Treasures of the Tang Dynasty

That day was a cool and sunny winter’s day and after lunch I caught the train into town to see the much hyped Frida Kahlo/Rivera Diego exhibition that had just opened at the NSW Art Gallery. But when I got there the queue was horrendous: such a long, snaking line of mainly middle-aged culture-vultures (like myself I suppose) that the opening times to the exhibition had been staggered. I couldn’t face an afternoon trapped behind a wall of heaving, heavily breathing bodies all clothed in slate and black winter over-garments and thick scarves and shawls. It would have been heavy enough just looking at the gut-wrenching paintings.

 

The last weeks of the Tang: Treasures of the Silk Road Capital exhibition beckoned. I hated to think that such an interesting show was second best, but I had seen it before and after some thought, considered it was worth another look.

 

The Tang Dynasty in China was a great age for poets and artists. 1300 years ago its capital Chang’an was the final destination of the fabled Silk Road, where merchants took their wares on camels and caravans on a journey stretching from the outposts of the West all the way to China. Such a city therefore was a melting pot of diverse cultures, beliefs and ethnicities, fanning a burst of creative and artistic activity. It was an age when an Empress (Wu Zetian) dared to rule for 20 years, where wanderers could travel in the mountainous wilderness and encounter demons, men and monks bearing fabulously canopied receptacles, Buddha himself kindly removing a large rock some men were struggling with, delegations reaching far-flung cities and holy ceremonies of international significance.

 

I saw a small, gilded silver plate in the shape of a six-petal flower like a camellia with its wide, gentle, symmetrical curve. And within the shallow bowl curls a vine of large leaves and two unknown flower-heads. And in the centre a five-petal flower, triumphantly in full bloom.

 

A sculpture of a kowtowing figure of a Tang civil official greeting an invisible superior, nearly prostrate to the floor on knees and elbows, hands raised as if to hold a tablet that was no longer there. There were lots of civil officials in those days, the highly civilised dynasty having a predilection for a lettered bureaucracy. He is apparently performing one of about eight different obeisances. The statue is of an attractive, pale, biscuit-brown earthenware washed with a creamy-white pigment that seemed common material for Tang statues. The official’s robes are gently stylised in fanned-out shapes along the floor behind him and like wings on his arms marked with flowing, parallel lines.

 

I have unfortunately forgotten to take notes of the excellent and very beautiful calligraphy of the times, written by masters with such outré names as something like ‘Drunk Wu’ and ‘Crazy Wen’. It was a highly sophisticated and literate society, at least in the upper echelons and many wonderful poets abounded.

 

The Tang Dynasty period appeared to be a good age for women, especially during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. These Tang women liked to dress glamorously, putting their hair up into high chignons embellished with eye-catching ornaments. I saw a mural of three Tang women (circa 710), two in long, flowing robes with long sleeves, their narrow waists obscured by shawls that draped becomingly at the front. They had reddened their lips with rouge. The other woman was at the back, her slim form clothed in a masculine outfit of striped pants and a long-sleeved, long length waisted robe. She had styled her hair more naturally, leaving it falling freely to the back of her shoulders.

 

Then there were a line of five Tang women, sculptures of the biscuit-brown earthenware washed with creamy-white pigment. Each hairstyle was different, although all with some kind of chignon up-do topped with one or two buns with ornaments, one even looking like an 18th century English admiral’s hat. All of these women had puffy moon-faces, with small eyes, mouths and noses, plump chins disappearing into their necks and plump waists, giving them a pigeon-like shape. I wondered, was it the artists’ ideal of feminine beauty? Or was it a realistic portrayal of women at the time?

 

These five women all dressed in long robes, made elegant by delicately etched, flowing lines. They stood in an enigmatic attitude of clasped hands, arms held flat across the waist and stomach, with wide sleeves. I saw a collection of long, silver hairpins, bursting at the tips with stylized flowers and arabesques. There were also little, round mirrors embossed at the back with sinuous dragons, mythic beasts and grapevines and geese and other birds. I saw another exquisite little palm-size mirror, inlaid with a pattern of moony mother-of-pearl and turquoise.

