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This weekend, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, an extraordinary exhibition of 70 handscrolls, fans and ink paintings, opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For some pieces, it will be the first time they have been seen in Europe. The exhibition’s senior curator Zhang Hongxing selects four favourites.
1. “Itinerant monk”
“This 9th-century banner by an unidentified artist shows a monk carrying a basket from which a cloudlike swirl ascends; in his hands are a fan and a dragon-headed stick. The artist dedicated this to his newly dead younger brother, praying for his soul to go to heaven. It is a ritual piece.
2. “Slumbering Budai”
“In this 13th-century scroll, pot-bellied Budai, a semi-legendary monk who wandered through the countryside, is shown asleep, leaning against the bag that contains all his possessions. For me, it is a painting that shows changes in taste. Until the 20th century, Chinese collectors didn’t like this style of work, but Japanese monks treated them as a treasure and stored them in monasteries, temples and imperial families. It is only now, after half a millennium, that Chinese people can encounter these works of art.
3. Portrait of Shen Zhou
“Wearing a simple cotton robe, Shen, aged 80, sits with his hands touching. This is a special painting because we don’t have many comparable examples: it is a hanging scroll, dating from 1506, and very naturalistic by Chinese standards.
4. “Flowers on the River”
“Over 14 metres of handscroll, the journey of a lotus seed that germinates, grows, blooms and dies was illustrated in 1697 by Bada Shandren. Bada’s sheer energy is unique. His life was tragic: his family all perished when he was 19; he became a Buddhist monk; after 30 years he returned to normal society but suffered a nervous breakdown that lasted years. This handscroll took four months to complete.”
Zhang Hongxing was talking to Jocelyn Petrie. For more information about the show, visit vam.ac.uk/masterpieces
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