Exhibition: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting

V&A Museum

Until 19 January

By Joshua.Chambers

20 Dec 2013

It gets better. Bear this in mind as you begin wandering through the Victoria & Albert Museum’s mammoth collection of Chinese art, which runs from AD700 to 1900. Otherwise, you’ll stand around for ten minutes with the other tourists, queuing to look at a few old paint pots and a dried up lump of paint, then give up in exasperation.

Skip the first bit, though, and you’ll soon be stunned: some of the ancient artworks here are gorgeous. There are colourful, intricate tapestries dating from 700 to 950AD, including intricate twin-sided hanging screens of Buddha. Compare it to western art from this period, and somehow ours just doesn’t seem quite as dazzling or ornate.

Yet it’s also fascinating to note that so many centuries’ worth of art can be packed into one exhibition. To try the same with western art would produce a bizarre exhibition, with the various eras so jarring and different. In Chinese art, though, it works: the styles of painting develop slowly, and paintings from 1600-1900 still bear a strong resemblance to those from 950-1250. This is the result of a Confucian society that valued tradition more than originality.

For me, the personal highlights were the vast scrolls (and I really mean vast: they filled the length of a gallery hall), adorned with stunning landscape paintings and detailed calligraphy. The mix of poetry and painting works wonderfully, leading you through a story and helping you to feel a real connection to the artist.

There’s plenty in this exhibition, too, so it’s worth putting aside a few hours to soak it up. It’s a winter treat, especially for those tired of traditional Christmas imagery.

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