The Power of Illustration: Southeast Asian Manuscripts at the British Library

Malay Qu'ran, 19th century, The British Library

Malay Qu’ran, 19th century, The British Library

The manuscript has long had a special place in the diverse cultures of Southeast Asia. The British Library’s collection includes a whole range of manuscripts from the region, including examples from Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the Asia House friends tour ‘the Art of the Book in Southeast Asia’, three British Library curators gave us an exclusive tour of the Library’s collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts. Many of the manuscripts in the collection are sacred texts, but other would have been used for fortune telling, as instruction manuals or simply for storytelling.

Although 90% of manuscripts produced in Southeast Asia would not have been illustrated, the cream of the British Library’s collection features lavishly decorated texts. Like proud parents, the curators fondly introduced us to the jewels of the collection.

Manuscripts from Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia had been specially laid out for us to view on a long table in a quiet room. The manuscripts from Burma pack the most powerful visual punch. Every Burmese manuscript was “complete with exquisite illustrations”.

The curator for Burmese manuscripts talked us through a record made by the Burmese King recording his generosity to a Buddhist monastery. Instead of pages of lists and text, the manuscript is pictoral. It provides an illustrated record not only of the goods given, but the artist’s rendition of the presentation ceremonies. It is amazing that a picture book with perhaps just a single word inscription could be an official record for the Palace archives, yet this astounding use of images shows just how powerful illustration can be.

Another fascinating feature of Southeast Asian manuscripts is the use of the folding book, a method of book-binding commonly found in Burma and Thailand. Folding books are particularly useful for illustrated manuscripts as they allow for the manuscript and all the illustrations to be viewed in full.

State sponsorship of Buddhism in Burma and Thailand meant that new monasteries were established and many hand-written Buddhist manuscripts commissioned. These manuscripts, the curators explained, would not have been read or owned privately. “Access to the actual books was very privileged” and Buddhist manuscripts such as the ones on display at the British Library would have been used primarily by monks.

Often written in ‘sacred’ scripts, such as the defunct Khmer language in Thailand, the content of the manuscripts would have been incomprehensible to most lay people. Instead, the monks would chant the texts aloud. Today, the monks chant the texts and then explain and discuss the contents with the lay.

Before talking us through the Malaysian and Indonesian manuscripts, the curator for this region modestly assured us that those from this area do not visually compare with those from Thailand or Burma. There was no such inferiority however in the gravity and grace of the two Qu’ran she showed us. The first was completely plain; its only adornment the elegant flow of Arabic spilling across pages of imported European paper.

Although the Qu’ran does exist in translation, it is only considered to be the true word of God in the language to which it was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed – Arabic. The written language is breathtaking in its beauty; with no punctuation or capitals, Arabic calligraphy is a common decorative feature throughout the Muslim world.

The second copy of the Qu’ran was a departure from the quiet simplicity of the first example. Each page had been painstakingly illuminated with intricate patterns and finished with ink made from powdered gold. In many Islamic cultures, the depiction of living things is avoided in art, particularly in a religious context. The result of this is that pattern has emerged as favoured means of decoration.

Only Java has the tradition of figurative illustration in the Malaysia-Indonesia region. The spiky figures shown in the manuscripts were modelled on traditional shadow puppets. The Javanese examples we were shown were story books, filled with pictures of kings and packed with jokes. One of these was a pristine manuscript produced in 1804. It was a copy made for the wife of a Dutch official it and has very clean and unused air.

Another manuscript sat alongside it; despite its earthy appearance this second manuscript is considered to be the “finest example of the genre”. Dating to the 1700’s, this manuscript is a “really loved and well-used manuscript” with an illustration on “every single page to make you laugh”. Grubby and well-thumbed, it is easy to imagine this as a favourite book brought out and recited from at evening gatherings.

The makers of Southeast Asian manuscripts were remarkably creative in the materials and techniques they used. Palm leaf has long been the standard writing material of Southeast Asia. The curators told us an old story of a young Southeast Asian girl who wrote a love letter on a young palm leaf, rolled it up and wore it as an earring until she was able to safely deliver it in secret.

