A Giraffe that’s not a Giraffe?: Treasures of the Palace Museum, Taipei – No. 1

Malcolm McNeill’s lecture on the Treasures of the Palace Museum in Taipei, the first in a series of lectures at Asia House by leading Chinese art experts, went down a storm.

In his fascinating lecture, Malcolm managed to reduce the entirety of Chinese art history, from the Neolithic to the late Qing, into the brief time-frame of an hour without skimping on the detail.

In bringing Yuan dynasty painting ‘Tribute Giraffe’, one of his personal favourites, to our attention, Malcolm explained how that the level of realism depicted suggests that the artist drew from life. For the modern observer, it is clearly a painting of a giraffe. For the artist however, the creature was not a giraffe, but a mythical ‘qilin’ and a symbol of heaven’s blessing upon the Yongle Emperor. This highlights the subjective way in which humans interpret nature, art and just about everything else.

Many of the objects shown in the presentation bore the seals of previous owners and inscriptions by great historic collectors such as the Qianlong Emperor. In the Q&A, a member of the audience expressed what a shame it was the Emperor had seen fit to detract from so many pieces of exquisite art with his own inscriptions and seals.

This comment represents how even today cultural expectations play a powerful role in our appreciation of art. Malcolm explained that in the Chinese tradition, calligraphy and seals are seen to enrich and enhance a piece of art, with many works being rendered more valuable by the seals of ownership they bear.

Malcolm ended his talk by taking us on a stroll through the 14th century masterpiece of Chinese painting “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains”. Divided into two separate pieces by a fire in, the painting remained apart, with one half being held in mainland China and the other in Taiwan, until 2011 when the Zhejiang Provincial Museum loaned it’s half of the painting to the National Palace Museum  to reunite the masterpiece.

This is a poignant reminder of the essential role art plays in our relationship to the past and to each other; ‘Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains’ represents the possibilities that greater cultural exchange may bring in the future.

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