A museum is a built-for-purpose institution that showcases the riches of the country – and tells its story, through the display of objects. It is an artificial space, constructed, curated – a nodal point of State ideology.
In a Museum, ancient objects are displayed in order to justify a current state of affairs. The Museum is a device that uses the past for the purpose of the present, weaving them together in an articulated narrative, through the organisation of its rooms and labelling system. Old writing on bones, in other words, authorises the powers that be.
Navigating a Chinese museum, I have to learn a new museography. Art is not organised by period, but by medium: painting, calligraphy, bronze, jade, porcelain, fabric. Somewhere on the side, there will be Buddhist artifacts. And a separate section, as big if not bigger, will explain history, with objects in glass cabinets, wall frescoes and lifesize reconstructions of crucial events.
Exploring the painting section of a Chinese Museum is an exercise in modesty. You do realise how I little you know. You realise how local your art history knowledge is. The linear development I learnt at school – perspective in the Renaissance, impressionism bringing perception and light into painting, leading to the triumph of abstraction in the 20th Century – is irrelevant here. In the Tianjin Museum, I spent a long time looking at a very long, beautiful landscape by Zhu Da, amazed by the abstraction of his style.
I thought he would be somehow contemporary with Impressionm. I was shocked to realize that he painted in the 17th century. As Niklas explained, he was a brdige from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, painting in that period of great historical turmoil for China. Maybe these abstract landscape were a form of escape; or maybe the conflict of white, and dark, and the various shades of grey, somehow mimetically symbolize a transition from old to new, and the seeping influence of the Ming over the Qing, of the Han over the Manchu?
The evolution of Chinese aesthetics over time is different from ours. Discovering Zhu Da at 33 made me realise how ignorant I had been. I also realised it when looking at a half-disappearing picture of a child from the Song period, dated around 1000.
It was eerily realistic, and signifying one of these happy, prosperous periods of artistic history (often the apex of a culture), where people care about simple scenes – like the late Roman empire, 17th century Holland, or 18th century France. But then, maybe China’s painting, or one branch of it, is particularly looking at reproducing the simplicity of natural life.
The most interesting section in a Chinese Museum, for those analytic intellectual brains like mine, if of course history, where ideology comes closer to the surface. The Capital Museum in Beijing is a good example of how China now positions itself as an equal partner in global history. In the semi-darkness of the ‘culture of old Beijing’ section, I looked at the chronology running along the wall, and had a real experience of displacement when I saw the picture of Confucius alongside Egyptian papyrus. Through the powers of curation, both were, somehow, made to be part of the same mental space. Part of the same narrative.
There it was, world history read from a Chinese perspective. It is part of the rise of China as a new global power, to appropriate Ancient History – all of it. Who knows, maybe the Italian and Greek economic crises could be solved by selling off some Antiquities to the Chinese government – and let them claim our Mediterranean past as part of their own history? Which, after all, in a globalising world, is no longer separate from ours.