The Royal Ontario Museum
(ROM) presents Brilliant Strokes: Chinese Paintings from the Mactaggart Art Collection, on display in the Herman Herzog Levy Gallery, part of the Asian Suite of Galleries on Level 1 of the Philosophers’ Walk Wing, from February 21 to September 7, 2009. The exhibition, shown for the first time in Ontario and rarely seen in North America, comprises a selection of magnificent paintings spanning the 15th century Ming dynasty to the 20th century, creating a visual record of life in China in those times. The 17 works were selected from the Mactaggart Art Collection, one of the most important private collections of Chinese paintings and textiles in Canada donated to the University of Alberta by Edmonton philanthropists Sandy and Cécile Mactaggart in 2005.
“The Mactaggart Art Collection provides us with a wealth of knowledge and insight into the art and culture of China ,” said exhibition curator Dr. Ka Bo Tsang, Assistant Curator, Chinese Pictorial Arts in the ROM’s World Cultures department. “Even the casual observer can appreciate and be captivated by the unquestionable beauty of each work while developing an understanding of the essential qualities of Chinese painting.”
The 17 selected paintings reflect both the scope and strengths of the Chinese visual-art component of this significant collection, illustrating the distinctive styles favoured by artists in each era over a 500-year period. Paintings of the 268 year-long Qing dynasty (1644–1911) form the most substantial part of the exhibition. As a group the works highlight the diverse aspects of Chinese painting, including format; artistic trends and techniques; subject matter and the status and aspirations of each artist. Closely inspected, these paintings illuminate the importance of the artists and literati (the intellectuals) of the time, who often discussed paintings at social occasions, writing their own commentary and inscriptions on them in the form of colophons and seals.
In format, the paintings encompass the standard hanging scroll, handscroll, and album, as well as an unusual, large-scale wall-mounted picture, all produced on paper or silk. The illustrate the diversity of painting techniques, including baimiao (plain drawing), shuanggou (double outlines), gongbi (meticulous drawing), xieyi (jotting down ideas), and mogu (boneless, i.e. images rendered in washes with no contours).
The styles employed by artists often related to their various allegiances, such as the literati who worked in an intentionally unrefined manner; the followers of the orthodox school who strove to instil a spirit of antiquity in their composition by working in the manner of ancient masters; the professional and court painters who preferred the use of a highly polished, meticulous brushwork; and the free-spirited practitioners who cherished the use of spontaneous brushstrokes in their artistic expressions.
The paintings’ subject matter covers landscape, figural theme, costume, plants and important historical events, while also demonstrating the status of the painters, the breadth of which included scholars, officials, professional painters, court painters, foreign missionary painters and even a 16th century courtesan. Revealed in each work are the artists’ aspirations, emotions and inner visions, as well as their perception of life in bygone days of China.
Several works are particularly fascinating in subject matter, such as The Qiainlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, a remarkable handscroll by court painter Xu Yang that will be displayed in the Bishop White Gallery. The Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795) – one of China’s most famous emperors - emulated his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722), and embarked on inspection tours to southern China near the lower Yangzi River delta from 1751 to 1784. This 15-metre long handscroll is the second in a set of 12 and it documents in great detail and with impeccable craftsmanship the emperor’s very first journey on the tour. In contrast, a leaf from the album Flowers, Birds, Fish and Rabbit by Luo Ping dated 1781, shows a simple cluster of grapes executed using vigorous strokes that hint at the burst of energy emitted from the artist’s brush and the incredible speed with which he transmits his fleeting inspiration onto paper. Farewell Party for Wang Ao chronicles the long-lasting friendship of a group of scholar-officials with Shen Zhou, the creator of this painting and the most esteemed literatus painter in 15th century China.