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Arts

Why Chinese portrait painting wasn't only for the powerful and famous

Emperors, literary figures or simple villagers: Chinese portrait painters depicted people from all walks of life. Artworks spanning five centuries are now on display in Europe for the first time.

"Faces of China. Portrait Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1912)" is the first exhibition in Europe to focus on Chinese portrait painting; most of the more than 100 exhibits are on display for the first time on the continent.

The curator of the exhibition, Klaas Ruitenbeek, became director of Berlin's Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Museum for Asian Art) in 2010. He spent four years preparing the show in cooperation with the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. 

DW met him to discuss the traditional art of Chinese portrait painting. 

DW: You once said that preparing an exhibition in a museum compares to telling stories. What are the stories revealed by Chinese portrait painting?

Klaas Ruitenbeek: I've always been fascinated by the fact that half of the paintings created in China were traditionally not recognized as art. They were not exhibited or collected — they were meant for one's family. They were the portraits of parents and grandparents created to be worshiped through rituals, year after year on holidays.

Mainly, these are the stories of regular citizens from all parts of society, real portraits of real people, including the faces of villagers who lived 600 years ago. Of course, the exhibition also includes imperial portraits and paintings of writers, artists and famous women.

Read more: Germany opens massive art show in China

Prof. Dr. Klaas Ruitenbeek (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/D. von Becker)

Dutch art historian Klaas Ruitenbeek heads Berlin's Asian Art Museum

Who commissioned these portraits? And what led regular citizens to have their portrait done, too?

Families would want for example their grandmother to be painted because she was old and might not live much longer. In China, it's important to have a portrait of your parents and grandparents. Your family is part of your identity to a much greater degree than is the case here.

The second important category of portraits we show in the exhibition are informal portraits of senior officials and literary figures who commissioned paintings, as well as self-portraits painted by the artists themselves.

Did the painters have names, were they cult figures like some were in Europe? The caption underneath some of the paintings reads: unknown artist.

Every Chinese person has a name, every beggar, orphan and painter. The names were known: People would go to Liu the painter and ask him to paint their grandfather, Wang. He would come to their house, make a sketch, and return to his workshop to paint a formal painting, complete with a beautiful robe. The names have been lost, but back then, everyone knew them.

There are no anonymous portraits in China or in Europe; the difference between Chinese and European painting is that paintings, in particular those of ancestors, were not signed.

Read more: Leonardo da Vinci unveiled his enigmatic 'Mona Lisa' 500 years ago

The exhibition of paintings from the collections of the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto spans more than 500 years. The early portraits have small, flat faces, a style that changes over the years. Is that due to a European influence?

Chinese portraits of writers, artists and the educated upper classes usually show the entire body, with a rather smaller face. Classic European portrait painting ­— we have a van Dyck on display to show the difference — focuses on the upper body, the face is almost life-size and the background is uniform. But every culture is open to interaction.

Many of the works are on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing. How did that cooperation go?

It was great. Of course, we've long had personal and scientific contacts with the curators there. And not only did they promise us almost all of the masterworks we wanted to have, they also gave me free reign to arrange the exhibition. I was able to make last minute changes, and such trust is not necessarily a given. They also waived lending fees. Instead, we agreed that in about three years' time, a major exhibition from Berlin's Staatliche Museen will be headed to the Palace Museum.

The exhibition "Faces of China. Portrait Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1912)" is open through January 7, 2018 at the Berliner Kulturforum.

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