The National Palace Museum (NPM) opened five new exhibitions this week, which focus on the development of Chinese visual art and Chinese writing. The Art and Aesthetics of Form (造型與美感) presents scrolls from the history of Chinese painting so as to give an overview of the development of painting. It begins with the Six Dynasties (222 to 589) and Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) eras, when the principles of figure painting were established. The exhibit then reveals the evolution of landscape painting from various locations during the Five Dynasties (907 to 960), and includes bird-and-flower paintings. The exhibit goes on to argue that a major compositional shift took place in the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279), when painters no longer emphasized mountains and rolling hills, and instead focused on intimate scenery, which the museum says reflects a “political, economic and cultural shift to the south.” During the Southern Song (1127 to 1279), the focus on the Three Perfections (三絕, painting, poetry and calligraphy on the same scroll) becomes the rage, with artists moving beyond appearance of external forms to express the ideas and cultivation of the artists – ideas that would be refined into the different schools during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) approach of “synthesizing” disparate ancient styles into a refined style that incorporates forms and ideas into one painting.
Oversized Hanging Scrolls and Album Leaves (巨幅書畫) features selections of large scrolls mainly from the Qing Dynasty with themes that include religious iconography (pagodas and seated Buddhas) and marine life studies of horseshoe crabs, snails, crabs and shrimp.
Whereas Art and Aesthetics of Form paints Chinese art in broad historical brushstrokes, Joy to the People (萬民同樂) presents different aspects of a single painting: Wang Zhenpeng’s (王振鵬) Regatta on Dragon Lake (鵬龍池競渡), painted during the Yuan Dynasty. This joyous painting celebrates the annual dragon boat festival and depicts various leisure activities associated with it such as water puppetry, water swinging and, of course, various kinds of dragon boats populated by literati scholars.
Pure Enjoyment in a Planter (盆中清翫) depicts the art of penjing (盆景), or pottery scenery, and uses plants and sometimes rocks to combine design and horticulture within the limited space of a planter. Penjing arrangements, according to the museum’s press blurb, are typically divided into two categories: plants and miniature trees, including their leaves, blossoms and fruits; while the latter features select rocks and fine planters to serve as a foil for the vegetation. The foundation for the techniques of plant and landscape pottery scenery established in the Song and Yuan dynasties led to the wide diversity of penjing art forms during the following Ming and Qing dynasties.
For those interested in the history and development of Chinese writing, The Ancient Art of Writing (筆有千秋業) provides an ideal introduction. It begins with writing samples over two millennia old, and seeks to show the development of different forms of calligraphy arranged chronologically from the Qin Dynasty (221BC to 206 BC) and Han Dynasty (206BC to 220) when the seal script was standardized, up to the Qing Dynasty, when an ancient script revival was underway analogous to that found in painting.