An Imperial Life

You don’t have to be rich to live your life as a total work of art.  Beautiful things are not necessarily expensive, and expensive things are not always beautiful.  But saying that, having A LOT of money certainly doesn’t go astray.  Throughout history some of the figures most famous for living opulent, extravagant and exciting lives have been extremely wealthy, or one step further, royalty.  As a Monarch it is practically part of the job description that you flaunt your wealth and power through beautiful art, fashion, design and architecture, and through this that you support and encourage the arts more generally.  Take for example King Ludwig II of Bavaria, know as the “Fairy-Tale King”.  He created castles, almost like stage sets, that perched on mountaintops, or copied Versailles, which acted both as prison and protection from the outside world.  During his reign he retreated further and further into his fairy-tale fantasy creating more and more extravagant castles.  In his palace Herrenchiemsee he even included an elevator table in his design.  This would enable the table to be lowered through the floor to a separate room where his servants could lay out the next course before cranking the table back up to his level.  This way he never had to see his servants!1024px-Neuschwanstein_Castle_LOC_print_rotated

Another eccentric monarch who lived his life as a total work of art was Qianlong Emperor.  He also created beautiful palaces, collected great art, and in his case was an artist and poet in his own right.  He was a child prodigy, an antique collector, he revitalised and preserved the history of art in China whilst embracing other cultures and religions. A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria explores his life through his beautiful possessions.  A Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor, 1736-1795 includes sumptuous clothing, exquisite paintings, weapons and furniture, and stunning objets d’art.

There is something truly special about seeing someones personal collection of art and design.  It really gives you an insight into the way they lived and who they are.  In one room two paintings show the Emperor and Empress, and opposite these images are the original robes and court headresses that they are wearing.  From this you can see how clearly and realistically the artist captured his sitters, but you also get a feel for the opulence and splendour of their lives.

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Guiseppe Castiglione, Portrait of Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Court Robe (1736).

Emperor’s Ceremonial Court Robe (1736-39).

One work I really enjoy which gives an insight into the personality of the Emperor is a small plate with ceramic food including nuts, seeds, fruit and a crab.  This shows the Emperor’s sense of humour, he liked to trick his guests with these lifelike renditions, but there is even more meaning behind this arrangement.  The choices of the food on the plate is a play on words, for example the character for seed is the same for son, and together the foods combine to reveal the Emperor’s desire to have many clever and successful sons.

In general I’m not a big reader of wall texts, but this is one exhibition where there is so much more going on behind each work that it’s really worth taking the time to read.  Another example of this is the stunning screen painting painted by Qianlong Emperor himself, Qianlong Emperor Appraising: One or Two?  Here the Emperor is portrayed twice, both sitting on a couch, and as a portrait within the painting hanging in front of another painting of plum blossoms, a real painting which the Emperor painted when he was 70.  Inscribed on the image is a poem by the Emperor, philosophically questioning his identity within the portraits. Which is the real Emperor, and does it even actually matter?  Once again this gives us further insight into the personality of the Emperor, we see him here as artist, poet, philosopher and there is still that element of humour.

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Giuseppe Castiglione, Qianlong Emperor in ceremonial armour on horseback (1739).

The way in which the Emperor walked a fine line between supporting and preserving the cultural heritage of China and embracing and drawing from the art of other cultures is truly fascinating.  One of the Emperor’s court painters was the Italian Guiseppe Castiglione who painted the Emperor in the European tradition, but executed in silk and colour on silk in the Chinese tradition. Even in the works by Chinese court painters you can see the influence of the European tradition in the perspective and realism of the works.  When you look at these paintings the combination of European and Chinese influences gives these works an almost Contemporary feel.  He also collected art and even created palaces in the European style, enlisting Guiseppe Castigilone once again to design these western style mansions for him.

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So as you can see this exhibition is so much more than just a collection of beautiful things, it is a total work of art, a mirror of the Emperor’s life and of his achievements and personality.  I recommend visiting this exhibition as though you were visiting the Emperor himself, make a day of it, put on some sumptuous silks and beautiful beads, maybe even indulge in a meal at Persimmon or High Tea at the Tea Room. Take this as your excuse to take a day out of everyday life and live like an Emperor.

The Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor 1736-1795

National Gallery of Victoria, Interational

27 March – 21 June 2015

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