 

‘Under the slanting light, the bosoms bright as snow –

Half drunken I gaze at this beautiful girl’ – Li Qunyu (c813-60)

 

The downstairs part of the exhibition was devoted to religious art. Chang’an had a rich diversity of many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and even Nestorianism (a kind of eastern Christianity). But from all, Buddha seems to reign calmly supreme, probably the religion that most complemented the philosophically based native Chinese beliefs of Daoism and Confucianism.

 

I saw a large Buddha head, carved in stone from the Xingqing Palace emanating geometrically serene features and orderly lips couched in a small and graceful smile. There is a fondness for the depiction of multiple Buddhas, all sitting in simultaneous meditation and wearing flowing robes. This was carved on an octagonal pillar with four recesses on each side, each containing seated Buddhas. This pillar was apparently part of a ‘jingchuang’ monument and usually fronted a temple.

 

There were a lot of wares of beautiful gilded silver, my favourite being a large, four-lobed ceremonial basin decorated with Mandarin ducks and pomegranate fruit. On the base of the bowl, two ducks were gracefully entwined amid joyful clouds of leaves, flowers and fruits. Around the inner sides of each lobe, were dancing duck couples facing each other wreathed in arabesque clouds and lavish leaves. At each side of the basin, ornate handles hung. As these kind of motifs traditionally signify blessings for happy marriage and fertility, maybe the bowl formed part of the rites involved in marriage ceremonies.

 

Moving on, I saw a row of 12 Zodiac animal sculptures – animal headed in human form, their hands invisible under long, flowing sleeves, clasped formally over their stomachs. Again these sculptures were of the typical Tang biscuit coloured earthenware washed with cream-white pigment. They were: monkey, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, rooster, dog and pig.

The origin of the enduring and popular Zodiac superstition in China seems to have arisen in the 3rd Century BCE where ‘the 12 animals were first used to describe the appearance of thieves, as it was believed that their features would resemble one of these animals according to the time they committed their crime’. During the Tang Dynasty, the Zodiac system of celestial mapping established was often found depicted in niches in tombs.

 

There was a Stupa Jar of painted earthenware in red, cream-white and terracotta often found in burial sites dating from the Tang Dynasty. Of Buddhist tradition, they apparently contained goods for the departed soul’s sustenance in accord with ancient Chinese belief.

 

Nearing the end of the exhibition was a large earthenware/cream-white pigment sculpture of a horse, with its strong, agile legs, magnificent curve of back and massive, muscular nape of neck. Its facial features were delicately modeled, with a strong, noble jaw-bone, fine nostrils, little pointed, alert ears and mild, intelligent eyes. The horse was highly revered in those times, as it was an essential part of transport and communication and is a fitting symbol of the Tang Dynasty, with its art of strong, simple, honest lines so richly conveying both grace and grounded-ness.

 

I came out of the exhibition feeling happy, that there had been a time of such simple and beautiful art in the world and that it was a time of peace and prosperity, an eternal inspiration to this perhaps more complex, uncertain and more fragmented clime.

 

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Afternoon with Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs

The other week, I had a respite from the tyranny of work. Some rostered days off that allowed me the opportunity of reflection and wandering around the city enjoying its scenic delights. The weather was fortuitously very sunny and warm as well, so I set off for the NSW Art Gallery without a care in the world.

My main purpose in visiting the NSW Art Gallery was to view the exhibition of the photography of the 19th century Victorian, Julia Margaret Cameron. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK had generously lent a selection of its precious gems to our Gallery. Having read about this exhibition in The Guardian (can’t find the review now unfortunately, but here’s one from the Sydney Morning Herald) and having a passion for going back in time, it was a must for me to go and see.

I am discovering the art of photography myself, finding in its ability to capture a beautiful moment an instant gratification.

Pink daisy flowers

Flowers at Royal Botanic Garden

So much better than fiddling for ages with paint brushes,

Vietnamese dragon-like mythical beast

Mythical beast from Cham Museum, Da Nang, Vietnam.

pencils, charcoal and colours and the eternal frustration of never getting it quite right. And the amazing thing about photography is how much the artist can manipulate the media and choose the focus to get the kind of picture, effect or interpretation they see with their mind’s eye.

Photography is a true picture of a reality outside the self, but that reality is different for everyone.

