Thursday, 22 May 2014

Enter the Dragon and the Birds

© The Trustees of the British Museum
Perhaps I’m getting sensitive to the geography of art, or I’ve always fancied exotic places at lunch, but today I went to China. Room 91 at the British Museum affords visitors the opportunity to go on a voyage along the Yangzi River. There is nothing standard sized about the real or depicted landscapes. The scrolled horizontal ones are like a slow journey along the canal; the vertical banners offer a glimpse of a lush garden through an open window.

I want to focus on one image. It shows figures on a mountainous pathway, their voluminous clothing buffeted by the unexpected animation of a dragon to the top right. The artist is witness to the miracle from behind a rocky, wild outcrop which he puts in the foreground. The heavily shaded and emphasised tumbling rocks and foliage emphasise the reality of the locale, where the lightly sketched figures seem ephemeral in comparison. The dragon just is; scaly, snaky and hanging in the sky, surrounded by shading to make it stand out.

This image is 'Painting of a dragon' (1459-1508) by an artist of the Zhe School and it tells us the story of a moment in Wu Daozi's life (680–760?). Stories proliferate around this renowned artist and some are mentioned in this incredible book. The BM label explains that Daozi painted a dragon that was so realistic, it came to life.

Now I don't doubt the BM experts, given that I have spent fifteen minutes with this image but my research shows there was more than one artist who could paint extraordinarily life-like dragons; Chang Seng Yu (470-550) his 'dragon broke free and flew away'; and Wu Daozi 'when he painted dragons, their scales shook'.

Ultimately it doesn't matter which artist was being depicted, the point is that his skill was so prodigious, he painted the image off the wall. It immediately appealed as a story and there is a parallel with European art historical legends. Sadly we have no evidence of their virtuosity, yet their reputations have grown over times. Their names are Zeuxis and Apelles. Zeuxis (5th century BCE) exhibited a picture of some grapes so true to nature that birds flew up to it and Apelles (4th century BCE) was also able to trick birds by painting flies in such a realistic way.

I make no apology for my connecting Wu Daozi with Zeuxis and Apelles; bringing together European and Chinese ideas over geographic, historical and cultural differences. I love that synchronicity in the proof of skill, that the dragon came out and the birds went in. Ultimately I saw a Chinese drawing and learned about a dragon; its scales moved and disturbed Zeuxis's birds.

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