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  • Christian Hain

China Exchange and Many ‘Faceful’ Men - Kulturforum Goes East

(Berlin.) Ni Hao, dearest art lover. Stepping into the sombre twilight of Kulturforum’s “Art Library”, you feel transported to an early 20th Century colonial residence someplace in the Far East, French Indochina, or Hong Kong maybe, where dark wood panelled walls shun out the oriental heat. Yet, this is still Berlin, and despite the first days of October were quite sunny, by now the wintry chill and windy rains have set in again. You perceive screen panels behind glass, vases, paper scrolls, and indeed: china, lots of it. The exotic objects – assuming, you’re not a Chinese businessman journeying in Europe for some art flipping and company shopping -, exert a most peculiar charm. Almost you don’t complain about the lack of background information, “almost” because you’d really like to know the story behind that bull showing you his big behind, gazing back over shoulder piece and sirloin. And it’s there, the story, in that very painting that more precisely should be called an illustrated text, a page from a book perhaps? Yet, it’s all Chinese characters, and no subtitles in sight, you remain limited to furtive gazes, and no deeper insight.

The idea behind Exchanging Gazes (not “Exchanging Glances”, that’s Frank Sinatra) is to illustrate interchanges between European and Chinese court life over the course of three centuries, with exhibits dating from 1669 to 1907. Exotic chic sold both ways; hereabouts, bourgeois Europeans built pagodas in their backyards, there the fashionable Chinese adorned their china with patterns copied from Delft or Meissen - where craftsmen did the same, but vice versa. Photos and paintings stand witness of chinoiseries in English and French landscape architecture, whose principles all the while conquered Peking, complete with fake antique/Romanticist ruins and broken sculptures.

Emperor Qianlong was so enraptured with European garden engravings, he ordered Chinese painters to do alike – having commissioned two Jesuits to design him a garden first. It’s good to be Emperor.

There’s tea pots and dishes, and a series of twenty copper engravings - the first ever “made in China” (if only they knew...). Green objects, that can only be jade, a dragon that looks really indecent carries a queen over a toy palace, there’s garments and crowns with dragons and pearls. Sadly, one most eminent branch of style, and knowledge, transfer is missing from Kulturforum: Hardly anything influenced the Western image of China as much as opium dens, yet you won’t find a single pipe here. There was an exhibition on the crafts of addiction in Paris a few years past (in the art mall Louvre des antiquaires, if I’m not mistaken), maybe the topic’s deemed too daring for Berlin. They do document destructions wreaked by the Second Opium War, a rather unexemplary ‘Legalize it!’ campaign. Green life matters.

The exchange comprised gazes and techniques, but also styles. With some images, it’s hard to tell the provenience - is it a Chinese scene with European characters, or the other way round; even the faces seem to merge? You feel grateful for every Chinese letter, not because you knew how to read it, but because it’s there, and it’s Chinese, and you want to believe, that the drawing is too.

Exchanging Gazes, that by the way is curated by the Max Planck Institute of Florence, Italy - the wonders of scientific outsourcing and European co-funding -, is worth a glance or two at least. It is, however, just a prologue, the smaller of two China-centred shows at Kulturforum. The main thing is called Faces of China and spans over two floors. Most irrelevant digression: Having missed the press preview to this one, I once again visited like you, most revered readers, will, paid an outrageous twelve Euros (€16 for the all-Kulturforum-ticket, at least they offer one, contrary to the ultra capitalist Martin-Gropius-Bau), and found myself subjected to a “no photos” rule for artworks that in all the world’s legislations belong to the public domain, and have done so for centuries. I had almost forgotten about the little nuisances apt to spoil the average customer’s museum visit. In a staircase, Kulturforum’s marketing department invites you to take a selfie with the exhibition logo on a wall, and share it with a proposed hashtag. Oh, the irony.

Faces of China is all about the Chinese tradition of portrait painting, with the odd European work mixed in to sharpen your eye for differences (“to discriminate” so to say, but dear millenials, no need to rally, really not, that’s “good discrimination”, yes, that exists, it really does). The show starts with Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of a Genuese Lady next to an unknown’s Emperor Yay Wuxing. Other European painters are more obscure, the budget clearly prioritized Chinese works (and that’s perfectly fine).

All we see of a historic Coral Necklace is a blurry photograph, that and a note: “Due to delays caused by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), this work can only be shown at a later date. We apologize for the inconvenience.” You cannot get any more direct as a curator, I guess, these lines are academic lingo for “those &@^%s won't let us show the artefact by spite and stupidity.” A freaking coral necklace, some centuries old. The show running for a month already, it probably won't be shown at all. Some functionary feeling immensely important there, it fits the context: Numerous imperial functionaries had their likeliness taken by Chinese painters. They belonged to the Ming and Qin dynasties’ upper classes, just like local nobility, merchants, and even artists, did. The Portrait of a Civil Servant Awaiting an Audience (another unknown, 18th Century) shows the bureaucrat surrounded with clouds, and for a Westerner schooled to suspect psychologizing symbolism behind every painted corner, it seems an externalization of his inner insecurity - the ways of the powerful are mysterious even for the initiated. Clouds swallowing up the roof, is it the emperor’s wrath, or the Empire itself reaching to the highest regions, a castle in the sky? It’s lonely on top, and will our servant make the descent safe and sound, or will only his head come down?

