The glittering fruits of diplomacy
It is a visual pun that would have been inconceivable a couple of decades ago: recently the stately grounds of London's Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy of Arts, was bathed in red floodlights to commemorate the opening of its latest blockbuster exhibition, on the artistic treasures of China's Qing Dynasty. It was not alone: nearby Somerset House and the London Eye were also turning shades of scarlet for the evening.
"Turning some of the capital's iconic buildings red is a fantastic way to mark the opening of the [Royal Academy] exhibition," enthused Ken Livingstone, London's mayor, in a statement that might have had him charged with treason at the height of the cold war.
But China today is transformed, keen to open itself to the west and celebrate its benign relations with Britain in a playful son et lumière show that heralds a new era of cultural co-operation between the two countries. The exhibition China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 was officially opened on November 08 by Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, who was welcomed by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The Royal Academy had originally scheduled the show for January, but urgently moved it forward to take advantage of the coincidence of the president's visit.
Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary at the RA, said the academy had been keen to exploit a political situation -- China wanting to forge links with the west -- to help put on the show. The RA's previous two blockbuster shows, on the Aztecs and the Turks, were heavily supported, by the Mexican and Turkish governments respectively, to the extent that the exhibition catalogue for Turks featured prefaces by the British and Turkish prime ministers. "It is natural that governments should want to make an impression in London, it is still one of the great cities," Rosenthal said at recent briefing.
But he added that the link between politics and culture was nothing new. "The last big Chinese show we had here, in 1973, was much more of a political gesture, with China emerging from the Cultural Revolution and wanting to play ping-pong politics. This time, there is the lead-up to the Olympic Games [in Beijing in 20081], and our job is to use that political background to bring all these beautiful things here."
Rosenthal said Chinese enthusiasm for the exhibition had not been mirrored by the British government. "I cannot say that it has really used [the exhibition] in a way that might have been to its advantage, if it had thought a little bit more about it. But on the other hand, there is no political pressure on us and that is a good thing." The show was sponsored by the investment bank Goldman Sachs, "which has its own agenda in China", said Rosenthal. The company has been active in China for more than a decade.
Diplomatic and commercial considerations aside, there can be little doubting the quality of the exhibition, which featured 400 works, mostly loaned from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Many of these are rarely seen in the Chinese capital itself, let alone the west: only two rooms in the Beijing museum have the necessary temperature and humidity for displaying such fragile artefacts.
The works date from the reigns of the three most powerful emperors of China's last dynasty: the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722), the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-35) and the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95). Highlights included painted scrolls recording the hunting expeditions and birthday celebrations of the emperors; religious artefacts, including a two-metre-high pagoda, fine armour, decorative arts and the more intimate, monochrome paintings of the "literati" tradition that dominated outside the royal court.
Fittingly, an entire gallery was devoted to China's previous interactions with the west. Clocks made in Britain were particularly fascinating to the emperors, who admired western technical expertise, and paintings by Jesuit missionaries such as Giuseppe Castiglione were also prized and imitated. A series of portraits of the Yongzheng Emperor in assorted costumes included one of him fighting a tiger while dressed in flamboyant European wig and costume.
Another striking series of paintings, of 12 mysterious "Beauties at Leisure", painted for Prince Yinzhen, the future Yongzheng emperor, has never been displayed as a set before, even in China. "We don't know who they are, nor what they are for," said Dame Jessica Rawson, warden of Merton College, Oxford, and the exhibition's chief curator.
She said the Palace Museum had been "extremely generous" in lending important works. "We were nothing less than ambitious - but we got almost everything we asked for, and those works we didn't get were for reasons of conservation." She said a London audience would never be able to see such a collection of works housed under the same roof again, adding that the exhibition had required a lot of negotiation. "We [the team of curators] have worked on China for all our careers, and if we hadn't we wouldn't have understood how to go about bringing these works here. It is an expression of trust between two groups of people. We persuaded [the Palace Museum] that this was a fantastic opportunity, and they trusted us. This is a story of two very far-apart institutions, which have gradually got to know each other over a period of many years."
Alfreda Murck, another of the show's curators, said some of the strict rules in China over the lending of works had been "bent but not broken -- it is the bamboo principle". She said the show would mean a lot to the Chinese. "The contemporary art scene is charging towards the west, but this [exhibition] is their mental image of themselves: the China that is admired for its education, its language, its scholarship."