Month: November 2014

A Chinese Renaissance?

Ming Dynasty cloisonné jar,Xuande period (AD 1426-35). Copyright: Trustees of British Museum
Ming: 50 years that changed China” is one of the exhibitions definitely worth seeing in London this autumn and is on at the British Museum until 4th January. Regardless of whether you entirely believe the curators’ implied claims that the period was uniquely formative in Chinese history and led to the nation becoming a global superpower at that time; there is just so much that is utterly wonderful to behold there.This is largely because of the outstanding quality of the loans from ten Chinese museum and artistic institutions, arranged in a remarkable cultural exchange. The Chinese government, in permitting and encouraging this, will be well aware of the value of art as a means of diplomacy. Indeed the exhibition can be seen as a projection of the country’s status as an international superpowerIt is probably no coincidence that the chosen period, from 1400 to 1450, was one in which China as a nation not only changed dramatically but, like today, looked to the world beyond its own borders.
The Ming dynasty was founded in 1368 and after the death of its first emperor in 1398 a power struggle ensued before the Prince of Yan became the Yongle Emperor in 1402. He established massive changes in the country, moving the Imperial capital to Beijing, constructing the Forbidden City there and setting up his numerous sons in magnificent regional courts. These both displayed and limited their power while real control became centralised in the capital. At the same the growing importance of a class of bureaucrats and administrators, as well the many eunuchs promoted to high office at Court, began to usurp the aristocratic warrior classes at the heart of government.
The visual arts were developed to a height of magnificence as a means of display, legitimising the Imperial rule and projecting its power both internally and abroad. The Empire became increasingly outwards looking, participating more and more in trade and diplomacy. It widened its prestige, trading base and knowledge, through a series of nautical voyages conducted under the Admiral Zheng He. This expansionist phase was brought to an end, or at least curtailed, after the unfortunate capture of the Zhengtong Emperor in battle in 1449. After this time it ceased to be the custom of the country for the Emperor to personally lead his troops into battle.
Given this background there is good reason for the Museum’s claim that the period was uniquely creative and provided a significant break with the past. Nonetheless, the practice of burying princes with grave goods including the best productions of former eras – the antiques of their day even in the fifteenth century- shows the extent to which that past remained revered.All this however, simply provides a structure to the display of several hundred objects of the utmost quality. Many have been recently excavated from regional princely tombs and shown outside China for the first time ever. The Ming didn’t do art quietly; they did bling, but my God, what bling it was!You can see the fusion of techniques and design in a cloisonné jar and sword hilt on display in the exhibition and illustrated in this post.
Most of us think of Ming art as represented by blue and white porcelain, without realising that many of its characteristic shapes in fact have Islamic origins, albeit in other media such as metal, and would have reached China through its growing international trade.The range as well as the quality of the exhibits is remarkable. There are red lacquer dishes and boxes, gold and silver vessels, the jade one would expect and the miraculously preserved silk robes and musical instruments one wouldn’t. There are dragons and the purest and most intense of colours, for example on the lidded cloisonné jar of about 1430 illustrated here. You get the impression that the Ming Emperors didn’t do things by halves or would ever understate their significance. Clever, able, competent are the words that come to mind.
Yet these emperors also wrote poetry, encouraged scholars, composed and took pleasure in music and clearly had a more thoughtful side.We traditionally associate balance, proportion and beauty with the earlier Han and Sung dynasties with their simpler ceramic shapes and perfect, even if not showy, glazes. Here you are most likely to find these qualities in the scroll paintings, designed to be read from right to left as a series of related images. They combine grace, proportion and perfect simplicity of flowing wash and line. One of Prunus blossom by moonlight is amongst the most beautiful objects in the whole exhibition. It clearly finds an appreciative audience who stand quietly in front of it for much longer than you would expect of the average London art tourist.
If you get a chance, you really should see this exhibition. For all its considerable intellectual content and political significance it is probably best enjoyed as a feast of delights for the senses.


Presentation sword (jian) and scabbard. China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1402–1424 (detail) © Royal Armouries


A Tale of Two Germanys

germanytwoPlacard from 1989 “We Are One People”

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and shortly afterwards East and West Germany were re-united amidst great euphoria, events that were major milestones in the long history of a complex, fascinating and often troubled nation.Twenty five years later, the anniversary is marked by a significant focus on Germany and German Art in London’s museums and galleries including two major exhibitions, one of Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy, and “Germany: Memories of a Nation” at the British Museum. Co-incidentally, this year is also the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War.