So I entered the Art Gallery, paid for my ticket and went upstairs to view the exhibition. Apparently Cameron’s career as a photographer started in her late-forties when she was given a camera as a gift.  This was new-fangled media then, but already conventions were in play.  Subjects were stiffly posed and subject to highly focused scrutiny, with every button shining and every detail sharply delineated.

But Cameron departed somewhat radically from these norms, with her portraits of people wreathed in a kind of ethereal mist and her romantic idea that she was portraying people in terms of their personal ‘essence’ rather than the realistic rendition of the subject in the bald light of day.  She went for the Great Moment, rather than the Perfect Picture.  She said that when confronted with a sight of great beauty, she would take the picture immediately rather than start fiddling with the focus like a lot of other photographers did.

Alfred Lord Tennyson in bust profile

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thus a portrait of the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, portrays a dishevelled bearded and long-haired man almost in mid-movement, intent far more on his art than his appearance.  He liked this picture immensely and called it ‘the dirty monk’.

Another photo portrays a young woman of classic, finely-modelled features approaching the camera, her beauty all the more enhanced for its being slightly off-focus.

This spontaneity that graces her portraits must have been an extremely difficult thing to achieve with such an intractable media like the Victorian camera.  The exposures were so long that everybody had to stay absolutely still in their allotted positions and scarcely breathe for quite a while, lest an extraordinary amount of trouble and expense was ruined.

This probably accounts for the distinct lack of gaiety in all the portraits.  None of the people were smiling.  But Cameron seems to have made a virtue of this with people appearing rather serious, pensive and reflective which plays more to the idea of portraying the inner and less temporal person.

Alice Liddell as a young woman

Alice Liddell

A portrait of Alice Liddell (said to be the muse of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’) reveals a girl nearing the edge of adulthood with fine eyes of an inimitably imperious expression, but shot through with a kind of sadness. Why she should be so sad, I did not know. It is one of those mysteries that Cameron is wont to throw up and leave lying in the air.

Another picture was titled ‘Summer days’, with a frieze of young

Group of two women and two children in summer clothes

Summer Days

women and girls arrayed becomingly in their large, floppy summer hats and festive, holiday clothes, but resting against each other with expressions of the most pervasive pensiveness.  These days, the caption would invite depictions of riotous jollity.  But somehow I really liked the serious tone of it, as if it was an evocation that nothing, no matter how good, lasts forever.  That time moves on and these eternally good times, one and all become nothing more than memories.

She was very fond of putting together theatrical scenes from Shakespeare, Tennyson, Antiquity or the Bible, creating many moments of fine dark drama or gentle, aerial mystery and melancholy.

Young woman in profile

Sappho

My favourite of these is of her house-mistress, a dark-haired young woman with the beautiful features and profile of a 15th century Madonna. She is posing as the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, with an embroidered peasant blouse I’d like to steal and a dramatic necklace of hanging teardrops.  The deliberate position of her hand on the lyre forms a gentle and respectful tribute.

Cameron, according to the script, was a very religious person and consequently there were a number of pictures devoted to the subject of piety.  Piety is something I do not understand, being an atheist from another time and place.

Woman in prayer

Pensive Nun

But there was something very moving about one portrait of a woman devoutly pressing her hands to her chest in a heartfelt, prayer-like position that could only be a gesture of some very deep love and reverence.  The caption was from a poem ,’Il Penseroso’, by the 17th century English poet John Milton ‘Come pensive nun devout and pure, sober steadfast and demure’.

Her portrait of the scientist astronomer and her muse, Sir John Herschel,

Portrait of a scientist

Sir John Herschel

is a triumph of the documentation of a another time.  Rough-headed and unkempt, he is gazing indomitably into the future with the questing, wildly surmising look of a person accustomed to acutely observing phenomena and exploring its implications with his massive intellect.  And yet he belongs solidly in the 19th Century, as one of its pioneers and progenitors, one of those who shaped the future.  She captures the darkness science was emerging from at that age.  No scientist today could ever be quite in the same place of so much unknowing.

