What do we really know about Chinese art? As a major V&A show celebrates 1,200 years of Chinese painting, Kate Kellaway travels east to encounter a parallel universe – and the contemporary artists reinterpreting the past
Model army: Kate Kellaway in the Beijing studio of married artists Xiang Jing and Qu Guangci. Photograph: Harry Cory Wright
As we land in Beijing, the smog is so thick that all I can see, as we leave the airport, are the Chinese characters on the registration plates of departing coaches: scarlet shining through silver mist. It is a beautiful sight in its alarming, unhealthy way. China, I reflect, looks as though it is going to be slow to reveal itself. I am here with the V&A, in advance of the first major exhibition of Chinese painting in the UK since the Royal Academy's attempt at a historical overview in 1936. Some of the pieces coming to London will be more than 1,000 years old and many so frail they have never left Asia before. It is a cause for tremendous excitement because, as former director of the V&A, Mark Jones, who commissioned the exhibition, puts it: "The Chinese tradition produced some of the most beautiful and sophisticated paintings ever made."
Most of us have some grasp of how European art evolved, but Chinese art can seem – if not quite as impenetrable as Beijing's smog – aloof. The exhibition's senior curator, Hongxing Zhang, who has been involved in much delicate negotiation to bring this show to London (with exhibits coming from China, America, Japan and Europe), is with us on this trip. His modest charm does not conceal his erudition or purpose. His aim is to demystify Chinese art. The exhibition starts in 700, ends in 1900. He says: "I hope people will look at the work as tangible, having an impact on the senses, and not consider Chinese painting as a foreign thing but have a direct encounter with it and understand its beauty."
Our seven-day art trip is to be a "direct encounter" with some of the places that have a connection with the exhibition. But it begins with a leap into the present – a day of contemporary art from which to get our bearings. We drive from the airport to 798 district, Beijing's modern art centre, once an electronics factory in the Bauhaus style. By the time we get there the mist has gone, the sun is out and it is humid. Bikes and tricycles pass at speed, many pedestrians wear face masks, and the air is full of floating white seeds from poplar trees, like escaped upholstery.
Contemporary Chinese art became so big between 2006 and 2008 that there was an art-buying frenzy internationally and in China itself (thanks to the Chinese economic miracle). But for some time now art insiders have been talking of burnout – and the market has plateaued. We visit the studio of the phenomenal Xu Bing (an international artist feted at the British Museum and the Ashmolean), for whom tradition is radical. With the industry of a bird, he collects natural bric-a-brac – straw, pine branches, tissue paper, scraps of hessian – and arranges them in a light box. He revels in "painting with light" and miraculously reproduces traditional landscapes down to the last ink smudge. He sees the western influence as a stumbling block: "We have so many valuable things in Chinese tradition yet we do not know how to draw on them because for the past 200 years we have been thinking about how to learn from the west."
And so, on that note, we are on our way to Beijing's Forbidden City, where treasures await us at the Palace Museum. I ask Hongxing Zhang what effect the Cultural Revolution has had on the way people prize traditional art.
"It is a deep question, and I can only answer simplistically. The Cultural Revolution involved loss of memory, lack of physical connection, buildings pulled down, living in an alien environment. But it is possible to reconnect with tradition through materials we can feel and touch: scrolls, paper, silk. It is a direct way of activating memory. A psychological need. Communism as an ideology has gone, but we feel passionate about tradition."
The Forbidden City's buildings in sealing-wax red make a formidable statement. Waving a camera at their immensity, one feels like a daunted ant. We pass the invitingly named Palace of Mental Cultivation, Hall of Supreme Harmony and Hall for the Weary of Service and are told about the Forbidden City's most famous, despotic resident, Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Victoria's contemporary (brilliantly rehabilitated this month by Jung Chang in her new biography Empress Dowager Cixi: the Concubine who Launched Modern China). Whatever the truth, we learn that Cixi had chutzpah: she splendidly appropriated the emperor's traditionally male dragon symbol for herself. It is clear that, in China, it is impossible to overstate the importance of symbolism or the delicacy of the alliance between nature and art.
Mr Wang of the Palace Museum wears white gloves as he unrolls what is to be one of the V&A's exhibits: Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies and Rooster, a painting on silk by Lv Ji, a late 15th-century court artist. No one knows for whom it was painted, but auspicious messages abound. A strutting rooster represents a lord, a pomegranate tree promises fertility, a single magpie is not for sorrow but for promotion. The piece is so fragile that it can only be shown for short periods.
Chinese painting turns out to be about brief encounters – as if each masterpiece were a celebrity making a short public appearance before being driven away in a car with darkened windows. Paintings may spend years in the dark for their own good. The idea of rotation is ancient and refreshing (in every sense). As early as the 13th century, painter Zhao Xigu advised that pictures be changed "every three to four days" so scrolls "will not suffer" and, as importantly: "You will never get tired of them."