Talking about the risks of court life: An unsuspecting time traveller could one day get in trouble for using a wooden sceptre - two of them are at Kulturforum - for a shoehorn. Seriously, so modest, so unostentatious, the insignia of highest power appear completely out of touch with the otherwise uber-pompous clothes and objects. Imperial dresses take much space in the show, hoop petticoats for the men, that’s emancipation. The old Chinese also wore rank badges on their breast the size of which every modern five star general outside the People’s Republic of Korea would envy them. Again, some of these are here “for real” (19th Century). They return in numerous portraits, the kingsize format becoming particularly apparent in family (group) portraits.

Material for ancestor worship makes the second variant of Chinese portrait tradition, to use on special holidays. This, we learn, was not considered serious Art, comparable to applied arts and crafts in our latitudes. Both – portraits of living VIPs and the common dead may help to reconstruct whole family trees, as KF did at one point.

Now, what about those differences in style? The exhibition is named Faces of China not without a reason. Faces are what Chinese artists mostly focused on. In the staircase between both exhibition spaces, you'll find a much enlarged page from a historic manual identifying the fifty-three(!) different parts that form a human face, from the temporal fossa (here called “Heavenly Granary”) to the labiomental crease (“Broth Recipient”). It makes fascinating reading for a plastic surgeon. The rest is just staffage, all individuality expressed in the face. More often than not, an artist would paint – or draw because that’s what these pictures look like to our Western eyes: more drawn than painted – a face alone on paper, then transfer it on a body with a background previously painted by some minor colleague on silk. Occasionally, European artists used the same copy-and-paste technique, such Dutchman Caspar Netscher. His Gentleman and Lady diptych with antique sculptures in the background (1679/80) looks like oil on canvas nevertheless. She’s holding an apple, oh the temptress, and points outside the frame, to where they've placed his portrait.

Chinese portraits regularly included a short written biography and several scenes from the model’s life on the same scroll. They seem a little more “abstract”, because less meaty than their European counterparts, yet so lifelike. No depth, no three-dimensionality, there’s a notion of comic books, or: “graphic novels” as you’re supposed to say, it sounds so much more important. I might be wrong, but did Chinese artists skip the anatomy lessons? Where Europeans went to the morgue to steal a corpse or two, and study the mechanics of biology, of cause and effect, seeking to reconstruct the authentic appearance of a functional machine, their Chinese peers stuck to that outer appearance alone, took only what is given to the eye, and copied it to paper in perfection. That’s not worse, and, without over interpreting, might point to differences in mindset and philosophy. Buddhism and Taoism played a major role in pre-revolutionary China, as proves Kulturforum with more portraits and clothes.

Western artists directly contributed to Chinese art history in the “Hall of Purple Radiance” that between 1736 and 95 gathered portraits of more than 250 war heroes, most of them having fought nomads behind the wall. Giuseppe Castiglione (or his workshop, active from 1668 to 1766), was one of them. Adding to those portraits, there’s also a rider shooting arrows into the back of a fleeing enemy.

Evidently, some analogies are involuntary. Contemplating the mass scenes of China, you better not think of a Brueghel’s ‘wimmelbild’.

It’s always annoying to contradict yourself in too obvious a way manner. Suppose you read a wall text claiming, “there are no light reflexes in the eyes (of Chinese portraits)”. And immediately next to it you discover light reflexes, white shadows, in the pupils of a Chinese Vice Ambassador. There are even more in the same room.

Some “portraits” are more freely composed than others: In Search of Supreme Knowledge (Chen Yungin, Chen Hongshou, Yan Zhan, 1651) three sages learn to keep up a smug smile, as peasants and a demon - or are the horns part of his dress? – seek to distract them from the one side, trees and bubbling waters on the other, yet the wise men continue to contemplate, undeterred. And, lastly, self portraits were not common, yet acceptable. Some reportedly caused an uproar, like Ren Xiong posing as a (homosexual?) Kung Fu fighter, ∼1856.

One thing I promise you: Visiting this show, you’ll never again say “they look all the same to me”. - They are all diffelent, er: different, indeed. Berlin likes Chinese, and so should you.

Exchanging Gazes - Between China and Europe 1669-1907, 29 September 2017-07 January 2018, Kulturforum/Kunstbibliothek

Faces of China – Portrait Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1912), 12 October 2017-07 January 2018, Kulturforum

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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