Young woman in profile

Sadness

But Cameron was also capable of taking photos that seemed as if they were taken yesterday.  A young woman in a becoming short-sleeve white peasant’s blouse rests up against a wall, one hand holding her necklace and the silvery bangles on her arm lending a sharp and precise light. Also interesting about this picture is how Cameron seems to make the pattern on the wall-paper part of the shadow of the woman herself and somehow expressive of her personality.

Two children holding flowers

The Sad White Roses

Much is made of Cameron’s treatment of children in her photos.  Coming from the background of being housewife and mother, she seems to absolutely love putting them into various becoming theatrical positions with adults such as the aforesaid house-mistress in scenes like Madonna and child, or together in various poses that seem to evoke a kind of elegant floating world that the Victorian well-to-do lived in.  While they look like adorable little animals and it must have been a major feat getting them to stay still for so long, I think Cameron does best when there is an accidental quality to the shot.

One of her first pictures was of a child caught as if just

Young girl face and neck

‘Annie, my first success’

coming in to a room from outside.  She is buttoned up in warm clothing and her shy expression and birdlike personality shines unerringly through.  Cameron was understandably delighted with this picture, calling it her first successful photo.

There was much more, but having gazed and stayed for long in this gallery room of mystical melancholy and shades of black and white, it seemed a relief to leave and get out into the afternoon sunlight and colour of the green Sydney Domain with its massive fig trees and long airy stretch of green lawn.

Spreading fig tree in city park

Fig tree in the Sydney Domain

I wonder whether people from the Victorian age really did live their life with a kind of seriousness that today’s society with its relentless hedonism does not seem to value.  Or that the people might look back at all that unremitting sobriety and think ‘that was then. Thank goodness for that’.

Maybe a balance between the two would be progress!

Prehistoric Venus

The earliest works of art that we have ever found

These figurines of women,

From the icy air of the Old Stone Age

They emerge

Pendulous breasted,

Rotund bellies and great hips and thighs

 

Ballerina like

They stand erect in space with their hands clasped

Neatly before them, hugging the body

As if ready for service to mankind

 

But it is their small heads

Some with eyes

Of empty space

That bow melting

Into the flower of being alive

Like bees

 

Burrowing into the consciousness

Of someone else

To become them

O Queen

 

Figurines of three women

Venus Figures

And here is a link to suggest what the mysterious figures may have been about…

And just for fun:

Woman at the beach

Lady at the Beach

Megan Payne

Fragments of Ancient Afghanistan

Got to the NSW Art Gallery the other day to see a fugitive exhibition of antiquities from the once grand museum of Afghanistan.  Embroiled in war, civil strife and the harsh, repressive regime of the Taliban for decades, about 90% of the treasures have been lost or destroyed.  The keepers of this tiny surviving remnant collection risked their lives hiding the keys to the secret cache.  You can read their remarkable story here.

Now the collection is in exile, travelling the world so that people can get a glimpse into Afghanistan’s extraordinary multi-cultural heritage.  These fragments reveal a lost ancient world of people of the Bronze Age, the Greeks and Romans in the great wake of Alexander the Great, of India and of the nomadic tribes from places like nearby Mongolia and China.  I could not take photos of the collection, however can describe something of what I saw.

Most of the treasures come from the ancient Greek colony of Ai Khanum (Lady Moon) of the region of Bactria at about 100 BCE post Alexander the Great when it was a thriving melting pot of Indian, ancient Greek and Roman and nomadic cultures.

One of the first was an intriguing pottery figure of a stylised woman with a bird’s body.

There were some ancient Greek sculptures in limestone, sadly damaged. One of a young man with a beautifully modelled nude torso and drapery arranged about his neck and left arm.  Another was a dignified looking patriarch, director of a gymnasium with a hoary but neat beard.  And another was a waterspout in the shape of a Greek style comic mask.

A fragment of a tombstone had this inscription: ‘As a child, learn good manners;  as a young man learn to control your passions;  in middle age, be just;  in old age, give good advice;  then die, without regret.’… Some limestone Corinthian capitals.  Bronze statuette of Heracles with the green verdigris patina holding a long club.  A crescent-shaped plaque also in bronze featuring what looked like an oval-shaped female face – suggesting a moon cult. Pieces of broken crockery in schist stone, some inlaid with small triangle patterns with stylised horses prancing in a circle.