It is one of our first great revelations about the way Chinese art diverges from western. But then, for centuries, Chinese and western art led separate lives. Until the Jesuits arrived in China in the 17th century there was no cross-pollination, no western artistic influence on China – or vice versa. Europe imported Chinese silk and porcelain, but no painting or calligraphy. The west was ignorant of Chinese art. And when the Jesuits first brought vanishing-point perspectives to the east, the Chinese made fun of them.
Hongxing prefers to dwell on similarities between artists from east and west but highlights material differences. In the west, artists worked on wood and canvas; in the east, on silk and paper – after all, a Chinese invention. He also points out the importance of the written language. The Chinese "never had a problem putting words into pictures conceptually – very different from the west". Also: western art related to science (think of Leonardo's theory of colour), while Chinese art was more influenced by the humanities and poetry.
Mark Jones explains that one of the reasons he was so keen to commission this show is that the west has been slow to recognise the freedom in Chinese painting, its "adventurous exploration of a whole gamut of possibilities that western art only tackled in the 20th century". It is a list that includes the ability to see paintings as "a process of making abstract marks on a flat surface, as symbolic representations and as a series of gestures". This last "came naturally to a culture which thought highly of calligraphy and used the same means – brush and ink – for both".
At the same time as recognising these freedoms, one cannot but be struck by the Chinese obsession with discipline and rank. Traditional painting is divided into three types: birds and flowers; figures; landscapes. Art was judged by three adjectives. The best work was "divine" (no examples survive). Second best was "untrammelled" (a wonderful word that critics should re-employ without delay) and the third "able". Presumably when paintings fell short of able, no words were wasted on them.
We leave Beijing behind for the remotest of destinations: Dunhuang'sMogao caves, in northwest China, on the edge of the Gobi desert, an extraordinarily wonderful, if not untrammelled, place – home of Buddhist art on the largest scale in the world. Buddhism became a major influence in Chinese culture in the Tang dynasty. What it has in common with the Christian painting tradition is a link to ancient Greek culture: the world of the Mediterranean stretches from Greece to Dunhuang.
The caves are like a closely guarded honeycomb, set into a sandstone hill, situated at what was once a cultural crossroads on the great Silk Road. There are 487 caves in the south, first constructed in 366AD, containing Buddhist art from the 4th to 14th century. Each cave is different, but most include Buddhas (the tallest we saw was 24m high – we did not reach his golden knees) and animated wall paintings. On one wall alone, unsavoury western travellers are attacked by the Chinese, sea monsters frolic and the figure of Mercy appears (and, one hopes, is about to intervene). These amazing murals are painted by the same artists responsible for the exhibition's silk paintings (banners, screens and hand-held fans were the main type of painting up to the 13th century). A dozen exhibits originate from Dunhuang – and one cave in particular.
Cave 17, or "the library", is simple, small and crucial. It was walled up in the 9th century and no one knew it existed until, on 25 June 1900, it was discovered by Wang Yuanlu, a Taoist monk sweeping sand from its entrance. It contained a monk's statue and his ashes and was stuffed, from floor to ceiling, with 50,000 priceless scrolls – China's equivalent to Tutankhamun's tomb.
Yuanlu failed to appreciate the national significance of this hoard. He sold off treasures to Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein, French archaeologist Paul Pelliot, American explorer Langdon Warner and other opportunistic foreigners. We are shown a photograph of Wang Yuanlu, taken by Stein. Careful inspection reveals the anxiety underscoring his smile.
I find the "library" overwhelming and unexpectedly moving: the tranquil statue of the 9th-century monk seems to rise above time, strife and scroll-plundering foreigners. On the wall are his painted personal effects: a water bottle and a scalloped bag hanging over a branch. They are conveyed with sketchy haste as if to signify the transience of material possessions although, with all other treasures gone, here they remain.
After Dunhuang we travel to Shanghai – a city that moves so fast it keeps grinding to a standstill. In the conservation studio at Shanghai Museum I am struck by how often, in China, ancient and modern collide. Inside, the scene is slow and harmonious, yet on the other side of the glass the city's skyscrapers crowd round.
Conservation in China is controversial: there is pride in making art look as good as new – or old. It is comprehensively thorough. Chinese art was made in the expectation of regular remountings. We are shown how the back of silk can be painted to give the white upside a creamier density. Laying it on thick turns out to be an art. But head conservator Shen Weizhu and his virtuoso team are miniaturists, too, working on what looks like a wrecked autumn leaf – a silk hand screen, devoured by insects. They strive to retain the original lining because it is the ming zhi(vital life) of the work.
It is at Shanghai's Museum that we are shown a work whose "vital life" is not in question: a 15th-century gem, unseen for five years, coming to the V&A, of courtesans applying an almost scholarly attention to a football (inflated pig bladders were used as footballs in the Beijing court). A lady with an unfeasibly silky yellow foot is about to kick… It is a piece of improbable charm.
