Unscrolling the masterpieces that were made in China at the V&A

The UK's first major exhibition of Chinese paintings since 1935 reveals that far from being monolithic, the art of the country is highly individualistic, propelled by artists with their own distinctive styles

It has taken a long time for a major historical survey of Chinese painting to be held in Britain. Not since 1935, before the Japanese occupation and the communist takeover, in fact. You can blame it on Mao and his Cultural Revolution, which deliberately obliterated the idea of courtly or individual artistry and rejected past painting as part of a despised past. But then you could equally blame it on a British imperialism which invaded China twice and forced China into taking opium in return for its goods, a memory that blighted British relations with China for a full century after. The burial artefacts of 4,000 or 5,000 years ago have come to Britain in a post-Mao demonstration of China's ancient culture but very little of the paintings of the last couple of millennia when China produced some of the most sophisticated art of Asia.

The Victoria and Albert Museum's magnificent show Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 puts an end to that. It's an extensive display, covering all the periods from the Tang to the Qing dynasties. Its title is no vain boast. This is a gathering of great works, a good portion of them in the form of scrolls which are rarely unrolled for public gaze. Like the outstanding The Genius of China exhibition of 1973, which first opened up the glories of China's ancient cultures being dug up by its archaeologists, with the flying horse and jade princess, this is an experience that you can't afford to miss.

The theme of the V&A show, in a sign of changing political times, is the individualism of Chinese painting. Most of the discussion about Chinese art post war, and much contemporary work, is about uniformity and control from the top down. The impression has gained hold that the art of the Chinese is somehow monolithic and always has been. Not so, the curators argue, the art of the country has traditionally been highly individualistic, propelled by named artists who have gained their own reputation and influenced styles with their personalised work.

It's a thesis that underrates the importance of imperial patronage on art styles and sidesteps (nationalist politics being what they are) the influence of Japan and the Muslim worlds on Chinese art. It certainly doesn't apply to the first section of the show, in the Tang dynasty from 618-907, when Buddhism dominated the iconography of art with anonymously painted banners on silk and handscrolls. But even here you can see some of the distinctive Chinese features of round faces and flowing robes coming into play. With the coming of the Song dynasty in 960 and the reunification of China, however, you are into a different artistic world.

Bada Shanren’s ‘Flowers on the River’ (1697) Bada Shanren’s ‘Flowers on the River’ (1697) Quite why the dramatic change, and whether it had earlier beginnings, is not explained. But the difference is dramatic. Landscape becomes a major theme of painting, the styles become more individual, perspective comes into play. Even in the paintings here of the 10th and early 11th century, you have the full array of protruding mountains, the bare trees of winter, the mists of morning and the lake waters merging into the sky which make Chinese painting so instantly recognisable. In the paper handscrolls the details are drawn in fluid outline and precise detail, while the figures in the silk hanging scrolls are painted with often caricatured faces and personal expressions.

A hanging scroll by the late-12th-century painter, Zhou Jichang, of Buddhist disciples dropping alms from the clouds onto the indigent below, Luohans Bestowing Alms on Suffering Human Beings, is an extraordinarily touching vision of grace and destitution, with the poor below, painted with fierce realism, shivering in their tattered clothes and scrabbling for the alms.

‘Prosperous Suzhou’ (1759) by Xu Yang ‘Prosperous Suzhou’ (1759) by Xu Yang Landscape changes with the artist and with time. Mi Youren, who gave his name to a whole style of wet ink brush mark paintings (“Mi dots'), is here represented with an ink study on paper, Cloudy Mountains, that would have done credit to the French Impressionists, while an early 12th-century painting on silk by Li Gongnian, Winter Evening Landscape is a masterpiece of atmospheric rendering of fading light and distant hills set off against a precise foreground of leafless trees.

The Mongol invasion and the imposition of a new dynasty, the Yuan, in 1279 disrupted the politics of China but seems to have given a new energy to its art. Melancholy became a leitmotif as the scholar painters of court lost their jobs and retreated to individual haunts in the country. The ink painting of “literati” artists of the South, translating the sentiments of poetry into visual terms, gained new relevance as artists became contemplatives.

Some of the moodiest works of world art belong to this time as artists created works as gifts for friends and tried to capture the fleeting moments of time and place. The fragility of feeling is caught in the thin ink in which ghosts and monks are depicted in works attributed to Shi Ke, Zhiweng and (most humanly) Muxi. The sense of loss is expressed in exquisite ink renderings of plant and branch by Zheng Sixiao (Ink Orchid) and Wang Main (Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge).

Chinese painting never quite recaptured that quality of elusive delicacy again, although artists of the 17th and 18th centuries made very deliberate attempts to recreate old styles and to paint traditional themes in new ways, and with considerable effect. Colour becomes more important, the compositions more emphatic and the figures more precisely drawn. The Ming period (1368-1644) saw a revival in courtly patronage and broader commissions. Portraiture takes its place in the show as does pastel colours in landscape. A touching self-portrait by the painter Tang Yin (1470-1523) pictures the middle-aged artist, returned to Suzhou in shame and humiliation after being falsely convicted of bribery in Peking, sitting in his chair beneath a paulownia tree, thinking of past hopes and present loss.

Chen Rong’s ‘Nine Dragons’ Chen Rong’s ‘Nine Dragons’ If there is no falling back in creativity, however, there is a certain constriction of subject. Old subjects rule but with broader brush strokes and more complex composition. Western influence comes to bear in the greater realism of the figurative art and in the perspectives of the topographical paintings. But it appears as lessons to be absorbed rather than a style to be copied.

There is one exception to this traditionalism and for me it is the climax of the show. Bada Shanren's Flowers on the River, on loan from the Tianjin Museum, is an enormously long ink paper handscroll painted by the artist – prince and monk – in 1697 when he was 72. Its motif is the lotus in bud, in flower and in decay. Its mood is at once meditative and joyous, it's brushwork expressionist and free as only a man approaching old age can encompass. I can only compare it to the later works of Titian and Matisse in the bravura pleasure of an artist let loose from the bonds of craft to imagine at will.

It's a sad comment on Chinese art today – bold and brilliant although some of it is – that, such has been the communist dislocation the country's past culture, contemporary artists have largely looked to the party populist iconography of the communist era to express their individualism. There is very little conversation with past masters of the kind that you see in Picasso or in recent generations of art school educated young Western painters. It is an even sadder comment on ourselves that it has taken nearly 80 years to produce an occasion like this to experience one of the world's great painterly traditions.

The V&A has gone far and wide for the exhibition, including the provincial museums of China, Japan and the major museums of the US and Europe. As a roll call of great artists it is hard to see it bettered, as an array of masterpieces it can't be.

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: 700-1900, V&A, London SW7 (020 7907 7073) to 19 January

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game