China a while back.

The Exhibition covered art from the 700s to the 20th century and was of course fascinating. Museums really know how to present exhibitions these days don’t they?

Bada Shanren, 1626—1705

Bada Shanren, 1626—1705 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most interesting things I thought was that these paintings demonstrated that styles are often not as original as you thought.

Take Pointillism. Most people think that Seurat invented this style of painting in the late 1800s, but in fact there were Chinese painters working in this way many hundreds of years before him. Mi Fu painted using a flat brush and dots in the 12th century and was quite widely copied. From his style there developed a style which looked very like Impressionism but again much earlier. So although these French painters and their admirers claimed that their styles were unique and original, they were far from the truth. The question then arises as to whether they had seen these early Chinese works or was it an independent, albeit much later, development?

The very earliest Chinese works on display were religious in nature and were scrolls and flags and banners for the Buddhist temples. Later on some paintings were just in  fact calligraphy – beautiful calligraphy or a sentiment or short poem.. Some were simple flowers of still lives, whilst the later ones were in the style we most associate with Chinese paintings – ie of amazing landscapes.  It all depended on the era in which they were painted as styles of painting and contents were very much influenced by either the Court or the Master painters of the time. At the same time there could be contradictory styles as painters followed different Masters. The idea of following the style of a great Master such as Mi Fu was encouraged by those who bought the paintings of course, because the great houses needed fashionable paintings for display whether or not they agreed with the style. Having a painting which copied a particular style or painting in that style, was more than just fashion though, it also indicated the political leanings of the painters or their buyers – such as whether or not they liked the Mongols who had taken over the country in the 13th and 14th century. Indeed, the V&A says that under Mongol rule, many painters lived in seclusion and channelled their inner thoughts through contemplative works. In Wang Mian’s ‘Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge’, the early flowering plum painted signifies purity and endurance in adversity.

On the other hand the 14 metre long scroll painting ‘Flowers on the River’ by Bada Shanren was painted much later but is an homage to the great Masters of painting from the past  – at the same time as many Chinese painters were looking to the West and Europe for inspiration.

One of the more interesting exhibits was one wall which showed the same notable scene imagined and painted by a number of different artists across the eras in different styles. It was a ‘traditional’ scene of a mountain with a track going up it. In different eras more or fewer people appeared; the animals were there or not there; roads became mountain tracks or led to rest-houses; sometimes the animals were donkeys, sometimes camels, sometimes oxen; or even ponies. sometimes there was a grand waterfall, sometimes just a small bubbling spring and the mountain itself changed shape being more or less pointed or jagged or rounded. But at all times it was recognisable the same scene.

It was also notable that the paintings displayed had red stamps on them – sometimes so many stamps that the painting itself was not that easy to see in its entirety. These stamps were stamps of ownership – it was necessary to indicate that you ‘owned’ an item by putting your stamp on it, and obviously the more stamps, the more often it had changed hands, but where you put the stamp seemed not to be important – or perhaps putting a stamp right in the middle rather in a corner displayed arrogance and said more about the owner and his opinions than the quality of the painting..!

A number of scrolls particularly interested us as they were of Suzhou – one of the towns we had visited in China on our last visit there (see and in particular of the street with all the bridges which held a night market. The town itself  had become quite a centre of a painting, and one painting showed the whole town as a streetscape on a 9 metre long scroll, and many others were of the Humble Administrator’s Garden (or Disgraced of course…).

Decorative boats on a Canal at the edge of dow...

Decorative boats on a Canal at the edge of downtown, Suzhou, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


5 thoughts on “Scrolls and Mountains: Sublime Art and Politics

  1. ukgardenfiend Post author

    We brought Chinese tea and a set for making tea properly with all the implements back with us too, and I have Chinese tea/green tea every morning in bed… We are prepared to pay for good green tea!
    We loved all the formal Chinese gardens and managed to see so many world famous ones on our last visit. – they have mostly been well preserved we found.


  2. lutdtu

    I like your word “arrogance”! Actually the Emperor Qianlong I mentioned in my article was a little bit notorious for his arrogance and like putting stamps or even adding writings on the masterpieces he owned. And I am very happy to know you like our art! Thanks! BTW, have you seen the signature of Bada Shanren?


    1. ukgardenfiend Post author

      Hi there and thanks for reading my article.
      As for Bada Shanren -I’ve seen what he puts on his art that was displayed in the exhibition… I really do like Chinese art (and tea) and have an embroidery from Suzhou that, when I get the time, I shall complete – of plum blossom of course!


      1. lutdtu

        Suzhou is really famous for its eastern landscape architecture and I love Suzhou too! There is saying in China, “Up above there is heaven; down below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou.”



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