From December 12, 2020 to March 7, 2021, Long Museum (West Bund) is delighted to present the exhibition Family Harmony—Belief and Family Life in Figure Paintings Since Ming and Qing Dynasties, curated by Hunan Provincial Museum and Changsha Grand View Culture. With more than 60 figure paintings and related exhibits from the Ming and Qing dynasties, an excellent exhibition combining the core elements of traditional Chinese culture (e.g. “Cautiousness”, “Self-cultivation”, “Joint effort”, “Love his people”, etc.) will be presented to the public in order to celebrate the new year.
In early Chinese paintings, figure painting occupied an important position in the history of painting because of its educational function endowed by its special narrative. Since the Song and Yuan dynasties, literati painting has risen and become popular. Landscape, flower and bird paintings became the mainstream, while figurative painting has gradually been marginalized. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the position of figure painting in the history of painting was no longer prominent. However, with the growth of the middle and lower class, the demand for the visualization of family life and beliefs increased. Paintings that depict ancestors, life portrait, and good fortune spread to every corner of the traditional Chinese society with their social functions of moral education, self-cultivation, and joint effort.
The exhibition has three themes: “Ancestor Worship – A Patriarchal System”, “Self-fulfillment – Days Spent at Leisure” and “Worship the God – Customs and Beliefs”. Through displaying those rich and colorful figure paintings of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Long Museum hopes to widen people’s understanding towards the social significance of figure painting and the traditional Chinese culture it represents.
Ancestor Worship – A Patriarchal System
The “shadow of one’s body” in the paintings of ancestors is part of the unique ritual of ancestor worship. There are many types of ancestral paintings. At present, there are not only the shadows of one generation, but also the images of several generations, and even the entire memorial tablet. The images of the ancestors have a strong sense of order. The characters are in a positive posture with serious expressions and their clothes are meticulously depicted. The painting methods of the ancestors in the Ming and Qing dynasties are as follows: light ink is used to outline the shape of the face, the light color is applied to add layers, and some other parts are well emphasized. In the late Qing dynasty, the images of ancestors changed again. Not only did they depict individual characters, but some also included features of landscape, children, and maids, which added a sense of humanism, and at the same time adopted light and shadow, perspective and other Western painting techniques, presenting a more realistic and concrete appearance. Through these ancestral paintings, the Chinese’s belief in “worshiping the ancestors” would then be closely connected with their everyday lives.
Self-fulfillment – Days Spent at Leisure
Paintings of life portrait “freezes” leisure life in the form of art. This painting theme that appeared during the Southern and Northern Dynasties implied the hopes for safety, prosperity and social stability, and was very popular in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Cultural Gathering is an event for literati to exchange academic ideas and emotions. Paintings of such event includes the documentary on the scenes of the Gathering, the yearning for the famous Gathering in the past, and the longing for the ideal life. This type of painting can be seen as a painting of life portrait on a larger scale.
As time changes, the paintings of life portrait and gatherings gradually increased the scenes reflecting the pleasure of the secular home life, from the previous simple gatherings of literati to large gatherings with people participating in group photos. What’s more, the props and inscriptions in the layout of the scene, such as the carefully selected four treasures of study, daily supplies and bonsai strange stones, are closely related to the identity, taste, and values of the person depicted in the painting. In this process, no matter who they are, their desire to achieve inner joy and harmony with the outside world is consistent.
Worship the God – Customs and Beliefs
The tradition of genre figures and Taoist gods paintings has a long history. There are many related masterpieces, such as Zhang Zeduan’s The Riverside Scene at the Qing-ing Festival, and Wu Zongyuan’s Worship the Supreme God of Taoism, which reflect the aesthetic taste, ethical emotion and religious feelings of the Chinese. Since the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the content of genre figures and Taoist gods paintings has become more secular and diverse. Unusual themes such as festivals, blessings and birthdays have been added, which have been integrated into every degree of social life. These themes also demonstrate people’s pantheistic believes as well as their hope for a good life and a prosperous country.
Genre figures of Ming and Qing dynasties and Taoist gods paintings keep pace with the times. On the basis of inheriting the traditional techniques of line drawing and color application, these paintings put more emphasis on ornamental and local characteristics, indicating a strong atmosphere of the times.