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Like any newcomer to the throne, conceptual art is always on the lookout for ancestors. The standard ones – Duchamp, Warhol – are over-familiar; now Luc Tuymans, prince of conceptual painters since the 1990s, has turned curator with a show that suggests for conceptualism a new but ancient, global pedigree.
The Forbidden Empire is the first exhibition anywhere to interleave Chinese and western paintings across five centuries, from about 1450 to 1950. It has just opened at Bozar, Brussels’ art deco people’s palace, before travelling in the summer to the Palace Museum in Beijing, and no one interested in east-west cultural dialogue will want to miss it. In art as everywhere else, commentators and historians are desperate to understand China. Yet to address history so wholeheartedly in the spirit of current artistic battles, as Tuymans does here, creates a bizarre show, as lopsided as it is illuminating.
We expect to be disorientated by Chinese painting: who can date a work within a thousand years, still less identify the hand of any individual artist or read the calligraphy that is an essential complement to the images? But Tuymans opens with a sharp piece of sabotage. Two mid-15th-century works, Chen Lu’s “Trees Shrouded in Fog” and Hans Memling’s double panel “Descent from the Cross” and “Saint Andrew”, face each other alone in the cavernous first gallery. To the 21st-century, globalised, secular mind, it is not clear which is more alien: the tree painted freehand in heavy ink brushwork on silk – in an image stressing not the minutiae of detail of branch or blossom but, almost abstractly, their fundamental forms – or the tree as crucifix, with a bloody corpse and a saint fingering the rosary, depicted in crystalline oil with all the fervour, aesthetic and Christian, of an early master of illusionism.
At the Palace Museum, Tuymans writes: “I was confronted with imagery in which, in a way that to western eyes seems almost modern, things were left open or left out. The image is a sketch of the notion of an idea.” As it is, of course, in his own sketchy paintings, where laden titles such as “Gas Chamber” explain elusive or banal images. Tuymans’ subdued palette and dependence on the written word, therefore, mirror key elements in Chinese art, where, says co-curator Yu Hui, “painting is just an extreme of writing”.
Could it be that today our familiarity with conceptual art and a multi-cultural, environment-obsessed society more sympathetic to Buddhist ideals of natural harmony than medieval death-and-suffering, draw us closer to Chinese than to old European pictures? The Forbidden Empire is subtitled “Visions of the World by Chinese and Flemish Masters” and its first claim is conceptual: that a culture’s visual imagination is entirely conditioned by its philosophical one. Thus western art is built not only on Christian iconography and biblical stories featuring individual characters, but also on such ideas as light and darkness (“Let there be light”). By contrast Confucian/
Buddhist goals of harmony in nature underpin landscape painting, the bedrock of Chinese art. Portraiture barely rates. Shadow, considered dirty, is absent. Perspective and mimetic representation are irrelevant to an artist’s meditative idealisations.
From Beijing, a series of top-quality works of great imaginative beauty – Qiu Ying’s “Dwellings of the Immortals (Jade Cave Fairy Land)”, with its refined outlines and touches of brilliant blues and greens, Gong Xian’s lyrically expressive three-panelled panorama, “Rivers and Mountains Painted for Elderly Xi”, are among many highlights – concisely unravel how in 500 years Chinese painting at once adhered to its traditions and developed in response to outside influence. The pace imposed by the punctuated alternation of east-west works is perfect, for it encourages the long, slow scrutiny of delicate, subtle paintings whose appreciation, says Hui, is “somewhat similar to chewing on a piece of sugar cane – one eventually reaches the best bits”.
In parallel, however, Tuymans plays a more provocative game. Room by room, a set of eerie juxtapositions shrinks the gaps between Chinese and Flemish art across the centuries. In 1500, the Master of Absalom’s pen drawings of fanciful creatures – beasts with human heads, animal fur, one clawed, one webbed foot – look like mutant cousins of Du Jin’s dragons in “Qu Yuan’s Legendary Songs”, while Petrus Christus in a sumptuously illuminated “Book of Hours” and Zhu Zhanji in a scroll of delicate ink drawings on gold paper both use exquisite calligraphy and animal and floral motifs. In the 17th century, Gaspar-Peter Verbruggen’s vanitas “Flower Piece” hangs easily with its period counterpart, Wen Shu’s “Day Lilies and Rocks”. Romanticism is as broodingly desolate and proto-impressionist in Jin Nong’s “Splendid Moon” (1761) as in Claude Joseph Vernet’s “Shipwreck” (1759). Ren Xiong’s uncompromising mid-19th-century “Self-portrait”, all harsh, angular lines and pared-down aesthetic, is as recognisably an ancestor of modern alienated man as Frans Masereels’s cubo-expressionist woodcut of the sharp-edged cabaret anti-hero “The Goodlooking Fellow” (1922).
Soon, the familiar starts to look queasily odd, the unfamiliar falsely recognisable. With its misty glaze, towering hills and tumbling ravines, Jan Brueghel the Elder’s pen and brown ink drawing “Mountain Scenery with Port” (1596) resembles classic Chinese mountains and water landscapes. Ni Tian’s sultry “Flower Goddess” (1902) suggests a femme fatale from Paris’s fin de siècle salons, decked out in fancy oriental dress. History and geography dissolve. In “Deer Hunt” by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary who arrived in China in 1715, the figures are painted in European style, the landscape by a Chinese artist. Ren Yi’s “Gongsun Daniang Performing the Sword Dance” (1880), with double stroke (shuang-gou) outline rings simulating the movement of the swords and the dancer’s vigorous rhythms, predates futurism’s blurry capturing of frenzied movement by decades.
This sparky, original display, with its strong painterly focus, taught me more about the diversity and richness of Chinese art than grander recent blockbusters at the Royal Academy and the Grand Palais. That is a coup for Brussels; it is, however, no help to Beijing, for what is disastrously unbalancing here is a selection of Flemish works so poor and unrepresentative that when this show goes to the Palace Museum, Chinese audiences will be massively short-changed and deluded about European art.
Most of the Renaissance paintings are copies or atelier works. From Rubens, the baroque master of colour, there are only drawings – and a 1948 monochrome film of his oil paintings. Van Dyck – whose dash and glamour could so profitably have been compared with 17th- and 18th-century portraits of imperial courtesans in bold decorative hues, such as the lovely “Imperial Concubine of Emperor Hongli” – is represented by dull subjects. From the 20th century, surrealist masterpieces by Magritte and Delvaux are absent and modernity tapers off in Leon Spilliaert’s “Fire Lane” (1948), a too-late symbolist-pointillist line of trees, presumably chosen because its fogginess evokes Chinese brushwork.
Does Tuymans, the conceptualist, believe the western tradition is so bankrupt that it must be shown at its most feeble? Or did museums refuse to lend prize works for the tour to Beijing? Bozar organised this show as the first of a trio for 2007 – the others are on German painting, healing long European internal divisions, and international contemporary art – to mark the 50th anniversary of the European Union. But it is hard to see what is being celebrated if Europe has no greater belief in its own culture than this. It is not too late to strengthen the Flemish component of this show with some judicious last-minute borrowing, and to dispatch to Beijing as high-class a selection of work as the Palace Museum has, enlighteningly and fascinatingly, sent west.
The Forbidden Empire, Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, to May 6, tel +32 2 507 82 00; Palace Museum, Beijing, June 27-September 5