I spent the evening at the current Qianlong Emperor exhibition (8.Oct.2013-7.Jan.2014) at Taipei’s treasure house National Palace Museum. The exhibition is awkwardly called, in English, The All Complete Qianlong: in Chinese it’s 十全乾隆.

*In Chinese the title reads more elegantly. The 3rd and 4th characters 乾隆 are “Qianlong”, the reign name of the fourth Qing Dynasty Emperor Gaozhong. 十全 together means perfect, literally it is “ten all”, 十 / ten (which has an extended meaning of perfect, as in “ten out of ten”); quan/全 means whole/all/complete. So I’d perhaps call it The Perfectly Complete Qianlong, which would be a little less awkward?

This was a second visit: the first was a weekend daytime trip, when the hordes of visitors (mostly mainland Chinese tourists) were thankfully mostly pinned down in a three hour lineup to see the Palace Museum’s Mona Lisa equivalent, a  kitschy little Qing jadeite carving of a cabbage with a grasshopper (maybe it’s the grasshopper that makes them line for hours?).  Friday evening is key:  great museums are best at their evening openings, I think (try the Louvre or the Pompidou on nights when the tourists are out eating biftek frites, and suave Parisian art students inhabit the galleries: non pareil): no one is there except you, and a few classical art aficionados quietly visiting the galleries, taking  notes in their elegantly bound sketchbooks. The bused-in masses of mainland visitors have all bused out to Ding Tai Feng or wherever they go to eat “Taiwanese”).

The exhibition is is fascinating: beautifully designed. Palace Museum curators are experts at exquisitely positioning art objects for close viewing (the “other” Palace Museum (Beijing) could learn a few things from their Taiwanese tongbao): their style of “unboxing” and laying the emperor’s treasure collection mini-chest out with its contents makes for superlative display case design (I was put in mind of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise).

The show really constitutes, with its rich texts and label-mini-essays, an immersive seminar in 18th century Chinese art and culture, via the Qianlong Emperor (Gaozong), who had a crazy passion for collecting and cataloging everything beautiful thing he could get his hands on in his China. And he got his hands on a lot of stuff, what with the stunning and comprehensive Forbidden City collection of paintings, calligraphy, objets d’art, some dating back to neolithic times — most of which ended up in Taipei, long story– at his disposal. His impulse to exhaustively categorize the entire aesthetic and literary production of China makes him something of an 18th century aesthetic Aristotle. This kind of idealized — but actually put into practice — totalizing system demonstrates the comprehensiveness of Chinese cultural power just as the power of ancient Greek thought was created, demonstrated, and projected by Aristotle’s totalizing intellectual cataloging project.

The exhibition’s accompanying captions and wall texts seemed amusingly schizophrenic in at least one respect. The general tone is slavishly admiring of the Qianlong Emperor: all positive, highlighting his myriad accomplishments, devotion to the arts, great wisdom, etc. etc. as if, well as if it were produced by post-imperial subjects writing about some contemporary post-emperor of theirs. Perhaps old habits of (post-) imperial address die hard. But once one burrows down to the detailed captions of particular pieces of Gaozong’s calligraphy, the discipline slipped a bit, and the captions were able on occasion to admit that, well when he was younger the calligraphy was not quite up to snuff; when he was older, he had a shakier hand; and when in the prime of middle age, his characters lacked a certain consistent masculine vigour (or words to that effect).

The Qianlong Emperor also wrote obsessively all over his favourite ancient paintings, making them perhaps more valuable in the process. Perhaps. There are two crazy examples of landscape paintings that meant much to him: he went back and wrote all over one 14 separate times, with different poems, impressions, thoughts. Other times he simply painted an utterly elegant “神“ character in his own hand, to indicate the “divine” quality of the work. Here’s one (below) in the middle of the white rock in the lower centre. The surrounding poems are in Gaozong’s hand. Much lovelier this way?

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Highlights:

  • a gorgeous Ming dynasty painting by Ding Yunping, Washing the Elephant, (see a dim repro here), and its counterpart, in which the Qianlong Emperor has the bodhisattva replaced with his own imperial visage
  • a perfectly simple, perfectly perfect round Song Dynasty Ru ware dish (I innocently wondered how much such a thing would cost if one were a rich collector of Song celadons, and Google obliged with the information that it would be 27 million dollars)
  • this flamboyant little Han dynasty bear — Han China had an unmatched sculptural genius (well, excepting the Northern Wei) (you can see the white jade hand of Gaozong’s commissioned copy just behind on the right)Image

There may be a lesson in the Qianlong show: it portrays a China at the peak of its power & influence in the mid 18th century: the Qianlong Emperor’s supreme confidence derives from imperial might, worn utterly comfortably. This confidence easily synthesizes foreign influences: it’s at ease, secure, and open to the world, to the pleasures and responsibilities of enjoying power. Imagine that China today, instead of this one.

– Shelly Kraicer, Taipei (7 December 2013)

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