The new galleries of Asian art at the British Museum, named after benefactor Sir Joseph Hotung and numbered 33 on the museum’s floor plan, ought to mark a big step forward in the B.M’s engagement with historic Asian cultures. The sad fact is that for various reasons, they don’t.
It offers a rather rigid and partial view of Chinese art – ELS
The galleries – really one very large gallery – are on the ground floor of the building, right at the back, that is if you start your visit from the main entrance. Half of this space is given up to various cultures from South East Asia and culminates (room 33a) in a series of reliefs removed from the great early Buddhist shrine, now dismantled, at Amaravati in India.
The other half is given up to a would-be continuous history of Chinese art, from its earliest beginnings to the present. This exists in more-or-less direct competition to a similarly ambitious display in one of the ground floor galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
There can be no doubt as to which of the two sections is more popular with the public. When I visited, on a recent Saturday, the Chinese section was jammed, but its twin was much less populated. Most of the visitors – 80% at a guess – appeared to be Chinese. Impossible to tell how many of these were tourists – London is now a magnet for Chinese tourism – and how many were people who are actually resident here. Of their excitement about and pride in what the B.M. had to show them, there could be no doubt.
The difficulty, particularly in the first half of the display – from China’s beginnings to the start of the Ming Dynasty – is that it offers a rather rigid and partial view of Chinese art. The various items are arranged in rather cramped showcases, inherited and if I remember correctly also ‘listed’, which means they can’t be altered.
On the web, the B.M. boasts that: ‘One half of the gallery presents the histories of China from 5000 BC to the present. From iconic Ming dynasty blue-and-white porcelain to delicate handscrolls, from exquisite Tang dynasty tomb figurines to contemporary ink paintings, the displays will feature calligraphy, painting, jade, silk and porcelain.’
If you look at this series of categories, most of them only apply to what happened in China post-Tang dynasty – that is from about the year 1000 b.c.e. The legacy of earlier Chinese cultures has come down to us in the form of (yes) jades, which are also on display in an adjacent gallery. Plus, from these earlier periods, there are carvings in other hard stones and ceramics which are not porcelain. From the Bronze Age onwards there are many objects in bronze. Under the Tang, there is a sudden flowering of objects in silver. These then disappear, until a moment of revival under the Ming, and a much more vigorous revival in the late 19th and early 20th century, when skilled Chinese metal-smiths found new clients among resident European traders. So-called ‘China trade silver’ has recently become popular with American collectors, but finds few enthusiasts here in Britain.
The field of knowledge about earlier periods of Chinese art has been expanding rapidly in recent years, thanks, in large part, to the enormous physical upheaval that took place, thanks to rapid economic expansion once the Cultural Revolution had finally run its course. New highways, new factories, new cities – in the 1990s and until past the millennium it must often have seemed that the whole of China was being dug up. Completely new cultural variants were discovered, often far from the main centres of official control. There were official archaeological projects to be sure. But there were also masses of chance finds and unofficial discoveries.
The displays on view at the B.M. offer a very rigid, limited view of how our knowledge of China’s past has expanded in recent years. Basically, the objects from earlier periods now on view offer the visitor a smooth series of ‘begats’ – Shang begat Zhou, Zhou began Han, Han begat Tang. There is little acknowledgement of regional variations.
The early Neolithic cultures of China, notably the one we label Hongshan, from an area around Beijing and stretching northwards into Mongolia, are poorly represented. This Hongshan culture has become notorious in the art market for the huge number of fakes attributed to it by eager Chinese dealers. The B.M. offers a display which seems frightened to stray beyond a few so-called ‘bi-discs’ and pendants. More ambitious, perfectly genuine Hongshan carvings nevertheless exist. There is nothing made of rock crystal, a material that the Hongshan craftsmen seem have used almost as much as they did jade.
As one moves into the Bronze Age, the gaps become more conspicuous. There is nothing, for example, from the recently discovered Sanxingdui culture in Sichuan – dating from around 1200 b.c.e. – the same epoch as that of the much-revered Shang dynasty, but with a very different repertoire of objects. Masks and human figures, not the ritual vessels so much treasured by professional connoisseurs of Chinese art. This omission is explicable, as the Sanxingdui culture was only discovered in the early 1980s, and no western museum has examples of these mysterious relics.
Other gaps are less forgivable. There are almost no examples of Tang silver – just a few items, small in scale and inconspicuously tucked away. Nobody would guess from these that the Tang dynasty was the richest realm on the planet during its day – which ran from roughly the year 600 until about 900 – that is, during the period when Europe was plunged into what we now call the Dark Ages.
The taste for sumptuous silver seems to have travelled, not from East to West, like the taste for silk, but from West to East. From the later Roman Empire to the Sassanians, then from a by-now-declining Sassanian realm to imperial China. Tang silver survives in surprising quantity. Little of it is specifically religious: bodhisattva figures, incense burners and the like. Some are very posh grave goods –up market versions of the pottery figures made for tombs. And some is in-your-face, look-how-grand-and-powerful-I-am secular. Huge gilded silver platters, for example
Enthusiasm for these costly items rapidly vanished once the Tang dynasty concluded, and large caches of them have from time to time been found in China, both in tombs and in temple depositories. But they have never excited the kind of not-picking connoisseurship that professional sinologists devote to jades, bronzes and ink-paintings. Which is no doubt why one doesn’t meet them in the B.M.
Another omission of the same sort in the new B.M. display is anything much from the Liao dynasty – a northern Chinese/Khitan empire that ruled an amalgamation of territories, some definitely not ethnic Chinese, for more than two centuries – 907 to 1125.
Liao burial customs were different from Chinese ones. The princely dead were buried wearing metal masks, often made of silver, sometimes even of gold. These are among the most haunting relics of their time.
A further set of omissions presents itself when one reaches the part of the display that supposedly relates to the present moment. Modern Chinese art is enormously various and hugely creative, What would I expect to discover, above all, as a tribute to this? Something that would hit the nail on the head, and say much in a comparatively small space? Easy-peasy: a modest work by Ai Weiwei, the most universally celebrated of contemporary Chinese artists who, though now living in exile, has remained intractably Chinese. A fact fully demonstrated by a major exhibition held at the Royal Academy in 2015.
The R.A. exuberantly advertised its exhibition thus: ‘Major artist and cultural phenomenon Ai Weiwei takes over our main galleries with brave, provocative and visionary works.’ But this living icon is conspicuously absent from the B.M., though one feels his presence hovering in the void.
One gets the feeling, surveying the B.M.s new summary of Chinese art and civilization, that those responsible would like anything resembling a disturbing cultural phenomenon to hold its peace and know its place.
Words/Photos: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2017