Writing on palm leaf is a specialist skill. Instead of using ink and a pen or brush to write directly onto the surface of the leaf, the writing would have been incised into the surface with a stylus and then a black ink solution wiped into the incised marks.

Paper made from mulberry trees was also used for manuscripts. Mulberry paper had several benefits; it is stronger and lasts longer than ordinary paper and is less susceptible to damp. Its durability also meant that mistakes could be scraped off.

Tropical conditions make the preservation of manuscripts very difficult; many manuscripts being damaged or destroyed by “heat, damp, insects and, in wooden homes, fire”. However, pepper and cloves are used locally as natural preservatives to help keep away insects. The use of these spices with the addition of a wrapping cloth is an effective traditional conservation method.

The curators told us about a manuscript from central Sumatra that has recently been subjected to scientific testing to determine its age. As it was written on tree bark paper, researchers were able to to date the manuscript to the 14th century. A manuscript of this age is extremely rare in Southeast Asia and this astounding manuscript was able to survive so long due to the unique way in which it was stored. For generations, it was carefully kept in the house allocated to the head of the community. It was wrapped in spices and aired once a year at an annual viewing ceremony. Kept in a loft space over the kitchen, the smoke from the kitchen fire acted as a further preservative allowing the manuscript to survive for centuries.

This tour of the British Library’s collections opened our eyes to the extraordinary variety found among the manuscripts of Southeast Asia. The vibrancy and detail of the illustrations reveals Southeast Asian manuscripts are true works of art. These works can still entertain, inspire and through their well-thumbed pages, provide a connection between the past and the present.

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A Soldier’s Tale: Time Heals All Wounds?

‘500 – Returned’, Suknam Yun

‘500 – Returned’, Suknam Yun

A Forgotten War

Upon entering ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ at Asia House, an exhibition documenting the experience of British soldiers who fought in the Korean War, you are greeted by Jiho Won’s towering ‘Construction for Deconstruction’. The sculpture is reminiscent of the bamboo scaffolding seen on construction sites throughout East Asia.

This association with traditional scaffolding hints at the Republic of Korea’s rapid growth since the ceasefire in 1953; although bamboo looks flimsy, it is surprisingly strong, light and versatile. This is a testament to the strength of the Korean people in overcoming apparent fragility to build a strong nation today.

The Korean War is often known as the ‘Forgotten War’, as many feel that the scope of the conflict has been overlooked and the suffering forgotten. Yet the Korean War claimed over 1.2 million lives and the conflict has never been resolved.

The Korean peninsula was divided by allied forces at the end of the Second World War. The separate sides set up contrasting systems of government and division soon escalated into conflict. Hostilities came to a head in June 1950 and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) sent out a plea to the United Nations. Within months, twenty member states answered the Republic of Korea’s call for assistance. The second largest force was sent from the United Kingdom; of the 56,000 British combatants, 1,000 lost their lives.

Speaking at Asia House on Monday South Korean MP the Rt. Hon. Choung Byong-Gug, whose own school meals were funded by foreign aid, said that ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ was a “pledge” to the British veterans “to never forget what you contributed to us”.

Exhibition Curator, Stephanie Seungmin Kim, insists that ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ “is not a manifesto of political views or ideological endorsements”. Instead the exhibition should be seen as a documentation of memories and a setting down of emotions, a reflection of people and places, of lives lived and lost and the fading past.

The Korean War ended with a ceasefire in 1953 and peace has so far proved elusive. ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ commemorates the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire. The exhibition focuses on the experiences of soldiers who fought in the Gloucestershire Battalion of the 29th Infantry Brigade. Artists, both Korean and from elsewhere, met and worked with these veterans to create the unique and poignant works on display.

‘Soldier’s Universe’

‘Portrait of an Old Soldier with Baekdoo Mountain’, Anna Paik

‘Portrait of an Old Soldier with Baekdoo Mountain’, Anna Paik

The exhibition begins with a section titled ‘Soldier’s Universe’. A major theme of ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ is the process of forgetting; with many of the veterans approaching their 80’s and 90’s, living memories of the conflict are gradual fading away. Anna Paik’s touching portrait of David Kambler OBE, ‘Portrait of an Old Soldier with Baekdoo Mountain’, is a poignant expression of the tragedy of forgetting. With no family and declining health, there is a danger that David’s story, like so many others, could rapidly be lost.

