Colossal paintings and exquisite art objects of the former emperors of China are on display in a new exhibition in Cologne. It illuminates the historical conditions from which modern-day China emerged.
Life-size portraits of former rulers and richly detailed paintings illustrating life in the imperial court of China can be found in a new exhibition at the Museum for East Asian Art in Cologne.
The exhibition, "Splendor of the Emperors of China: Art and Life in the Forbidden City," includes paintings of elaborate ceremonies in which aristocratic finery and the structures of power among dignitaries are lavishly illustrated.
Alongside the paintings, a multitude of objects from imperial court life, including a richly ornamented throne, brocaded robes, artfully decorated clocks and vases all help to bring this chapter in Chinese history alive.
The priceless treasures were transported from Beijing to Cologne in 39 high-security cases and an accompanying guard supervised the unpacking of the precious freight.
Around 190 artworks are being shown at the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne through January 20, 2013 - just a small selection of historically important objects from the more than 1.8 million artworks in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
China then and now
"We're in no way producing propaganda for China. We're educators," the exhibition curator and museum director Adele Schlombs said. The show aims to help audiences gain a better understanding of the historical conditions from which modern-day China emerged.
Such a universal claim to power exercised by the Chinese emperors of the past was never enjoyed by European rulers. In the so-called Middle Kingdom, emperors were lauded as conduits of cosmic energy, as both political and religious leaders, who united anything and everything from Buddhists and Taoists to followers of shamanism. The emperor was regarded as the "Son of Heaven," an all-encompassing power nobody could defy.
At the same time, emperors were the custodians of tradition, patrons of the arts and responsible for education and the transfer of knowledge. "When you know that, then China's modern-day desire for authority, which many Europeans are uncomfortable with, suddenly appears in a whole new light," Schlombs explained.
As few might expect, Europeans played a significant role in the production of the exhibition which sheds light the grandeur, power and splendor of the Chinese Empire at a time when the region exerted a palpable influence on European thought.
"Cultural exchange between China and Europe reached its peak during the 17th and 18th centuries," Sinologist Schlombs said. Jesuit padres were in active dialogue with the Chinese emperors and the country's spiritual elite. The teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius were considered to be the model of an enlightened state and influenced the thought of many Western thinkers.
In return, the Jesuits introduced a new form of visual representation to the Chinese court and exposed the rulers to new possibilities of self-representation. As painters and artists, Jesuit clergy informed the realist style of the epoch.
Giuseppe Castiglione's "Peaceful Message," painted in 1736, is one example of that. The work depicts two men holding apricot tree branches. The images document and symbolize a peaceful transfer of imperial power, Schlombs explained: "But the distinguishing factor is that the faces are clearly recognizable, with shadows and sharp lines. That was unthinkable for this time."
Tools of the trade
China's intellectual life also profited from Western influences. The Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell, ennobled as a Mandarin in the Chinese court, rose through the ranks to become director of the Imperial Astronomy Institute and developed astronomical devices. In the meantime, he also oversaw the production of canons.
Cultural exchange enriched the technology of the period. Enameling techniques were imported from the West where they were used for finishing metal surfaces. In China, enameling techniques were used for decorating porcelain in sumptuous detail.
The exhibition marks the 25th anniversary of the partnership between Beijing and Cologne. On a national level, the exhibition also honors 40 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and the Peoples Republic of China.
Though the title of the exhibition may suggest otherwise, "Splendor of the Emperors of China: Art and Life in the Forbidden City" does not focus solely on the resplendence and grandeur of the former emperors of China. "The exhibition also includes critical stances towards the former systems of power," curator Schlombs pointed out.
She is sure that the Chinese support for the exhibition in all its complexity shows something of China's new sovereignty and the country's distance from its own history.