I don’t think this exhibition is getting enough publicity! We went the other day at it is absolutely marvellous and best of all not too crowded. Maybe I am about to change that, if so sorry!
Nearly everyone knows vaguely about the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Emperors ruled China in the early 15th Century and created a country that favoured artistic skill, steady and sound governance and exploration on a grand scale. While England was busy fighting France over territory, the Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean. There is undisputed evidence that Zheng He‘s huge sailing junks reached at least as far as the East African coast, there is less evidence, but a growing belief that they may have reached the West coast of South America. This latter claim is hotly disputed and the British Museum does not mention it.
The exhibition is a display not only of exquisite objects, but of astonishing preservation. There are silk outfits in almost undamaged condition that were found in the tombs of a Ming prince and princess, clothes that they would have needed for their onward journey in death. Silk, woven and pleated and over-stitched in precise and exacting detail, with dragons and flowers embossed into the weave.
There are red lacquer vessels, trays, boxes, tables and a wealth of other items in lacquer. This was a technique known only to the Chinese, the varnish was made from the toxic sap of the Toxicodendron Vernicifluum, (from which we get the term vernisage) which when applied and hardened in the correct temperature and humidity creates a durable and water-resistant finish. The Chinese Lacquer plant is indigenous to China, though it has been successfully grown since in Japan and Burma. [Indian lacquer, of a similar quality but different origin comes from a beetle]. The Chinese used both wood and papier maché bases to make furniture and objects. The papier maché tables and cabinets were often inlaid with mother-of-pearl and slivers of colour stone or metal.
There is also one superb example of cloisonné. Cloisonné is a highly decorative finish that is achieved by copper wire shaped into an intricate design, then the spaces are filled with coloured glass and fired at high temperatures. To complete a piece, this process might take up to six or eight firings, as more glass was added to fill in any gaps in the design. This piece belongs to the British Museum.
But if there is no other reason for you to go to this exhibition I shall mention but two. One is the Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) painting The Adoration of the Magi in which one of The Wise Men holds a small blue and white bowl which has been identified as belonging to the Ming period, and right beside this painting which has been loaned to the Museum by the Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles is an almost exact replica of the said bowl. So, unless you go to the Paul Getty Museum regularly, this is your chance to see this wonderful painting for yourself, leave aside the message that the bowl in the painting gives you about the trading connections at the time.
The second is a piece of silk embroidery in the section on religion. Sadly, I have no image of this. It is an image of a god, to all intents and purposes it looks like Kali and Bhairava, the black avatar of Shiva – the Hindu God of Life and Death; the multi armed and legged black figure, with skulls hanging from a belt around the waist. This embroidery is about 500cms by 750cms, embroidered on silk and in silk. Just to give you an idea of the intricacy of the design and the skill required to make it, the background is a mass of flowers and twining leaves, in a spell-binding array of colour and shade. A petal, not bigger than half a small finger nail in size, is outlined in dark blue, the centre of the petal is also dark blue, shading to mid blue and finally to pale blue in single strand dyed silk. This petal alone and others slightly larger appear a thousand times across the background of the whole piece. The black God, his many legs each delineated with pale cream silk, splay out on either side of the torso in serie; the arms though appear in the familiar windmill form, each hand shaded in silk and holding some grisly death-dealing weapon.
No wonder the Chinese tried their best to keep the secret of silk manufacture so long; a secret stolen by Europeans who successfully secreted both mulberry seeds and eventually silk worms in (I believe) a tea chest, though that story may easily have been apocryphal.
There are several lectures to accompany this exhibition: Tales of Ming China, Friday 14th November 19:00-20:00; Why does the period 1400-1450 matter in history? Friday 21 November 18:30; Global China: past and present Friday 5th December and a lecture on the exhibition itself Saturday 15th November at 13:30 and again on Thursday 11th December 13:30