Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jade mountain

Landscapes are to be found throughout the Royal Academy’s magnificent exhibition China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795. Naturally there are scroll paintings by Huang Shen, Shitao, Wu Hong and others. But there are also landscapes covering two lacquered and gilt display cabinets, scenes of tilling and weaving painted onto the pages of a porcelain book, European landscapes decorating a Rococo-style vase and the boating scene from Su Shi’s ‘Ode on the Red Cliff’ carved into a stone seal.

During the Qianlong era (1736-95) landscapes started to be carved into jade objects. The exhibition includes a brush rest shaped like a bridge, a carved boulder depicting two ladies in a garden, and a pair of delicate perfumers, with rural scenes, one showing a woodcutter and fisherman, the other scholars reading. However, the most spectacular jade landscape is The Nine Elders of Huichang (1787). The subject is a gathering of venerable friends, hosted by Bo Juyi (Po Chü-i) in the spring of 845. As Alfreda Murck notes in the catalogue, the painstaking carving here is the antithesis of that spontaneous brushwork valued in landscapes painted by the literati of the period. The Emperor himself carved onto the sculpture an inscription noting that stone is more permanent than paper. This jade is so hard that it cannot be scratched even by steel blades. The motion of the trees, the conversation of the scholars and the waterfall cascading down the mountain are frozen in time.

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