All week I wonder how such exquisite pieces affect China's artists and to what extent turning back to tradition is popular because it is safer than looking ahead. At one extreme, one thinks of Ai Weiwei's 1995 iconoclastic Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) – smashing a vase in tradition's face – and his outspoken words in the Guardian in 2012: "The Chinese art world does not exist. In a society that restricts individual freedoms and violates human rights, anything that calls itself creative or independent is a pretence."
At the other extreme is artist Xu Bing, for whom the past remains a powerful resource. He tells us it is the artist's duty to dream and experiment: "In China the dreams are good, the reality tough." He sees the future as "a big challenge with a lot of problems to solve", but explains: "Re-exploring traditional culture has helped me understand why China is in today's shape."
Professor Craig Clunas, art historian at Oxford University, counsels against generalisations. "We should not seek to impose a narrative of unity. It is China's diversity we most urgently need to understand," he says. The western tendency, he believes, when looking at contemporary Chinese art, is to find a political critique in everything. The truth is that China is a huge country. And, he observes, its art extends to guo hua – national painting eagerly sought by Chinese collectors which does not sell to the west.
In Hangzhou in eastern China – our last stop – we visit the China Academy of Art, China's most influential arts university, where more than half the pupils are studying traditional Chinese art. When 22-year-old Li Jinrui is asked what calligraphy means to her, she describes calligraphy as if it were a religion that has changed her life. She was a restless child until calligraphy calmed her. Her boyfriend is a calligraphy convert, too. She adds that she is "very fond" of him. The boyfriend looks bashful and everyone smiles.
China has many young artists now who are the modern equivalent of the traditional scholar-artists of the past. As Katie Hill, one of the authors ofThe Chinese Art Book (published this month by Phaidon), points out: "Retreat and hermitage were key themes in Chinese literati painting. The scholar figure turned his back on mainstream politics to keep moral integrity, refusing to take part in the regime." A comparable young artistic elite "refuses to engage politically because it is not possible". Retreat is key: centuries before the European invention of the artist as romantic outsider, scholar gentlemen were painting in remote, beautiful places.
We are about to end our trip with our own retreat into landscape. When I first glimpse Hangzhou's West Lake through the coach window, I exclaim with delight because I recognise it from Chinese painting (and my mother's blue-and-white china). Lake, hills, temple, stone bridge… Until now, I had supposed such landscapes to be idealised artistic fictions.
Hongxing Zhang explains that Chinese artists were never slavishly representational; they painted what they knew – landscapes of the mind's eye. Bare Willows and Distant Mountains, a 12th-13th century fan by Ma Yuan (in the exhibition), suggests Hangzhou, but is no duty-doing likeness. Hongxing Zhang identifies a lack of awe in the Chinese attitude towards nature (where awe was a starting point for western landscape painting). "Chinese artists – and Chinese people in general – find a friendship in nature, in water or in mountains and feel part of it," he adds.
I think back to the artists I met on the first day in Beijing, struggling to find their place: the energetically disquieting Wang Xingwei, who has secured his reputation by satirising art history from the west, and Xiang Jing and Qu Guangci, married artists on the cover of the latest ChineseTatler who refer to the past by seeing nature – particularly animals – as illuminating. Qu Guangci's larger-than-life bestiary has the title: Will Things Ever Get Better?
On our last morning, I get up early to walk round West Lake. It is 7.15am and it is to be one of the most magical walks of my life. The bridge and lakeside paths are already full of people greeting the day: fishing, feeding ducks, flying kites, doing tai chi – an ancient man manages an unbelievably supple and high leg stretch. There is gentle sunshine, a light breeze, water lilies and music everywhere – people with radios and, under a temple, an old man practising his saxophone (old men seem to be Hangzhou's chief recreationalists).
In the evening we return to the lake to catch a boat back. It is dark and warm. The skipper rows with a leaf-shaped oar; we hold bamboo fans; the lapping water is a lullaby. And I am, momentarily, assailed by the illusion that we are part of a Chinese painting: tiny dots afloat, figures in a landscape, on our way home.
Masterpieces of Chinese Paintings: 700-1900 is at the V&A from 26 October 2013 to 19 January 2014. V&A members have free admission (vam.ac.uk)
Bare Willows and Distant Mountains (late 12th century)
Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, Attributed to Emperor Huizong (1082-1135)Photograph: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Pomegranates, Autumn Mallows, Chrysanthemums, Blue Magpies and Rooster (last quarter 15th century)
Saying Farewell at Hsun-yang
Four Pleasures 3
Masterpieces of Chinese Paintings - in pictures
A look at some of the works featured in the V&A's show celebrating 1,200 years of exquisite Chinese painting
Masterpieces of Chinese Paintings: 700-1900 is at the V&A from 26 October 2013 to 19 January 2014. V&A members have free admission