Important though they both are, neither show is “easy”. To an extent both exhibitions deal with the awareness and responsibilities of the individual, not only to the present, but also in recognising the immutable connections between now and the historic past. These are connections which cannot be denied or hidden even if they are sometimes uncomfortable and not of the making of the present generation, who may well even have been born after Germany’s reunification.
The show at the Royal Academy is a comprehensive retrospective of 40 years of Kiefer’s production, often massive in scale, huge in scope and making use of a complicated, symbolically important range of materials. Kiefer’s early work was produced as a response to what he saw as a glossing over and an airbrushing away of the Third Reich in his post war history lessons at school.He deals almost literally with the weight of history, with his choice of materials such as lead (“the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history”), alongside ash, straw, barbed wire and a used pair of shoes. He is an outstanding painter but uses paint alongside his other media in order to get us to think and to feel. His paintings and installations are not particularly easy to come to terms with. One can feel them at quite a visceral level without, in the absence of an interpreter, necessarily understanding them at an intellectual one.
Kiefer furthermore doesn’t shrink from the really big questions – the “Why are we here? And what are we for?” ones with his complicated symbolic structures and cyclical view of time. The show is well worth seeing, but it isn’t, not even one little bit, art in the once popular sense of pretty pictures of pretty things. Rather you can think of what the video artist Bill Viola said of his work “Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul.”

At the British Museum Neil Macgregor, its Director, has inspired the curators to assemble objects which conjure up what it is to be German. If you want an interpreter for these objects you have it, not only in the labels and printed guides at the Museum, but also in the form of thirty podcasts available on Radio 4 and to download. In each session Macgregor talks for fifteen minutes about not only the chosen object, but its wider connotations in a national context.
The exhibits include some superb Holbein paintings, including the “Lady with a Squirrel” and the “Portrait of Erasmus”. There are some of Durer’s finest prints including his “Melancholia” and “Death, the Knight and the Devil”. A wonderful Meissen porcelain rhinoceros, several feet high, is based not on real life but rather on Durer’s famous print of the animal that he had never actually seen. A Volkswagen Beetle, standing at the foot of the Reading Room, is a symbol both of post-war economic recovery and German technological achievement.
With so many of these objects, like Germany itself, the connections and connotations are really complicated. Just how complicated is exemplified by a gate from Buchenwald Concentration Camp. As it closed on the inhabitants they could see the words “Jedem das Seine” –“To each his own fate”. Obviously, this gate is a horrific reminder of an awful period in German history. But the phrase often occurred in other, happier and earlier German contexts. It appeared, for example, in the works of Martin Luther and was part of the title of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.
To make matters even more complicated it was designed under duress by Franz Ehrlich, a prisoner at the Camp, using a script developed at the “degenerate” Bauhaus, where he had been an artist. The gate was hence identifiable as a form of covert protest against the Nazi machine. But it doesn’t end there. Ehrlich, Macgregor reports, proved adept at survival and after the war, returned to design work in East Germany, where he became an enthusiastic Stasi collaborator.
If you’re not sure whether to visit the exhibition (and you will surely want to see the Ming display concurrently on display there – see the next post) listen to one or two of Macgregor’s podcasts first and then decide. Chris

Durer “Melancholia” Credit: Trustees of the Bristish Museum

germanyfour › What’s on › Exhibitions › Factual › History

Late Rembrandt in London

These posts are about the good things in life. Right now at the end of October that certainly includes London, which is enjoying a golden autumn. There has seldom been a better time to combine some serious art with the pleasures of a capital city that is now a highly civilised place to live and visit. It offers a particularly good crop of exhibitions to enjoy over the next few months. A series of posts on the very best of these will follow over the next week.
Rembrandt’s wonderful Late Works are on display at the National Gallery. Germany: memories of a nation and an excellent exhibition about the first 50 years of the Ming Dynasty are both running at the British Museum. Late Turner is the subject of a fine exhibition at Tate Britain. Anselm Kiefer has been running at the Royal Academy since mid-September; Giovanni Battista Moroni has also just opened there.
The first thing to say about the Rembrandt exhibition is very simple. You must go. It’s on until mid January and is likely to become very crowded during the Christmas holidays. So the sooner you see it, the better the chances of being able to get a relatively relaxed look at the contents. This applies especially to the works on paper which are shown in necessarily low light conditions for conservation reasons.
It’s unlikely we will see another show of late Rembrandt of this quality and this comprehensiveness. Restrictions on lending are almost certain to increase over time and a number of the loans here are quite exceptional. Just a few of the outstanding paintings from overseas include the Oath of the Batavii from Stockholm, the Jewish Bride (see the image below) and the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild pre-eminent amongst many outstanding loans from the Rijksmuseum, and two treatments of the storey of Lucretia, that of 1666 from Minneapolis and that of 1664 from Washington.
The coming together of the fine self portraits, of which the Kenwood version with two circles is perhaps my own favourite, shows Rembrandt’s unflinching observation of his ageing and physical decay amidst the financial ruins of his career, whilst indicating the immense strength of character of someone who can hardly have been an easy man. Without being in any way sentimental, they make the maximum demands on our emotions through the exercise of memory and character captured in paint.
This brings us to the fascinating questions of technique and composition. In his time many critics regarded Rembrandt’s later work as unfinished and clumsy, and it certainly lacks the smooth surfaces and precise local realism of so many lesser Dutch masters. It offers something much greater, the ability not just to capture texture and the fall of light (who ever did metal, and especially gold, better?) but in the sheer physical materiality of his paint (often thickened with dirt, eggshells, earth and God knows what, but thinned almost to fluidity in the blood running from Lucretia’s fatal wound) to capture the essence of personality and to contain the intense interplay of heightened emotions.
The picture plane is usually compressed to focus on the dramatic essence of the characters and actions depicted and to make us spectators, and sometimes participants, in the dramas put before our eyes. Like Velazquez, he manipulates paint to reproduce the process of vision rather than the creation of an intellectually coherent space. The Kenwood self portrait combines the precision of two perfectly painted circles with the most ephemeral but effective treatment of his hand shown holding his brushes. His compositions are unified by light and while they may be in a certain sense unfinished, they are never incomplete.
The works on paper are remarkable for the opportunity to compare different states, often of great rarity, of some of Rembrandt’s best prints. His use of burr in drypoint, inking and the frequent changes brought about wear mean that no two impressions are quite the same and these are things that no reproduction can satisfactorily convey.
Everything in the exhibition is of the highest quality and of undoubted authenticity. Ironically this leads to its only downside. It would have been fascinating to have been able to compare one or two paintings that have traditionally been given to Rembrandt but have been relatively recently demoted (for example the Man in a Golden Helmet in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), with the show of fully authorised images so magnificently displayed. One’s own judgements may be of limited critical value, but the process of making them is still of immense importance to furthering one’s appreciation and awareness of the artist.
In the end words are inadequate for the intensity of sensation and emotion Rembrandt’s best work produces. The solution is simple; go and see it and rejoice we are so lucky to have it here in London.

