Nov 27, 2012

Artist as cultural historian

When we visited museums around the world, we revisited our own culture or cultures of other peoples and nationalities, some of these cultures may be still living and flourishing, whereas, sadly, others may have been dead for a long time, on the latter the Inca culture comes into my mind. Oftentimes the artifacts were practical or decorative items made by the artisans and artists, the better ones were usually commissioned by royalties, or wealthy families who had the luxury to spend on more discerning things in life. Most if not all were not made to be preserved for the cultural heritage of the people. How could Mona Lisa have imagined her portrait would become the most important piece in Louvre today!  When things were unexpectedly heading towards the wrong direction, people would be too busy fleeing or fighting for their lives, and artisans would likely to be drafted as a last resort! One major exception to this order-of-thing is the Chinese scroll painting masterpiece: Along the River During the Qingming Festival - 清明上河圖。 It was meant to become a cultural heritage when it was painted. Let's first look at how it was being introduced in Wikipedia:

"It is a panoramic painting by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145). It captures the daily life of people and the landscape of the capital, Bianjing, today's Kaifeng, from the Song period. The theme celebrates the festive spirit and worldly commotion at the Qingming Festival, rather than the holiday's ceremonial aspects, such as tomb sweeping and prayers. The entire piece was painted in hand scroll format and the content reveals the lifestyle of all levels of the society from rich to poor as well as different economic activities in rural areas and the city. It offers glimpses of period clothing and architecture. As an artistic creation, the piece has been revered and court artists of subsequent dynasties have made several re-interpretive replicas. It is considered to be the most renowned work among all Chinese paintings and it has been called 'China's Mona Lisa.'"

The artist (張擇端) was a top royal painter of the (North) Song Dynasty. He spent 10 years to complete the painting. Apparently he was either commissioned directly by the Emperor himself or had obtained his royal approval in undertaking this time-consumption painting job. For what purpose was the painting meant to fulfill? It was done with a special cultural mission. The Song Dynasty was the most prosperous, most civilized and most cultural country in the whole world in those days. Scholars from far away places went to the capital to study the classics and her cultural heritage, so much so, some foreigners, after obtaining outstanding results in the nation-wide open examination organized by the Emperor, became high-ranking mandarins. The idea of doing the scroll painting was to immortalize the high culture of the Song Dynasty that the Emperor as well as his mandarins fully understood.

It was unfortunate that Song was then faced with militarily powerful states up North, coveting the resources in Song. First came the downfall of the Northern cities, and the whole administration fled to the South crowning a new Emperor (the old one was taken hostage in the North). A new capital was established in the South of Yangtze, in the city of Hangzhou. Despite military defeat, South Song, as it was called by historians, continued to flourish culturally and commercial, so much so, the Emperor had extra resources to pay hefty ransoms to the Northern invaders annually. And Hangzhou, like the previous capital Bianjing depicted in the painting, continued to become the New York or Paris of the world, culturally and commercially speaking.

The new Mogul power proved to be too ambitious to be satisfied with ransom-taking. After the fall of the South Song Dynasty, the new Mogul Emperor liked the scroll painting so much that he kept it as his treasure in his Royal Palace. And probably because of it, he vowed to recreate the culture as depicted in the painting, whether or not he was successful in doing so is another story. Fate had it that the scroll painting fell into different hands, some of them top painters of their time. And they loved it so much that they imitated it and recreated almost exact copies of the original. So much so, there was the original now in Beijing's National Musuem, and the the best copy (painted in Qing Dynasty) was also considered a natitional treasure at Taipei's National museum.

Had it not been the beauty of the scroll painting, this important document on China's cultural history, depicting the best cultural city of the civilized world would not have survived up to this day - not one, but two paintings. The following video is on scroll painting number two, a cultural treasure in Taipei's National Museum.

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