The Ways of Heaven

The Three Emperors exhibition at the Royal Academy covers a narrowly defined period in Chinese history, from the ascendancy of the Manchurian Qing dynasty over the Han Ming rulers to their consolidation of power over Tibet and Mongolia through the reigns of Xangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. In particular, it looks at their use of religion and art as a tool of statecraft, used to confer perceived legitimacy on regimes that were often regarded as having usurped power. It was also used as a means of cultural exchange, with these period seeing several Western attempts to gain a foothold in China, whether by Catholic missionaries or by delegations sent by European governments . At a period when Europe was eager for Chinese designs in porcelain, China was receiving European expertise in painting, architecture and technology.

The exhibition’s scrolls and paintings partly utilise traditional Chinese axonometric perspectives (so that objects that are further away appear nearer and larger than would be the case in Western painting, allowing for the inclusion of extensive panoramic detail) and the use of Western materials and techniques to suggest depth. Long painted scrolls depict imperial processions throughout the Emperor’s dominions; the purpose was largely to confer legitimacy on the Qing dynasty but they include a wealth of detail that is more unusual in Western painting (the Emperor is simply one point in each scroll), so that the effect is more reminiscent of Breughel than Holbein (though one other odd comparison did occur to me; the tigers in hunting scenes looked just like Blake’s Tyger). Of course, there are paintings that do focus on the Emperor seated on the dragon-throne as the sole figure (where the background seems oddly attenuated with the axonometric perspective lending it a peculiarly flattened quality). More interesting is the painting of Qianlong Emperor by the Jesuit missionary Guiseppe Castiglione; the Emperor is shown depicted on horseback and although the pose is rather more sedate, it’s difficult not to think of David’s romanticised portrait of Napoleon on horseback. That said, a more revealing parallel is probably Bellini’s portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent, where religious objections had impeded the use of perspective.

Frequently in the works of Castiglione (as well as other Jesuits and Chinese artists influenced by them) Chinese themes are depicted in a more typically Western manner. In the portrait of the Emperor, sanskrit text appears on his helmet to reinforce the image of the Emperor as a mean of religion and learning as well as war. Another portrait depicts a number of auspicious symbols, such as fungi, bamboo and pine (representing longevity) alongside a white hawk (symbolic of the sovereign’s right to rule); the subjects and style are Chinese but the use of light and perspective are Western. Castiglione also designed buildings for the Qianlong Emperor; the rococo buildings seeming somewhat odd given the prestige attached to Chinoiserie in the European use of the style (for instance, Frederick of Prussia’s Chinese tea house on the grounds of Sanssouci).

However, in technology, the picture was more one-sided, with clocks and astronomical instruments being prized especially highly in China. The final aspect to this was the role of religion, with the Emperors being depicted as the Buddha as a means of gaining support in their conquered territories while retaining something of the shamanistic practices native to Manchuria. Many of the items here were of interest more for their macabre quality than for historical interest; a skull cup made from the skull of an especially holy lama stood out in particular. More generally, the exhibits that also stood out for me were the weathered taihu garden rock (a testament to the sacred quality of mountains in miniature), red lacquered screens, five-clawed dragons and the blue-white porcelain.

One especially interesting aspect of the exhibition was the counter-narrative offered in one room, which was dedicated to works by the Han elite; representatives and descendents of the Ming dynasty who were in exile, often to Buddhis monasteries. Where court art was highly colourful and influenced by Western art, these figures clung to older and more austere models and typically used minimal black brushstrokes on paper. The works were not only more austere but were often less polished, using what one artist called an ‘aesthetic of deformity’ to imply attacks on the Qing regime (the absence of sky in one scroll being symbolic of the loss of heaven).

Finally, I went for a meandering walk along the Embankment, past Cleopatra’s Needle, the Temple Church and St Brides. The weather was rather odd; very cold but also very dry; not at all like the usual damp English weather.

Reading a collection of Dickens’s short fiction, I was especially impressed with George Silverman’s Explanation. Not unlike the diary of a self-tormentor from Little Dorrit this presents an unreliable narration of the consequences of excessive self-denial. Like Fielding, Dickens sees morality as stemming from empathy and emotion (a view most forcibly expressed in Hard Times), a conception that is at odds with Silverman’s self-defeating fear of worldliness. However, this also seems at odds with the criticisms Dickens often makes of those corrupted in voluptuaries as they move from city to country, as in Great Expectations. I’d read The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth not all that long ago and had thought that the way Roth tended to dwell on external surfaces, of clothes in particular, reminded me of DH Lawrence. The Emperor’s Tomb reinforced this impression. Both this and Women in Love dwell distastefully on the dehumanised aspect of modern life, Lawrence in the character of Loerke, Roth in the character of Frau Jolanth (both defined in connection with primitive art and their sexuality). The difference is that where Lawrence aligns his fiction in relation to a vision of a new relation between men and women, Roth aligns his to a vision of a world that passed with the death of Franz Josef.

Food cooked: Romanian chicken Jubilee, Caribbean Chicken, Jugged hare, French blueberry torte, Greek chicken with figs and mint, Potato and feta salad, Calederete of rice with allioli, Swedish sausage with potato and tomato, Linz Torte, Cassoulet, Flamenco eggs, Pollo con Lagostinos, Circassion chicken with bulgar wheat, Greek duck with walnuts and pomeganates, Alsatian chicken with pork and apples, Kaiser goulash, Swedish herring salad, Irish duck with apples and cider.