From Begram, a gate-way silk trading post: Ceremonial plaque depicting Cebele, Goddess of Nature with Nike Goddess of victory riding a chariot under Helios, the sun and the moon.  Two shadowy priests in the background assiduously attend to the Goddesses’ bidding.

Three Roman Egyptian glass goblets sadly shattered and reconstructed bearing traces of Roman painting.  Very clear and fine, fragile glass.  One of war, one of hunting and another of idyllic everyday life.

Some fine bronze objects:  of small pitchers, a medium shallow bowl with handles – minimal design – mass produced?  Figurines of riders in the Graeco-Roman style.  A cheery mask of the bearded and grape-vine crowned Silenus, companion of Dionysis the God of wine.  Some scale weights in the shapes of Athena goddess of wisdom – with her Medusa breastplate – and Ares the god of war.  Statuette of Harpocrates – Greek form of Egyptian god Horus – a tall child with finger resting on mouth.  A muscle-bound Serapis – Heracles with a club and a basket head-dress – in still gleaming bronze flecked with verdigris.  Winged Eros with a large bow.

A collection of decorated ivory plaques more in Indian style of luscious, lascivious hour-glass women in languorous poses – holding dishes of food aloft, riding a horse, titivating themselves – each scene with a suggestively part-opened door.

Three ivory statuettes of Indian River Goddess Ganga.  Each standing on the mythical makara monster – part crocodile, elephant and fish.  Blend of Greek and Indian representations of deities.  An ivory plaque with figure holding leaf-like tails of two makara.

Glass objects from Begrum – beautiful ribbed green bowl in Roman style, fish-shaped vessel with a cream body, blue eyes and fins.  Blue cup with honey-comb pattern and goblets, blue and cream with lacy trellis patterns.  Egyptian alabaster amphora.  Glass bowl made in imitation of agate.

A group of plaster medallions.  One of baby Eros clutching a butterfly to his chest – signifying union of physical and spiritual love.  Graceful depiction of young nude female woman offering a piece of fruit in outstretched hand.  Medallion of Endymion and Selene in a love scene. Porphyry bowl and vase simple but luxurious of smooth, polished red-brown stone flecked with white feldspar crystals.

Beautiful two-handled drinking cup of clear rock crystal with a delicate grape-vine leaf pattern etched on it.

Chair bracket of ivory depicting some brave bare-bosom woman riding a leogryph – a mythical creature with body of lion, wings of eagle and beak of parrot, emerging from the mouth of a makara.

Some decorative ivory plaques of women in alluring poses, dressed like Indian dancing girls, one even breast-feeding a child.

Gold objects and jewellery from the lost Bronze Age Oxus civilisation and of some Bactrian tombs of about 100 BCE crowned the treasures.  The Bronze Age gold was limited to broken fragments of gold vessels with patterns of parallel lines on them.  Of the Bactrian tombs, gold gleaming as beautifully as the day it was made – medallions, large rosette-shaped hairpins, crescent-shaped ornaments and pendants often inlaid with turquoise, but also lapis lazuli, carnelian and pyrite.  There were rings and a small gold cosmetics pot with chained lid and sides decorated with leaves and petals with a knob on the lid shaped like a pomegranite.

A beautiful pair of gold status-conferring clasps depicting fully armed warriors with spears and shields, helmets and knee-length tunics marked with lion-heads.  There were gold hair pendants and a bracelet with sliding ends and stones of turquoise, amber and lead glass each inset in gold.

The objects often show a strong nomadic influence.  A pair of gold pendants of a man dressed in Central Asian nomadic style with a Persian style crown holding two mythical dragons.  Two thick gold bracelets inlaid with turquoise and carnelian with the ends fashioned as stylised antelopes. What looked like an elaborate gold necklace of dozens of little hanging pendants and inset with stones of turquoise and amber was actually pinned to the garment itself in the nomadic fashion.

There was a collapsible gold crown of stylised trees and leaves.  The nomadic influence also entwined itself into depictions of Greek mythological scenes.  Clasps depicting Dionysis and Ariadne on monster steeds with muzzle of lion, goat beard and dragon crest.

