Exhibitions Museums Attendance China

Taiwan organises year of Ming Dynasty shows

Strategic exhibitions in Taipei as mainland China flexes its soft cultural power abroad

A detail of the 3.5 metre scroll Fishing in Reclusion Among Mountains and Streams by the Ming Dynasty painter Tang Yin (1470-1524) is currently on view at the National Palace Museum

Taiwan’s National Palace Museum (NPM) has organised “Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty”, a year-long series of exhibitions that are drawing even larger crowds than usual to its paintings galleries. More than 12,000 visitors a day visit the museum complex in suburban Taipei, making it the most visited museum in Asia.

The “Four Great Masters” exhibitions are ambitious undertakings that also signify how Taiwan is striving to secure an international reputation as the guardian of the best of Chinese culture, at a time when mainland China is demonstrating its “soft power” by lending works to museums in Europe and the US.

The four, single-artist exhibitions, which began in January and run until the end of December, highlight the works of Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin and Qiu Ying. They are considered some of the greatest painters of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a period still looked upon as the apex of Chinese civilisation.

The curators have drawn exclusively from the museum’s holdings, which include thousands of paintings once owned by Emperor Qianlong (1711-99), one of history’s most voracious art collectors. The powerful Qing Dynasty ruler was known to maintain a team of advisors who were key to shaping his tastes and setting standards that remain high watermarks for Chinese culture today.

“There is so much weight behind the Imperial collection,” says the London-based art historian and educator Nixi Cura, who travelled to Taiwan earlier this year to see one of the shows with her students. The exhibitions “represent the orthodox cannon that remains in Chinese art”, she says. “It is a validation of the big names and the museum has some of the best paintings by these artists.”

Taiwan has been very careful over the years about sending its treasures overseas. Last year, culture officials in Taipei refused British museums’ requests to borrow art from the NPM over fears that UK law might allow China to seize the works.

In a historic development, Taiwan this summer lent a Qing dynasty jadeite carving of a Chinese cabbage—one of the most well-known works at the NPM—to the Tokyo National Museum. It was the first time that such an artefact was lent to an Asian country, and was only possible because Japan recently adopted an art anti-seizure policy. The exhibition was seen by a record 150,000 visitors during its run from 24 June to 7 July.

However, the loan almost did not happen. Days before the opening, Taiwan officials discovered that the show’s promotional materials dropped the “national” when referring to the NPM. As a result, a visit to Tokyo by Taiwan’s first lady for the opening was cancelled. The show was put back on track after the Japanese museum changed its publicity materials.

The bulk of the NPM collection, estimated to comprise almost one million items, comes from Beijing’s Forbidden City, once home to China’s emperors. With the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949, retreating Kuomintang forces sent shiploads of art to their stronghold in Taiwan. Although China has lent art to Taiwan for museum shows in the last few years, Taipei politicians have not allowed works to go to the mainland. Tourists from China have helped boost NPM’s visitor numbers from 2.5 million in 2009 to 4.5 million in 2013.

Aside from the Imperial provenance, many of the Ming works include chopmarks (authentication stamps used by Chinese businessmen) and written tributes from some of China’s most famous scholars and connoisseurs. The paintings and calligraphy in the collection are also some of the most copied, as replication is a central tradition in Chinese artistic practice.

“Wen Zhengming’s style, inherited from previous generations, still has impact on future generations. In Chinese art history, he is an important painter. His work is worth studying,” says the NPM’s assistant curator Yiling Tann, who organised the exhibition of the artist’s work (3 April-30 June).

The NPM is currently showing the work of Tang Yin (until 29 September. The final installment of “Four Great Masters” is devoted to Qiu Ying (4 October-29 December).

The fragile nature of these paintings on paper or silk also means that the works will not be seen in public for a while. To ensure their proper care, such pieces are on display for no more than three months, after which they are sent to “rest” for two or three years in storage. The museum is publishing a multi-volume catalogue on the painting exhibition series.

Apricot Blossoms by Tang Yin
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