Garments of the Golden Age
Art & Australia
I am looking at two dragons of perfectly equal proportion, their writhing, elongated bodies mirroring those of carnivorous reptiles, forms overlapping with tiny golden scales. Like snakes, but brandishing clever, splayed claws. Like baronial lizards, really; eyes bulging, blood-tinged tongues curled into hook shapes. Behind the twin beasts, filling the space around them, is a celestial expanse of midnight blue, as easy to step into as it is obliterative. It’s the sky, the sea, but it’s also a void. And then, tearing my gaze downward, are undulating bands of mountains, of waves. Blue, green, black.
The NGV’s latest exhibition, The Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1975), is physically expansive, employing 1, 100 square meters of the gallery. More than 120 pieces from Beijing’s Palace Museum—coloured inks on silk and paper, precious-stone inlayed objets d’art, regal portraits of imperial concubines—are displayed, many never previously on show in their native China. Among the relics is a spattering of garments: five robes and two ceremonial hats. By broad definition, the robes qualify as haute couture: they were custom-fitted and hand-executed using an intricate silk tapestry technique. Motifs were carefully arranged according to Chinese cosmological principles. Symbols and colours indicated a wearer’s rank, with the emperor approving all court textiles prior to production.
I discussed the auspicious attire on display with the gallery’s Senior Curator of Asian Art, Mae Anna Pang.
LAURA BANNISTER What kind of condition are the various clothing artifacts in? How difficult is it to preserve fragile fabrics like silk?
MAE ANNA PANG The silk robes are stored in the Palace Museum and only displayed during special exhibitions. The most important [factor] in their conservation is lighting. They need special lighting, otherwise the colour—especially yellow and red—will fade. Sunlight is most damaging.
BANNISTER Could you give us some insight into their historical value and the function they served in Qianlong’s court? Who crafted them? What embellishments are they festooned with?
PANG They are rare and historically valuable … worn by the emperor and empress on ceremonial occasions, and informal occasions such as banquets and weddings. Bright yellow is reserved for the emperor or ‘son of heaven’. Then there are different shades of yellow for the empress, consorts and princes of the Imperial court. The mythical dragon with five claws is the symbol reserved for the emperor … They were made in imperial workshops in the Forbidden City, and other cities famous for textiles like Suzhou and Hangzhou. There were probably many people in the workshops¾and I suspect they were men.
BANNISTER Would you ever consider a garment to be an art object?
PANG In the Chinese tradition or classical Chinese—to my knowledge—there is no word for art. In modern Chinese, there are two words meaning art: yishu and meishu. There were professional and court artists working in the imperial court and they were versed in the techniques of representation, use of colour (tending to be decorative and ornamental). They had a lower social status than the scholar-amateurs who collected and wrote about works of art. The court artists often tended to be unknown.
In the Qianlong period, Qianlong took special interest in supervising the works produced by the court artists and the Italian Jesuit, Castiglione, who introduced Western techniques of painting such as illusionism, perspective, colour, portraiture and documentary paintings … I might be wrong, but textiles and robes to my knowledge, are in general not collected by Chinese collectors, who tend to [be drawn to] paintings, ceramics, archaic bronze and jade. But nowadays in the modern society it is hard to know what is art … So-called art also become performance and entertainment as well. It is rather exciting. There is a saying: beauty is the eyes of the beholder.