National Palace Museum

Show and Tell: At the National Palace Museum again

[A show and tell]

The National Palace Museum in Taipei was built to house the art collection of the Emperors of China. This collection was carried off from Beijing by Chiang Kai Shek in 1947 when he fled from the mainland before the advancing communist armies. It was subsequently housed in a nuclear bomb shelter in deep shafts mined into the side of the mountain to prevent it being damaged in any Chinese attempted takeover of Taiwan.

Chinese art plays a special role in the China-Taiwan conflict.  Chinese definition of China is not genetic but cultural:  one is never born Chinese; one becomes Chinese by absorbing Chinese culture — one becomes cultured, or, in a Chinese expression, “cooked through”.  For millenia China was threatened by northern barbarians who sometimes conquered her.  China remained Chinese in the face of her conflict with uncultured barbarians by assiduously preserving and maintaining her culture; and, at times, by educating her barbarian conquerors into her cultural ways.  The Chinese government’s function has always been to preserve and maintain culture (since its job is to protect the people’s livelihood and culture makes for a livable state); and a Chinese government is only legitimate to the extent that it preserves and maintains culture.  Seizing the cultural treasures of China is a route to legitimacy; destroying them, as communists did during the Cultural Revolution, destroyslegitimacy.  One could say, perhaps, that if the contents of the National Palace Museum were to be destroyed, China would cease to exist.

The collection, assembled over millenia, is vast: the museum features a small permanent collection and rotating displays changed every few weeks. On a strict rotation schedule, it would take fourteen years to show the entire collection. But some works are so precious (imagine fifth century AD ink and paper paintings) that they are hardly ever put on show.

When I lived here, I visited the museum every week in order to make sure that I miss nothing. And whenever I return, I make sure to go back there again. Every time I visit I leave deeply moved by something, usually something new. On my visit today I came across three new items never before seen.

1.  A new (for me) painting by my personal hero, Wen Zhengming (Ming Dynasty, fifteenth century) — a long (11 meters) horizontal scroll called Guan Shan Ji Xue — “Mountain Passes in Gathering Snow”:

The size of the reproduction does no justice to the incredible detail of the painting (even though the scroll is only about 3 x larger than the reproduction): trees have detailed bark; empty surfaces (water and sky) are covered with an irregular, scored ink wash which suggests falling snow; in places, huts buried in show are conveyed with a combination of two thin strokes of the brush and a kind of brightening of the underlying wash; the figure of the lonely traveler in a red jacket on a black ass — which appears every foot or so as you view the scroll from right to left and eventually, about the middle of it, comes home (he is seen sitting in an open window) can barely be made out, while in the original it jumps at the eye like a raspberry in cream; above all, with the reproduction you cannot do what you can do in the museum: step about 5 feet back from the scroll and let your eye wonder over the undulating landscape: as you roll your eyes from right to left and then back again the effect is strangely musical: it is like gliding your gaze over a musical score: the peaks and valleys rise and fall rhythmically, with a slight, shimmering rubato. 

You can see the full reproduction of the scroll here.

2.  A vertical scroll which I had never seen by one of the greatest painters of the Song Dynasty (tenth century), Ma Yuan, entitled Xue Jing — Snow Landscape. Again, the reproduction (at the top of this post) fails: the painting is monumental – two and a half meters tall – and painted in fantastically powerful, confident, angular strokes, as if chiseled in ice and crystal. Yet, the mood it conveys is the opposite of hard: it uses an air perspective to suggest gentle mist in the air – a just above zero temperature and wet, melting snow. I kept returning to stand before Snow Landscape; and whenever I managed to peel myself off, reluctantly, to look at other paintings, or calligraphy, I could feel – my inner ear could hear – its tiny but insistent voice calling me back. I would return and stand before it again, glued to the glass, filled with intense longing. As Buddha would say, desire enters through the eye, but not consummation. Experience of rapture of art is a pointless stoking of suffering (i.e. unfulfilled desire) with no prospect of satisfaction; and museums are the worst place in the world for it of all: they close.  See it above (at the top of this post) or here.

3.  There was also a long fifteenth century scroll illustrating a second century BC poem about a Han Emperor’s hunting preserve (“Shangling Park”), a nice enough work, but to my mind fairly unremarkable — except perhaps for the fact that its painter had begun his career as a lacquerer, a fact clearly seen in the way he paints with sharply defined detail: in his painting even clouds and waves on the water have clear sharp edges; with – and this is the point — a very beautifully calligraphed text of the poem attached as a colophon.  The calligraphy is fanciful: the same character is written in a number of different ways – especially when text calls for repeats — and some characters appear to be the writer’s own invention (look for one that looks like Macdonald’s Golden Arch) – which works when its meaning can be guessed from the context.

You can see the whole thing, painting and colophons, here.

4.  Finally, I came upon an old friend, Xi Shan Mu Xue, “Snow at Dusk over mountains and streams”, by an anonymous Song Dynasty (tenth century) painter which I had first seen (and spend hours viewing on my knees) during the Da Guan show back in 2008. It had then occasioned the same kind of searing longing which Snow Landscape occasioned now; I knew to approach it gingerly. I was delighted to see it, but my desire remained focused on its rival and the old passion was not reawakened — I walked away without a heartbreak. I have sung the praises of this painting elsewhere; here suffice it to say: note the details of the fog in the middle of the painting – how the landscape incredibly, imperceptibly slips into and out of it.

Note how to the left, in the dense fog below the group of houses in the valley, a darker spot can be made out. What is it? Is it a stain – the painting is more than a thousand years old, its surface is uniformly darkened and may be discolored in places – or is that a clump of trees slinking in the fog? Much Chinese and Japanese ink painting employs this kind of suggestion: is there something there? Am I really making it out or is my mind playing tricks on me?


And while on the subject of Ma Yuan, it is never wrong to mention (and show) my favorite painting by him (favorite, that is, until I saw the
Snow Landscape) – The Evening Banquet. Note how unevenly the dusk falls: quickly on the ground, more slowly up above, where the sky remains luminous and gradually fading for a quarter of an hour after sunset. Down at the bottom, in the darkness of the pavilion, someone is lighting a lamp.

Incidentally: all of these reproductions are tiny; in searching for a good one, I came across this, and it is worth seeing: it is an up-to-scale reproduction (my guess is that its scale is about 1:2) of a small section of a large vertical painting like most others several meters high. This tiny fragment gives you a sense of the texture of detail in these paintings: an important part of painting appreciation – East and West – is looking at the texture, at the individual strokes of the pen, at the ripples of paint and how it interacts with the underlying texture of the fabric; stepping back to see the overall impression, then coming back up close, nose nearly nudging the painting, looking at the details.