Cloisonné dish 16/17th c. and jar with yellow glaze, Hongzhi. Nanjing Museum Photo Paul Harris
The story of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a period marked by a social, cultural and economic transformation and a dramatic flourishing of the arts, is being told in a major exhibition showing at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) this summer, Ming: The Golden Empire. We attended the press preview for the exhibition today and which opens on June 27 We can report that the exhibits are magnificent and quite outstanding.
Some of the fine items on display are drawn from the National Museum’s own extensive Asian collection. (Its own rather fine gallery of Chinese Japanese and Korean artefacts has just been closed for large-scale renovation and is expected to reopen in 2018). They have been more than adequately supplemented by some extraordinary objects from the Nanjing Museum. Nanjing was the birthplace of the Ming dynasty, its first capital before the creation of the Beijing palace complex or ‘Forbidden City’. The NMS is the only place in Britain which will be showing this exhibition of international significance: in fact, it has just transferred from Amsterdam.
Dr Kevin McLoughlin, Principal Curator East and Central Asia, at the NMS explained to us something of the thinking behind the exhibition. “We very much aim to make the culture and history of the Ming Dynasty accessible to people who, perhaps, know little of it. Here we are not assuming any prior knowledge.” Indeed, the signage and descriptions of exhibits are admirably clear, direct and to the point.
“Our approach is not sinological. We have provided for the visitor things gathered together thematically. The aim is to make it understandable.”
Here, in our view, the exhibition succeeds admirably. The objects are of a sufficiently high standard to impress virtually any viewer and the explanation of them is remarkable for its exemplary clarity.
For 276 years, 16 emperors of the Zhu family, beginning with Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, reigned over the world’s largest, wealthiest and most populated empire. Through this remarkable assembly of treasures, the exhibition examines imperial power, the Ming elite, the development of new wealth, and international trading relationships as they developed over the period. It also sheds interesting light on developing tastes and aesthetics, as Chinese society changed.
We particularly liked this massive Hongwu plate. Early Ming craftsmen mastered the technique of using copper oxide to produce an underglaze red. Nanjing Museum. Photo Paul Harris
As the exhibition literature further explains: ‘The Ming imperial court commanded the very finest materials and workmanship. This is revealed by the exquisite imperial items and rare objects within the exhibition, including the iconic blue and white porcelain with which the Ming period is synonymous. It was far superior to anything that could be produced in Europe at that time. The rich selection of porcelain of different glazes and decorations on display makes clear that blue and white was actually one among many decorative treatments of Ming porcelain. A meiping (plum vase) jar from the Zhengtong emperor’s reign (1435-1449) features a copper red underglaze, a colour effect so difficult to achieve that it was considered especially suitable for elite use.
Copper red underglaze on a Zhengtong meiping vase from the Nanjing Museum. Photo Paul Harris
‘ Workshops overseen by imperial eunuchs provided the court with all it needed for ritual, recreation and decoration. Also on display are sumptuous silk textiles, gold and jades, and rare examples of elaborately enamelled cloisonné.
‘At the top of the late Ming social order were the Ming’s educated elite, the literati, who had achieved success through the punishing civil service examination system. Exams were in principle, open to all, and therefore an important means of promoting social mobility. An extraordinary collection of life-like portraits show the faces of some of these men.
‘Accessories to the scholar’s studio, such as painting tables, musical instruments and delicately carved bamboo brushpots, depicting scenes such as pines and cranes, or scholars writing poetry, illustrate the literati ideal of self-cultivation. Many who failed to reach an official position pursued artistic and literary interests instead, and emerged to become the greatest painters, calligraphers, poets and writers of the Ming.
The NMS is particularly proud of this fish vat taken from its own collection. Jiajing mark and reign with underglaze blue decoration and made in Jingdezhen in the 16th c. Photo Paul Harris
‘Ming: The Golden Empire shows how an increasingly wealthy society led to greater demand for luxury and craft objects, including blue and white decorated porcelain. Using skills and techniques developed for the imperial court, the kilns of Jingdezhen began producing more porcelains to meet the demands of a growing domestic market that sought to emulate the tastes of the literati. Greater discrimination about the quality of goods meant that skilled craftsmen began signing their works just as literati painters did, becoming, in effect, brands.’
Ming: The Golden Empire is supported by investment managers Baillie Gifford. It will also be supported by a programme of events. There is also a publication to accompany the exhibition, featuring many of the beautiful objects on display. This exhibition has been produced by Nomad Exhibitions in association with Nanjing Museum.
Chicken-fat yellow glaze bowls made in Jingdezhen early to mid-Ming for use as table wares reserved for the Emperor Photo Paul Harris