The Gloucestershire Battalion of the 29th Infantry Brigade are revered for the heroism they displayed at the Battle of Imjin River in April 1951. During this bitter fight four Battalions, three British and one Belgian, held their ground for three days against a numerically superior opposing force.

Lieutenant General Van Fleet of the United States Army reported that the Gloucestershire Battalion fought “until the last gallant soldier… was overpowered”. Despite eventually being overcome, the three days gained by these efforts thwarted an attempt from the opposing side to recapture the city of Seoul.

Inspired by the Battle of Imjin River, Leenam Lee’s beautiful ‘Park Yeon Waterfall’ is a moving ink painting played out on three consecutive LED screens. The work evokes traditional images of a peaceful past and the flowing of time. Complete with falling spray and an audio of flowing water, Lee’s piece represents “water still running through a divided land”.

‘Park Yeon Waterfall’, Leenam Lee

‘Park Yeon Waterfall’, Leenam Lee

When leaving the ‘Soldier’s Universe’ you will pass the riot of red chrysanthemums that is Jeong Hwa Choi’s ‘Winter Garden’. Whereas white chrysanthemums are symbolic of grief and mourning in East Asia, red chrysanthemums are given as gifts and represent affection. The ‘Winter Garden’ then can be seen as a token of gratitude presented to the veterans who fought at the Battle of Imjin River.

‘500 – Returned’, Suknam Yun ‘s installation of 750 small wooden figures, is scattered throughout a dark gallery. With each figure given a unique face, those who fought and fell at the Battle of Imjin River are given individual identities, rather than just numbers on a list of casualties. This forest of faces is a reminder of the millions of forgotten lives claimed by the Korean War.

‘The Enduring War’

The final part of the exhibition, ‘The Enduring War’, refers to the long stagnation and recent escalation of tensions between North and South Korea. Although the Korean War ended in a ceasefire, peace has eluded the peninsula for the last sixty years and its’ people continue to live in the shadow of conflict.

Leenam Lee’s surreal ‘Cartoon Folding Screen’ is a video sequence played out in the form of a traditional screen painting. The sequence begins with conventional, quiet landscapes, yet the tranquillity is gradually disrupted by surreal images of bombs, cartoons and tortured city-scapes that erupt from peaceful mountain sides.

This surreal world can be seen to reflect the reality of Korea’s recent history. The sequence ends with falling snow that covers the madness of the transformed landscapes and returns the screens to the quiet paradise of a traditional ink painting. This can be understood to represent the fragile yet enduring hope that divided Korea will one day see a return to peace.

‘A Soldier’s Tale’ brings to light many issues surrounding the situation in Korea today, from past conflict and loss to regeneration and remembering. Although ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ does say things about Korea’s past and uncertain future, it is primarily an exhibition about individuals; the British soldiers who fought in Korea, the people of the Republic of Korea who rebuilt their country from the ashes of war and the people who still suffer from the conflict today. ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ documents these personal experiences. In the words of one veteran, experiences “in a distant land, where I hope we did some good”.

‘A Soldier’s Tale’ exhibition is at Asia House until 20th July 2013 – Entrance Free

Images courtesy of Asia House

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Out and About … London’s Peace Pagoda

London's Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park

London’s Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park

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Out and About … beautiful day at the University of Cambridge


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Samurai Ceramics: Japanese Nabeshima Wares at the Oriental Ceramic Society

Last Tuesday members of the Oriental Ceramic Society gathered at the Royal Academy in London for the Annual General Meeting. Founded in 1921, members of the society represent some of the cream of the Asian art world and include collectors, curators, scholars and dealers of Asian art and ceramics.

Large Dish, Imaizumi Imarmon XIV, Japan. Porcelain with Passiflora and Snowflake Design. British Museum.

Large Porcelain Dish: made by Imaizumi Imaemon XIV, Japan, 2009. On display at the British Museum.

