Wed, Oct 13, 2010 - Page 15 News List

Twilight’s beauty


By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff Reporter

The National Palace Museum’s new exhibition, Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song, brings together treasures from several institutions in a dazzling overview of the dynasty’s artistic achievements.


Established in 1127 after a military collapse that precipitated the loss of its northern heartlands to the nomadic Jurchen people, the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋) was very much an empire on the defensive. This sense of being an island of civilization amid a rising tide of barbarism made it super sensitive to the achievements of Chinese culture, and even as it battled incursions on its borders, it took the glittering traditions of the Tang (唐) and Northern Song (北宋) dynasties and further refined them.

The Southern Song Dynasty, beleaguered militarily from without, and plagued by political dissension from within, produced artists who reached a pinnacle of creativity and technical skill that has, arguably, never been equaled.

The exhibition Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song (文藝紹興 — 南宋藝術與文化特展), which opened last week in the main gallery of the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院), has brought together a staggering amount of material from this relatively short-lived dynasty (the Southern Song lasted 153 years before being overcome by the Mongols under Kublai Khan). To complement its own extensive holdings of Southern Song artifacts, the museum has arranged loans from 10 other institutions, including the Tokyo Museum and Kyoto National Museum in Japan, and the Shanghai Museum (上海博物館), Liaoning Provincial Museum (遼寧省博物院), Zhejiang Provincial Museum (浙江省博物館) and Fujian Museum (福建省博物院) in China. The exhibition comprises a total of 410 items spread over 10 galleries.

This is an important exhibition for anyone interested in Chinese culture, but perhaps more significantly still, it is very accessible for those without specialist knowledge. Credit must go to the curators who worked long and hard in the presentation and layout of the objects, and for the English language explanatory materials, which are more extensive and helpful than usual.

Exhibition notes

What: Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song (文藝紹興 — 南宋藝術與文化特展)

When: Daily from 8:30am to 6:30pm, with extended opening until 8:30pm on Saturdays. Until Dec. 26

Where: National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院), 221 Zhishan Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市至善路二段221號)

Admission: General admission is NT$160, NT$80 for students. Free admission during extended hours on Saturdays

The most appealing aspect of the artifacts is the profound “humanism” that pervades Southern Song art. This is not a reference to the humanism of Enlightenment Europe, but more generally a sense of individuality and the importance of self-cultivation, aspects of Southern Song life that jive very closely with modern sensibilities.

A number of emperors during the Southern Song Dynasty were artists of the first rank, as in the case of Gao Zong (宋高宗), whose letter Imperial Order Presented to Yue Fei (賜岳飛手敕) is cherished not just as an important historical document, but for its outstanding penmanship, which combines a clear understanding of the finest calligraphic tradition with the charm of a unique personality. What’s more, one can even guess at the type of man Gao Zong might have been from the fine official portrait of the emperor that is included in the exhibition. He was one of the first Chinese emperors for whom we have trustworthy contemporary likenesses that go beyond merely ritual images of imperial dignity.

There are many other fine works of calligraphy on display, which apart from their artistic accomplishment, also provide an insight into the mixture of precariousness and self-belief that characterized the Southern Song.

Calligraphing Poetry (字書詩), written by the administrator and poet Lu You (陸游), is a calligraphic exercise of transcription that records ancient poems, which might otherwise have been lost.

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