Sometimes I find myself quite well-informed about certain exhibitions I wish to go to; other times, I’m afraid I don’t quite do my research. When I visited Boston just past Christmas, I had hoped to go to the Peabody Essex Museum, but missed out. I knew they were having some show of treasures from the Forbidden Palace, but I basically figured it was just another paintings / ceramics / etc. show, and it wasn’t the end of the world if I missed it. Which I did, on account of the snowpocalypse, as they’re calling it. I was home in New York for a week earlier this month, saw that the Metropolitan was now having some show of treasures from the Forbidden City – didn’t make the connection – but boy oh boy am I glad that I took the time and made sure to see the exhibit.
It turns out that The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City is a stunning, breathtaking, incredible exhibit, just about as close as one imagines they could ever get to actually transporting the Forbidden City into the inside of the Metropolitan Museum. Hardly just a show of paintings, ceramics, and other relatively easily transported treasures, this show included window trimmings and door frames, actual thrones that the Qianlong Emperor himself (presumably) actually sat on, and all kinds of other things that I never expected would ever leave their place, let alone leave Beijing, let alone leave China.
The exhibition focuses exclusively on the “Qianlong Gardens,” completed around 1776, at the orders of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96), an emperor particularly known for his love of art, and for his embrace of Western ideas and influences. It was under the Qianlong Emperor that a great many treasures of painting entered the Imperial collection, and that the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione was welcomed into the Court and commissioned to create a great many Western-style, relatively realistic, oil paintings of the emperor and of other subjects. A great many of the most famous Chinese paintings today bear the seal of the Qianlong Emperor.
The “garden,” really a sub-palace all its own, consisting of 27 buildings and pavilions, was intended to be Qianlong’s retirement palace. But he never retired, abdicating three years before his death, and continuing to wield power during that time. As the Emperor had a separate Summer Palace, the buildings of this retirement palace are grouped very close together, for greater warmth in the winter months.
Upon entering the exhibition, we are presented with a pair of large vases to the left, with a photograph plastered on the walls to give the impression of looking out into a garden or bamboo grove; and to the right, a door frame or wall decoration, with, beyond it, a wall painting that employs Western-style linear perspective to great effect, giving the illusion of being led deeper into a larger space. The Qianlong Emperor loved these kinds of illusions, and one can see why. Naive though it may be by Western oil painting standards, or modern photography & digital media standards, in terms of its relative lack of realism, the illusion still works – the painting still does not fail to produce the effect it was intended to, and definitely impresses.
Above: A perspectival illusion wall painting from the Supreme Chamber for Cultivating Harmony. Image from Metropolitan Museum website; you can find images of other works from the show, with curators’ descriptions, by clicking here.
We are then presented with two portraits of the Qianlong Emperor, one of which is one of multiple versions of the famous portrait you see here. Seeing it on slides, in books, and here on the computer screen does not compare to the actual artwork. The details of the robes, chair, and face are unbelievable, the pigments are thick and bold, and there’s just something really impressive, and truly breath-taking (yes, I know my adjectival vocabulary is a bit limited) about the way the colors are employed. The way the red shows through the gold of the chair is really incredible, and helps the image seem more real and more three-dimensional…. At first this may seem an extremely traditional & Chinese painting, and it is of course both of those things; but having focused so much in recent semesters on the adaptation of elements of Western artistic techniques into East Asian neo-traditional arts, it becomes obvious to me those non-traditional elements which have been employed here. Individualized, realistic, detailed depiction of the face; the use of shading and shadow to imply roundness of form and volume; and of course, linear perspective.
It was really wonderful to get to examine these paintings so closely. I’ve seen exhibits where paintings are kept back in full display boxes designed for, for example, standing folding screens, blocking you from getting anywhere near close enough to really examine the piece and appreciate the details. That was not a problem here – the vitrines were nice and shallow, allowing you to get within inches of the surface of the painting, and allowing the details to really shine.
Among other objects I was amazed to see was a paper & wood model of one of the halls & gardens, presumably created as part of planning and preparation to build the palace originally, back in the 18th century. That such a thing still survives is fairly unexpected, but that it should leave the archives and come all the way to Boston and New York is astonishing.
In addition to the inclusion of a number of 18th century Chinese treasures from the Metropolitan’s own collection, the exhibition included a very short, but well-done, video virtual tour of one section of the Palace (the juanqinzhai), and some displays on conservation efforts. If you have ever studied Chinese architecture at all, even in an intro survey art history class, you’re probably familiar with the Qianlong Emperor’s indoor theatre, with the ceiling painted with blue sky and purple wisteria on a trellis to give the illusion of the summer sky, with linear perspective wall paintings giving the impression of a much larger space, and of hidden doors behind mirrors leading from one room to the next. It was fun to be reminded of this room, and to realize where it fits in to the wider story – where in the Forbidden City it is located, and which emperor (Qianlong) it was built for.
Conservation efforts have been ongoing since 2001, if not earlier, and have employed, to the greatest extent possible, expert craftsmen in various traditional specialties, who had to be sought out and recruited from all over the country. As we learn in the exhibition, it is in large part due to conservation efforts begun in 2001 that these objects have been removed from their original context to begin with, and are therefore a bit freer to travel, before being permanently reinstalled in the Palace.
Having spent a lot of time in Japan, I think I’ve gotten a fairly good sense of a lot of the basic aesthetics, forms, and elements of Japanese traditional architecture and interior design; but it would be a fallacy to think the Chinese to be fairly similar. While nowhere else in China could compare to a Palace, of course, still, I think this exhibition – in addition to being visually stunning – really helped me gain a better understanding of what sorts of ways the Chinese traditionally decorated: with paintings and works of calligraphy incorporated into intricately carved wooden frames, and the wonderfully ironic and schizophrenic way that the Emperor embraced both signs of extravagant wealth and luxury, and signs of the rustic, simple, spare lifestyle of the cultural/moral/intellectual elite scholar-literati.
The Emperor’s Private Paradise is showing at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, until May 1st. I strongly encourage you, if you have the chance, to make a visit. This is not just an exhibit – it’s an experience: as close as we might ever get in New York to the feeling of actually being inside the Imperial Palace.
All images are taken from Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons, and are used under a Creative Commons license, except where indicated otherwise.