After settling into a hushed, oak panelled room at Burlington House we were treated to the “latest hot off the shelf material” on Japanese Nabeshima ware in a lecture by Professor Dr. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere. Titled ‘Japanese Porcelain Not for Sale: Nabeshima Ware and Other Presentation Ceramics’, Rousmaniere’s lecture guided us through the fascinating history of Japan’s 400 year old porcelain tradition.

Japan first started producing porcelain in 1616; with China producing porcelain for an estimated 2000 years, Japan was a relatively late starter. As evidenced by the excellence of Nabeshima ware however, Japan had a natural flair for creating porcelain of outstanding craftsmanship and beauty.

Between 1603 and 1868 Japan had an Emperor but was in reality ruled over by a feudal military government called the Tokugawa Shogunate. Known as the Edo period, this is when production of Nabeshima ware began. Nabeshima ware is named after the Nabeshima family who first oversaw it’s production. In the 1600’s the Nabeshima family offended the Tokugawa Shogunate and as an apology they presented the Shogun with gifts of Chinese porcelain. Chinese ceramics had long been popular in Japan and the Nabeshima family continued to placate the Shogunate with annual presentations of high quality Chinese porcelain.

In the 1650’s the availability of Chinese porcelain in Japan waned, so the Nabeshima family began to present the Shogun with Japanese porcelain instead. The first Nabeshima ware was presented to the Emperor for approval in 1651; according to Rousmaniere this instance was recorded for posterity as after giving his approval, the Emperor died the very next day.

This presentation of high quality porcelain became a standing tradition with the peak of presentation goods occurring between 1690 and 1720. The distribution of Nabeshima ware was “strictly controlled” and these pieces were never available outside of court circles until the 1800’s.

Porcelain Dish, 1720-1740, Japan. On display at the British Museum.

Porcelain Dish, 1720-1740, Japan. On display at the British Museum.

Rousmaniere explained that in “ceramics in Japan are intricately related to textiles” and this is reflected in the “fantastic” patterns on Nabeshima ware that closely resemble textile designs. Nabeshima wares typically have a limited colour palette, make great use of cobalt blue imported from China and have characteristically even shading. They are admired for the exceptionally high quality with which they were executed and “pieces that were not perfect were destroyed”.

By the late 1800’s the Nabeshima family stopped funding the kilns that made these wares, yet production managed to survive and Nabeshima wares are still made in Japan today by the descendents of the original craftspeople. The Imaemon workshop in Kyushu is one such example where the technique of making Nabeshima porcelains has been passed down through the generations. This fantastic art form has not only survived but it has thrived, with craftspeople today producing innovative artworks that continue to delight and enthral.

To learn more about Japanese Nabeshim Wares visit the British Museum

Images by the British Museum

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Painting for the Emperor: Giuseppe Castiglione

Mention the name Giuseppe Castiglione in the artist’s native Italy and you’ll be met with blank looks, yet Castiglione is one of the most famous painters in the world. Born in 1688 into a Milanese family, Castiglione was a Jesuit and his flair for painting saw him chosen by the Society of Jesus to travel to China as a missionary to the Qing court.

One Hundred Horses, Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining), 1728, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

One Hundred Horses, Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining), 1728, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Lecturing at Asia House in the final in the Treasures of the Palace Museum, Taipeiseries, Christie’s Nixi Cura explained that the Qing Emperors were “wily” when choosing Jesuit missionaries to join the Imperial household. They granted permission to missionaries who possessed a craft or skill which would be useful to the court. Other Jesuits such as the well-known Matteo Ricci were invited to the court for their scientific prowess; Castiglione was welcomed for his skill in European painting technology.

It is thought that European painting was valued in China largely for its use of perspective and shading, which gives a two dimensional image the illusion of volume and depth. The ability to create such realistic images would have seemed fabulously novel to the Qing Emperors and European painters such as Castiglione were instructed not only to produce their own work, but also to school Chinese court painters in European painting techniques.

It is important to remember, says Cura, that when we talk about Castiglione we are talking about “not just one man but an entire movement in painting”. By teaching others to paint using his techniques, Castiglione made it difficult for modern art historians to determine whether a work is a ‘real’ Castiglione or not. When deciding between two pieces, says Cura, the “best” work is usually the genuine Castiglione.

