Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Emperor Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour - Chinese Scrolls

For about a year recently I worked on the cataloguing and documentation of the new Mactaggart Collection of Chinese Art and Textiles at the University of Alberta Museums.

The Mactaggart Art Collection includes over 600 textiles, costumes and related artifacts dating from the Song (960-1279), Ming (1314-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. There are also many fine and rare examples of 17th and 18th century Chinese court costumes and silk fragments, as well as a world-class collection of Tibetan costumes. The painting collection includes works dating from the 13th century (Yuan Dynasty) to the 1980s and is comprised of hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, albums and engravings with particular strength in Qing court paintings. Notable among these is the Southern Inspection Tour Scroll from 1698, which documents the Kangxi Emperor's boat voyage of 1689 through southeast China.

Up until then I knew very little about Chinese art, but over that time, working on the individual scrolls and paintings, I became quite fascinated.

The star piece of the collection is the Southern Inspection Tour (No. 7) A hand scroll painting by Wang Hui - one of twelve commissioned by the Emperor to portray his Tour - that depicts scenes from the Emperor Kangxi's 1689 inspection tour from Wuxu to Suzhou.

This scroll - aside from it's detail and beauty - is quite fascinating as a superb example of traditional Chinese "perspective". David Hockney studied it in his own exploration of perspective and it informed this work on his photographic "joiners". The way space and depth is depicted is quite different than the tradition Western form of perspective, and yet it conveys these things - space and depth - in an entirely convincing and harmonious way.

By contrast, there is a second Inspection Tour scroll dating from the later
Emperor Qianlong's royal progress in 1751 by Xu Yang:

By this time, Western Renaissance perspective had been introduced to China and had begun to influence Chinese artists. In this scroll, both forms of perspective can be seen - the combination doesn't work terribly well in some cases and compared to the earlier scroll is feels somewhat disharmonious. Perspective is always and only cultural construct.

What is also fascinating is following the stories and details on the scrolls - you can pick out individuals and their expressions - fishmongers, a "bonsai" tree shop, families in their homes, children, old ladies etc.

But as magnificent as those scrolls are, my personal favourite has always been the "Prunus" by the Qing Dynasty artist Gao Qipei dated 1712:

As anyone who knows my work can probably see, this ink drawing of a tree and its bare branches spoke to me very strongly in relation to my own Immersive Landscapes project and the way I was trying to view similar subjects. (In addition, it is actually a 'finger painting" the artist grows his finger nail and then it was split and shaped and he used it like a pen to make the scroll - it is quite literally the artists hand at work, with no intermediary between hand and paper).

If I could own one scroll, it would be this one - but I'm not sure where I would get the couple of million needed...

It was a fascinating and very informative experience working on this unique collection and a privilege to work at first hand with these wonderful art objects - I know it has informed my work since, and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come. There are certain similarities as well as dissimilarities with photography - the scrolls are meant to be view at about arms length with a foot or so unrolled to view - so a small view, often about the size an 11x14 print, and yet it isn't hemmed in by the four sides of the frame as a photograph is - as well, the sign of a good scroll is that wherever it is unrolled to, at that point it will always present a complete picture in itself, as well as being just one part of the whole. Would that I could bring that kind of coherence to every aspect of my photographs...

The scrolls are particularly hard to present online (all the images here are just small - full height - sections). The Southern Inspection Tour Scroll for instance is close to 100 feet long - they really need to be held in the hand and viewed close up. I'd also suggest going to browse and looking at some of the albums - some wonderful stuff in those as well landscapes and flowers and figures (and how to get a good spanking... or a rather humorous horse).

The art part of the collection is now online. You can view the scrolls as well as the paintings and albums (though I note the resolution of the "scrollable" scrolls doesn't seem quite right - I guess they don't have anyone working on the photography and imaging anymore...).

(all images from the University of Alberta Museums - Mactaggart Collection)

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