Saturday, 22 February 2014

On the Road to Paradise

'The Ambassadors,' a wall fresco from the tomb of Crown Prince Li Xian.       Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an
The Wall Street Journal February 18, 2014
by Mary Tompkins Lewis

The ancient imperial city of Chang'an (modern day Xi'an) reached its plenitude in the early eighth century, when it was the largest metropolis in the world and capital of the illustrious Tang dynasty (618-906). In the fertile Wei River valley in southern Shaanxi province, close to the narrow mountain passes that linked China to Eurasia and beyond, Chang'an was also the eastern terminus of the fabled Silk Road trading route. Its voluminous recorded history, poetry and affluent, heterogeneous population suggest how fully that fortuitous location would shape its cultural heritage.
Surprisingly, relatively few examples of Chang'an's visual arts were known for centuries. Since 1950, however, scores of royal tombs have been excavated, and the treasures unearthed have dramatically enriched our knowledge of the area's history, culture, politics and art. The eloquent wall paintings extracted from Tang-era tombs offer brilliant testimony to the consummate imperial authority, cosmopolitan court life and unrivaled material splendor that made the Tang dynasty, in the eyes of many, China's most glorious epoch.
The Shaanxi History Museum, an elegant Tang-style complex, opened in Xi'an in 1991 and houses, in its central building, thousands of recovered artifacts that offer visitors a veritable stroll through Chinese history. In a separate exhibition hall to the east, hundreds of Tang frescoes and related funereal relics, arranged chronologically, are accessed by descending into dimly lighted passages and darkened galleries that mirror the works' original subterranean settings. Those massive underground complexes, designed as walled palaces after Tang and earlier Han models, had provided not only parallel worlds for the dead to inhabit but expressed in their scale and elaborate decoration the political legitimacy, status, stability and even the court etiquette that Tang rulers sought to preserve in paradise. The tombs were also seen as passageways to the afterlife, shaped by prevailing attitudes toward death and the continuing life of the soul.
One of the earliest fresco cycles on view, dated to c.631 and extracted from a tomb discovered in 1973 of the valiant warrior Li Shou (577-630), ushers in a pictorial program that many later frescoes would follow. The vehement forward thrust of hunters on horseback chasing wild animals, taken from a mural on the outer corridor wall, at one time traced a processional path deep into the tomb. A martial scene befitting the deceased fighter and his embattled era, it establishes the subject of the hunt in the taut, "iron wire" style of the earliest Tang painters, a pictorial language that would become more fluid over time.
A western wall from the same complex yielded fragments of tributes to the fallen leader, including an imposing cavalcade of mounted honor guards and marching figures who lead a stately, riderless white horse. It is likely one of the dynasty's first paintings of the Transoxanian horses imported from Silk Road traders in central Asia, the magnificent breed that would captivate the imagination of Tang painters and sculptors.
A final fresco, extracted from the inner mortuary chamber, depicts female maidservants and musicians in static poses and forced perspectives, an early essay in another subject for which the dynasty's artists would become renowned. Within only decades—as seen in the subsequent series of graceful, life-size female attendants who once glided in single-file down the passageways of the tomb of Princess Fang Ling—the Tang ideal of female beauty would be perfected. Statuesque, self-possessed and disarmingly sensual, these elegantly dressed and coiffed figures epitomize the sophistication and prestige enjoyed by court women in an age of increasing peace and prosperity. They are painted in the equally elegant "silk-thread" style, marked by flatly applied color, sinuous, tapering lines and deft, naturalistic draftsmanship achieved with an extraordinary economy of means.
Not all Tang women, however, were models of courtly decorum. One of the museum's best preserved fresco series, excavated in 1971-72, was painted in the early eighth century in the mausoleum of Crown Prince Li Xian (d. 684), constructed to rectify the ruthless political machinations of Empress Wu Zetian, the only female ever to rule China in her own right. The second son of the empress by Emperor Gaozong, Li Xian fell out of favor, was exiled, and then forced, apparently by his mother's agents, to commit suicide. After the empress's death in 705, the prince's body was ordered exhumed from a commoner's grave by his brother, Emperor Zhongzong, and reinstated in a sumptuous setting. The new mausoleum measured more than six square acres and included watchtowers, a beautiful garden and a stately processional path that led to a burial mound. The walls and ceilings of the tomb's interior corridors were covered with illusionistic murals that, like the massive complex itself, were intended to rehabilitate the prince's royal status. Extraordinary sporting scenes, exquisite landscapes, architectural views and a procession of countless honorific figures allow us a vivid glimpse of Tang court life.
The scenes of the hunt on the tomb's outer wall feature fleet-footed, mounted horses in superbly modeled form, and lumbering, heavily laden camels—favored pack animals on the Silk Road—in spare, expansive landscapes. The opposing wall features the earliest known Chinese depiction of polo, an aristocratic pastime long valued as training for cavalrymen and probably imported from Persia. The accomplished player who turns in his saddle to hit a ball captures in microcosm the speed and grace of the game, and also the painter's skill.
But the most powerful evidence here of the Tang belief that the tomb could function as a transitional passage between this world and the next, and even as a sphere in which history itself could be rewritten, is found in the fragmentary scene of foreign dignitaries, whose exaggerated physiognomies and elaborate costumes have led scholars to tentatively suggest they include a Roman vassal (with a bald pate and distinctive aquiline nose), a Korean emissary in a pointed feathered hat, and behind, a Mongolian envoy dressed in the winter garb of the north. Painted in meticulous detail and with highly expressive faces, they frame the burial passage on either side, approach their Chinese hosts with attitudes of solemn deference, and suggest that not only the court but the world showed up to restore to the prince in death what he had lost in life.
Ms. Lewis, who teaches art history at Trinity College, was a guest professor and fellow at Fudan University, Shanghai, last year.

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