De Joodse bruid, Rijksmuseum

The Jewish Bride: credit Rijksmuseum public domain image.

Quinces; Growing and Cooking by Jane McMorland Hunter and Sue Dunster

Quince Book and Quinces 1

This is Jane’s latest book, which she has written with Sue Dunster. Quinces were once more common in Britain than apples; now many people don’t know what to do with them, where to buy them or even what they are. Slowly, over the last ten years or so, quinces have become more readily available. For a long time only farmers’ markets sold them, now increasingly green grocers and even supermarkets stock them. This is the quinces season and is the perfect time to acquaint yourself with this fruit which is delicious in both sweet and savoury dishes, can easily be preserved and will enhance a room with an unmistakable yet delicate fragrance.

Quince orchard at RHS WisleyThe best way to get a good supply of quinces is to grow your own, although this year the harvest has been poor, with many trees only bearing a few fruits. Don’t be off put by this though, with any luck next year, quince trees will be laden with fruit. Quinces grow on attractive trees which never become unmanageably large and will improve any garden. They can even be grown in containers. In late spring the trees are covered with the most exquisite, fragrant blossom. This ranges from white to pale pink and is set against a backdrop of furry grey-green leaves. The blossom does not last long, but while it is in flower there is little that can rival it. The trees themselves grow in a twisty, slightly mad, but attractive manner, although some varieties can be trained against a wall in an espalier or fan. The fruit appears in late summer and ripens towards the end of autumn. In Northern Europe the fruit never ripens sufficiently to be eaten raw, but is so delicious once cooked that this really does not matter. The trees are highly productive and fairly unfussy as to where they grow, in particular, the cultivar ‘Meech’s Prolific’ certainly lives up to its name. The trees self-pollinate which means you only need one to get fruit. They are largely disease free and will live to a great age, enhancing your garden and providing you with a scrumptious crop in return for little input.

Quinces were reputed to be the fruit which Paris gave to Aphrodite and it was said that quince trees grew up wherever she walked; they may also have been the infamous fruits on the Tree of Wisdom in the Garden of Eden. Much later Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussycat dined on them at their wedding feast. Quinces came to Europe from Central Asia along the ancient trade routes and they still grow wild in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Turkestan and Iran. They have been used in Persian cooking for over 2500 years, but probably reached Britain in the13th century where they appear in recipes for pies sweetened with honey.

Quince Jelly, jam and Curd

Quinces are deliciously sweet and scented when cooked. They contain a high level of pectin and can therefore easily be made into jams and jellies. Originally marmalade was made from quinces coming from the Portuguese word for the fruit, marmelo. A little goes a long way and the addition of a few slices will transform sweet and savoury dishes. They combine particularly well with apples and pears, but will also go with almonds, oranges and even mulberries, if you can get them. They can be made into cakes, tarts, biscuits and custards. They are used in many Mediterranean and Central Asian savoury dishes including chicken, pork and all types of game. They can be stuffed with meat and used to flavour savoury tarts. There is so much more to them than just the jelly and membrillo commonly found in delicatessens.

Even before you cook with them quinces can be used to scent a room. Once ripened, they are an attractive golden colour and will keep in a bowl giving off a delightful fragrance.Quinces in a bowl

The first part of this book gives a brief history of quinces to put them into context in both the kitchen and the garden. A section on growing quince trees follows which gives all the information you need to select and care for a suitable cultivar. The final part covers storing, cooking and using the fruit, in both modern and historic recipes. Do not be put off by the fact that they usually need to be cooked, so do lots of other ingredients and the rewards for cooking quinces are enormous.

 Quinces Growing and Cooking by Jane McMorland Hunter and Sue Dunster, Prospect Books. ISBN 9781909248410

I would obviously love everyone to buy this book. I would be especially happy if they bought or ordered it from a bookshop; bookshops are an endangered breed and, too late, we may be sorry when they disappear. Jane