Chinese imperial treasure
THE 18th-century Chinese emperor, Qianlong, was a contemporary of Louis XV, Catherine the Great and George Washington; as famous throughout Asia as they were in the West. Unwilling to challenge the record of the longest-serving Chinese monarch (his beloved grandfather, the Kangxi emperor) who ruled for 61 years, Qianlong vowed to remain no more than six decades on the throne. With his eventual retirement in mind, he built the Palace of Tranquil Longevity in a corner of the Forbidden City. There, in a long, narrow walled garden, about two acres in size, he would meditate, write poetry and practise calligraphy.
“The Emperor’s Private Paradise”, a touring exhibition that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on February 1st, focuses on Qianlong’s garden. It seeks to introduce visitors to the emperor’s achievements and character, and to “the spirit of Chinese culture”. These are big ambitions; the kind that might call for a blockbuster exhibition. This show, however, has only 90, often small, objects, intimately displayed. These apparent limitations are the key to its success. The visitor is able to concentrate on the extraordinary workmanship of the vases and bowls, brushes, paintings and lacquered screens, all loans from the Palace Museum in Beijing. The materials are sumptuous; everywhere one looks there is gold, lapis lazuli and jade. The enfilade of modestly proportioned rooms expresses the purpose of this earthly paradise as well as its design.
Qianlong’s garden boasted 27 pavilions, set in a landscape of rock grottoes. Its survival testifies to the emperor’s foresight and his pride; he ordered that it must never be altered. The ensemble is a rare example of 18th-century imperial values and practices, and a lesson in the modern Chinese wish to reconnect, at almost any price, with its imperial past. For much of the 20th century connoisseurs favoured the simplicity and refinement of earlier dynasties—the Song, for example, or the Ming. Chinese collectors today, like the Victorians before them, however, show a marked preference for complex, brightly coloured imperial Qing pieces. In November, a glazed porcelain vase discovered in a small house in a west London suburb sold for £51.6m ($83m), many times its top estimate, setting a record for a Chinese work of art at auction.
The exhibition catalogue opens with a painting of Qianlong on horseback reviewing his troops. His successful military campaigns increased the size of China by a third. The artist was Giuseppe Castiglione, a Milanese Jesuit missionary and Qianlong’s court painter. The emperor imported materials and techniques from abroad, including the use of perspective in painting. In the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service or Juanqinzhai, perhaps the most elaborate pavilion in the garden, the ceiling is an atmospheric green and purple trompe l’oeil painting of hanging grapes. In other pavilions the emperor placed gifts he received from abroad, among them a pair of intricately lacquered Japanese cabinets and an ornate gilded clock.
At least six sites in the garden are devoted to religion. Qianlong was a devout Buddhist. In the Building of Luminous Clouds, for example, he displayed a large, 16-panel screen. Each panel frames an arresting jade portrait of a luohan (enlightened one). The screen, one of the most splendid pieces in the show, had long been placed flat against a wall. Restorers recently discovered on the back a series of complicated floral designs painted in gold.
Most of the Forbidden City is laid out symmetrically; Qianlong’s garden is an exception, with winding paths and surprise vistas that open out seemingly at random. This design not only provided amusement, it also symbolised how retirement would free the emperor from the formality and constraints of court life. Qianlong kept his word. On the last day of the lunar year, February 8th 1795, he abdicated in favour of his son, although he would retain ultimate power until he died in 1799.
After the last emperor was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, most of the garden was shut off to the public, the buildings used for storage. In 2001, in a rare partnership, the Palace Museum joined with the New York-based World Monuments Fund, an international historic preservation charity, and undertook to restore it. Specialist conservators were brought in, a painting conservation studio and woodworking centre set up, and Chinese craftsmen recruited from across the country to recreate the fabulous decor. In 2008 work was finished on the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service. Objects and interior decorations from the other pavilions have been temporarily removed while restoration work continues, which has made this touring exhibition possible.
When the $25m project is finished, in 2019, everything will return to its original place in the Qianlong garden. None of it is likely to be allowed to leave China again. Entrance to the buildings of the small, crowded, garden will almost certainly be restricted. This exhibition may be the only chance to have a good look at its treasures. Don’t miss it.
“The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until May 1st and then at the Milwaukee Art Museum from June 11th until September 12th. The catalogue is published by Yale, $65