The Song Dynasty, which ruled China from 960 to 1279, was one of the pinnacles of Chinese art, when the robust ostentation of the preceding Tang Dynasty gave way to an almost manic appreciation of subtlety and nuance. In many ways, the art of tapestry as presented in this exhibition at the National Palace Museum is typical of the period — and casual observers could easily miss its almost insane level of technical complexity.
Walking past the works that make up Weaving a Tapestry of Splendors, a visitor might be excused for thinking that this is yet another display of Chinese painting — one that is attractive and accomplished, but among the other riches on display hardly startling.
The magnified sections of works, which have been enlarged between five to 60 times the original size, reveal how truly exceptional they are through showing the intricacy of the weave, which is only visible to the naked eye under close observation.
Tung Wen-e (童文娥) of the museum’s Department of Painting and Calligraphy, who is curating the show, said that the tapestries can first be appreciated as painting, then at a closer level, admired for their craftsmanship.
The provision of explanatory English notes in the display cases is helpful in providing insight into the artistry of the works.
Tung said the tapestry was so labor intensive that production virtually ceased after a period of efflorescence during the Song Dynasty. “A single panel might take as much as a year to create,” Tung said, “and because the thread is not continuous, it is delicate and easily damaged.”
All the exhibition’s examples were taken from the imperial collection and are now preserved as framed leaves or scrolls to be appreciated as visual art, rather than serving any utilitarian purpose. Tung said their creators often worked from paintings, with threads dyed in a huge range of subtly different shades to achieve an effect that is almost as delicate as brushwork.
WHAT: Weaving a Tapestry of Splendors — Bird and Flower Tapestry of the Song Dynasty
WHEN: Until June 25. Open daily from 9am to 5pm, closes at 8:30pm on Saturdays
WHERE: National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院), Main Exhibition Building (正館展覽大樓), exhibition rooms 208, 216 (208, 216室), 221 Zhishan Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市至善路二段221號)
Tung said that she had focused exclusively on flowers and birds for this exhibition to highlight the incredible delicacy that Song Dynasty tapestry had achieved.
Unlike weaving or embroidery, tapestry creates a product in which the image can be seen and appreciated from front and back. It also allowed for very intricate shading and delicate lines, both of which are particularly evident in this exhibit.
Tapestry is not one of the major Chinese art forms, and unlike calligraphy or painting, is not often put on display. Moreover, the very early dates of these works, and their excellent condition, make this exhibition of particular interest.