Finally, there was a gold-handled dagger inlaid with turquoise.  Alongside were two elaborate gold dagger sheaths fashioned with rams’ heads and swastikas, hearts and flowers.  There was also a fine belt woven of flexible gold chains with medallions of a figure sitting on a panther holding a ‘kantheros’ (two-handled drinking cup).  There was a shallow, ribbed gold drinking bowl.  There shoe decorations and boot buckles, medallion style of man riding a Mongolian/Chinese style chariot drawn by dragons.

I left the exhibition with a kind of sadness that that was all that was left of such an amazing history of years of cross-cultural interaction, prosperous trading and peaceful co-existence.  But this little collection stands defiant in the face of those who seek to erase evidence of multicultural harmony throughout the ages.  It is also testimony to the incredible bravery of the people who seek to save these treasures so that others all over the world may study, ponder over or simply enjoy looking at them.

Rouen Cathedral, France, 12 November, 1994

Was lucky enough to get to a Monet exhibition of Rouen Cathedral which was travelling around at Rouen Musee de Beaux Arts –

Rouen is not a large or seemingly terribly imposing cathedral – it has none of the vast Romanesque spell of faery world of endless beauty and play of Chartres – It has been ravaged by the 2nd World War.  Most of the stained glass is modern or donated, or just plain glass.  But walking around the church there is a mistiness and it has a certain grey mysteriousness.

“I care not for the trials of the flesh” says an agonised Joan of Arc in her chapel.  Here I am surrounded by colour in the exhibition.  Monet has captured some of that mistiness and a human pain of an intimate knowledge.  The facades shimmer and seems to be made of light not jewels in any way.

Etude Portal vu du Face

Etude Portal vu du Face

Monet “Etude pour portal vu de face” – scumbling muted greens browns and blues – light chocolately and never muddy – lines of colour sketched with a grave attention to freedom, a graceful (exclusion/exision) of all unnecessary lines & details.  Rouen’s elaborate spires – as in his freehand sketches also shown, shiver, waver but like flames always decisively towards the heavens.

 

 

“Effet de Soleil Fin de Jounee” – finish of the afternoon?  The west front is clad in a soft

Sunset

Sunset

apricot mantle, clear cobalt blue resting in the hollows of “our Lady’s” form.  In the square the blue shadows deepen at the bottom of the painting.  While the top of the portal blazes with yellow lights which reflects itself – over and above.

 

 

 

“le portail” – fine blue day, Plein Soliel his most famous shimmers – as I had long suspected – although not one soul shadows the sunshine.  Are they all alseep at lunch?  While the sun rides high?  except the clock, tinged with red spot blood colour, ticks on to tell the time.  The effect of the sun pales the cathedral rather than reflects the long yellow rays – which shine at the either side of each day,

“Fin Apres midi”  Apricot & pale blue hues cream & honey “the late after noon” fires embers of yellow sunlight glowing in the portals are dying into ashes – only the door seems to hold a palpitating heart and the clock swathed in blue with a yellow centre – keeps a flowery counsel.

Light Blue-green sky le portail “Brouillard Martinal” sea of blue & green – the fine boned face of the portal is graced with a white light and some yellow/sunlight, tinged with red/orange climbs some of the towers.  Strokes of freely dashed paint like elegant handwriting.  Pale patch of sky.

“Effet du Matin” golden green shadows pale reddish face – blue spires rise coldly awakening faint flushed the sky.  fingers of sunlight barely touching barely transmitting their warmth

“le portail et la tour d’Albane” temps gris captures much of the mistiness of Rouen which

Facade et Tour D'Albane

Facade et Tour D’Albane

rises swirling into the air – surprising the traveller myself, who expected this from a surely more imposing looking building.  Not so – many ghosts throughout time live their spirit life peacefully in Rouen cathedral

 

 

 

“la cour d’Albane Apres-midi” wonderful blue sky.  The houses are awake it the sunlight – all the colours are dark blue, pale mauve, gold, green, hues of red & yellows all dancing in their outlines of blue – Beside the wall of the church a jumble of buildings with light-jewels for casements – a reddish brown passageway burns – Nobody is there.  Also not on a grey day.  16 paintings in all.  Have no more time –

Towers of light, of glowing embers, of muted sculpted grey – sketched in faces – in all kinds of weather & time & the clock strikes on…