Art Bites

This Qing Dynasty Masterpiece is a Blockbuster Waiting to Happen

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May 25, 2019

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Huang Xiangjian

In this series, the curatorial team presents one work from the Meural art library we find essential.

Searching For My ParentsHuang Xiangjian

Imagine a film’s opening scene that goes something like this:

And so begins a cinematic tale of one extraordinary journey. A tale of seemingly impossible odds. Of one man—an artist and academic—who travels hundreds upon hundreds of miles through a war-ravaged land in search of his parents. He finds them, of course—such audacity and ambition must be rewarded! But the dangerous journey scars him. Years later, after the family’s safe return home, the son turns to painting as a way of soothing the painful memories that still haunt him. He creates a masterpiece.

Ok— so that’s a shameless ‘Hollywoodified’ simplification of what is actually an unbelievable, but true story. And why I went there—why I imagined this high-production, glossy, celebrity-starring blockbuster film that would no doubt cost millions upon millions and take major liberties with the facts—well, I’ll explain that in a moment. But first, the actual facts.

Searching For My Parents (Section 6)Huang Xiangjian
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I’m relying here on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose collection houses this exquisite handscroll.

In 1643, the artist Huang Xiangjian’s father was appointed country magistrate in a province in southwest China. The following year saw the fall of the Ming Dynasty—also known as the Manchu conquest—and what followed was a decades-long conflict as various clans and rebel factions fought for power. After 9 years of hearing nothing from his parents, the artist set out to find them. According to the Met: “the handscroll documents the most arduous portion of the journey, including treacherous mountain trails and the military garrisons where he faced interrogation. Impoverished, injured, and sobbing, he often had to convince armed troops that he was not a spy but was merely trying to obtain passage in search of his parents.”

Having been reunited, the family returned home, to Suzhou, presumably along the same route. It was a round trip of 1400 miles.

Searching For My Parents (Section 4)Huang Xiangjian
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So—why the film thing?

It’s all to do with the format. The Chinese handscroll is a continuous roll of paper or silk that is unfurled and enjoyed in sections—most often by only one or two people. What this means is that when you’ve finished exploring the first section, for example, you carefully re-roll it, before proceeding to the next one. It’s a format that quite literally allows you to unfold a story—a narrative that occurs over time and in different places. And you, the viewer, experiences that progression in, well, the very time it takes to unroll, re-roll and unroll the handscroll.

How different to the way we experience most Western art, which is predominantly made up of individual images that are encountered all at once, which are not designed to be touched, and from which we are often discouraged from exploring up close and in detail.

When I put this painting on to my Meural Canvas, I realized that the action of swiping through the sections, mimics, in some simple form, the way a scroll is designed to be viewed. And as I moved through the work, the expressive brushwork transported me through a changing landscape—from imposing mountains and precipitous paths, to valleys with sweeping vistas. And as I settled into exploring the literal journey that Huang took (or at least a portion of it), my mind couldn’t help recalling the most common visual medium that deals with story and time: film.

So there you have it. A blockbuster waiting to happen. You heard it here first.

(Whisper3 by PeriTune | Music promoted by | Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))

Poppy Simpson, Head of Content and Curation

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Searching For My Parents

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