I managed to see the exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 at the V&A yesterday. It is a heroic and I think successful attempt to represent the entire history of Chinese painting in one exhibition, drawing on loans from museums across the world.
Among other things, the exhibition explains the distinction in Chinese painting between the professional and scholarly styles. The former was colourful, realistic and decorative, whereas the latter tended to be monochrome, high-minded and individualistic.
Because of my current research into Chinese wallpaper (and Chinese pictures used as wallpaper) I am completely biased towards Chinese professional paintings, which influenced the wallpapers made for the west. I was fascinated by some pictures by Ren Renfa of c. 1500, for instance, showing people engaged in elegant pastimes and including a landscape painting mounted on a movable screen, evidence of the early ‘architectural’ use of Chinese painting.
In the same section of the exhibition, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness: 1400-1600′, there are a number of paintings with elegant ladies. V&A curator Luisa Mengoni explained to me how these figures don’t just represent physical beauty, but also reference cultured accomplishments such as music and dance, and refinement more generally. Beauty is never just beauty.