Castiglione’s imperial patron was the Qianlong Emperor, a great art collector and connoisseur. Of the many fascinating paintings Cura introduced us to one of the most interesting was an astounding portrait of Qianlong’s father, the Yongzheng Emperor, in European style dress. The painting is housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing and features the Emperor in a Georgian-style wig, cravat and jacket. Not only does this painting show that the Qing Emperors clearly had a sense of humour, but that the taste for exotic European aesthetics was deeply entrenched in the Qing court well before Castiglione even set foot on Chinese soil.

Castiglione’s own portraits show the Emperor in a variety of unprecedentedly candid poses, such as the well-known image of Qianlong on horseback. Castiglione also used European techniques of depth painting to decorate palaces and create theatre sets. Castiglione’s most famous work is probably the Western-style palace at Yuan Ming Yuan; designed in collaboration with other Jesuits at the court, the palace was a hybrid of Chinese and Western styles.

In the Q&A one of the questions brought up was “why would Qianlong want to immerse himself in Western painting?” Cura believes that the Qing taste for European styles was related to their being Manchus, rather than a native Chinese dynasty. For the Qing Emperors “Western visual technology offered something different” and it is this difference from the tastes of previous ‘Chinese dynasties which makes this style “distinctly Qing”. Qianlong’s love of the exotic was a life-long affair, even his tomb “although Tibetan Buddhist in content” was “wholly Western in style”.

Despite the Emperor’s love affair with all things foreign, many of the Chinese literati saw European painting as a “trick”. In the Chinese tradition, calligraphy is the foundation of painting with the marks of the brush expressing “the character of the painter”. With brush and ink paintings, any marks cannot be undone so the painting is an ‘honest’ reflection of the painter’s skill. European painting however, with its invisible brush marks and volumetric representation was just an illusion and “not painting for scholars”. For the Manchus however, the realism of European-influenced court painting was symbolic of the “truthfulness” of their rule, as opposed to the corruption of the previous Ming dynasty.
In the Q&A, Stacey Pierson asked Nixi whether she thought Giuseppe Castiglione’s work could be described as ‘Western’ painting. Cura replied that Castiglione’s work is “not anywhere, it is in between”. Castiglione himself was not Chinese and the paintings were for a Manchu rather than a Chinese court, yet “no-one in Italy as ever heard of him”. Furthermore, although Castiglione’s work is European in many of his techniques, his style was modified to suit the tastes of the Qing emperors. A truely international artist, Castiglione’s combination of two very different artistic traditions is what makes his work so enduring and unique.

Images Courtesy of Asia House

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V&A Object of the Week … the Laughing Child

‘The Virgin and Laughing Child’ is one of my favourite Renaissance pieces at the V&A. It was made in 15th century Italy, possibly as a maquette for a larger statue or as a stand-alone devotional statue for a house.

'The Virgin and Laughing Child', Antonio Rossellino (?), About 1465, Terracotta

‘The Virgin and Laughing Child’, Antonio Rossellino (?), About 1465, Terracotta

The main things I love about this work are the natural poses and expressions of the mother and child. Many religious art works of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, such as ‘The Virgin and Child with Two Saints’ also on display at the V&A, feature a grim Virgin and solemn Christ-child surrounded by symbols relating to the adult Christ’s suffering and death.

'The Virgin and Child with Two Saints', Bernardino Fungai, About 1500, Oil on Panel

‘The Virgin and Child with Two Saints’, Bernardino Fungai, About 1500, Oil on Panel

‘The Virgin and Laughing Child’ carries none of this morbid severity. Here the Virgin gazes adoringly down as the baby cuddled on her lap giggles with glee at something beyond our view. It reminds me of when a photographer pulls faces and waves soft toys around to make a baby smile for the family portrait; you can picture the sculptor creating this work from life, by observing a the interactions between a real mother and her child.

I think this piece is so appealling because it rings true; it is not a reminder of the death to come, but a celebration of the life yet to be lived.

All photographs my own

Both works on display in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A

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