Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: 700-1900, Victoria & Albert Museum, London – review

Survey shows hope to introduce us to the history and practice of a territory’s art. Frequently, however, they are either too big to be digestible, or too small to be representative.

Fortunately, the new exhibition of Chinese painting at the Victoria & Albert Museum gets the balance right. The decision to illustrate a millennium with just 70 works was bold. Yet the breathtaking nature of the paintings on show, allied to the curatorial approach, which strikes an equilibrium between scholarship and storytelling, is a triumphant recipe. Compliments too to the V&A for developing long-term links with museums in China through programmes of loan exchange and touring exhibitions. With no Chinese painting of its own, the London museum has assembled the entire gathering from loans, a third of which come from China.

Those more familiar with the history of western art should prepare for revelations. While painting in post-classical Italy, for example, dwindled to the production of religious freschi and icons, in China a tradition of images painted in ink on silk stretches back to the 3rd century, with paper regularly used as a support from 1000 onwards. Screens, hand-held fans and banners were the first surfaces, although gradually they were displaced by scrolls and albums.

So rooted was the artistic tradition that criticism started as far back as the 6th century, when Xie He devised “six laws” of painting whose cornerstone was “qiyon shengdong”, which roughly means that the figures should be animated with the spirits of their originals.

Little survives of the earliest work, yet reproductions in the catalogue of 6th-8th century handscrolls, which are said to be copies of 4th-century work, show human stories unfolding in landscapes dotted with trees and animals.

At the V&A, the first gallery treats us to a dazzling panoply of Buddhist banner paintings. Animated by details such as lotus flowers, clouds, wild geese, pavilions and musicians, the iconography, originally influenced by Indian religious art which arrived through China’s trade with Central Asia, testifies to the artistic fruit born out of China’s mercantile empire.

That these paintings survived the persecution of Buddhism in the 9th century is remarkable. They were found at the beginning of the 20th century, hidden in a cave at Dunhuang, a garrison town on the Silk Road that had become an important Buddhist centre. Their finder sold them to western collectors, and from there they found their way into institutions such as the British Museum and the Musée Guimet in Paris, who are the key lenders here.

The golden age of Chinese art arrived with the Song dynasty in the middle of the 10th century. The rise of imperial academies saw painters elevated to the status of artists rather than artisans. It was now that landscape painting came into its own. The piercing observation here – mountain peaks shrouded in mist, gnarled trees surging out of blade-sharp crags, a lone bullock cart battling up a treacherous cliff – testifies to a culture in love with the natural world.

That passion was reflected in the poetry that accompanies many of the paintings. “Green maples begin to show crimson/White dew is just right for autumn/[…] Moved by separation, I give you this painting,” wrote early-12th-century painter Hu Shunchen for “Farewell to Hao Xuanming, Envoy to Qin”, which depicts a departing government official riding through a cloud-swept mountain pass on a donkey.

It is impossible to overstate the rapport between word and picture in Chinese painting. From the first, the twin arts of writing and painting were intertwined. By the time of the imperial academies, artists had been schooled in classical poetry and calligraphy as children, and many practised all three arts. Many of the works here are scrolls, which explains their excellent condition. Designed to be unrolled occasionally, they were supposed to be “read” slowly, one section at a time, as if they were a book.

The exhibition also offers a valuable insight into the social history of China. Thought to be the work of the Song dynasty painter-emperor Huizong, “Auspicious Cranes” (c.1112) portrays a flock of white Manchurian cranes who sail across a turquoise sky with fluid, calligraphic grace. Visually it is hypnotic; yet its back story – the appearance of the birds was seen by the people as an omen of good luck – testifies to a culture steeped in a tradition of augury.

Equally revealing is “Court Ladies in the Inner Palace” (1465-1509) by Ming-dynasty painter Du Jin. Referring to an earlier period when high-born ladies were not obliged to bind their feet, it shows women – exquisite, chalk-complexioned creatures with sculptural coils of hair and sumptuous gowns – playing cuju (a form of football) and golf in the courtyards of the imperial palace.

While the west took centuries to develop an art that looked beyond sacred borders, the Chinese were embedded in an acute perception of the world around them. Whether depicting a rooster beneath a pomegranate tree or a Confucian scholar, these paintings are made entrancing by their verisimilitude. Yet the poetry of that frail ink-drawn line elevates the realism to the realm of metaphysics.

If one definition of great art is that it draws you back time and again, these masterpieces merit the accolade. In the words of the famous 11th-century painter Guo Xi, paintings can be judged by the same criteria as the landscapes they portray. The very best are not for “travelling and sightseeing [but…] for wandering and living”. Let us be grateful these masterpieces have travelled to London this autumn.

Until January 19,

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