Saturday, 12 September 2015

Chinese Art and Patronage

Another post based on a paper I wrote at Middlebury College, this time on Chinese paintings and their Patronage. Enjoy! 

China has three main religions ; Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. The aristocratic families and the emperors started commissioning artists to decorate the temples and to create painting for their private devotion. 

Temples, especially in Buddhism, often included several works of art that are used during worship. During the Six Dynasty period (220-589), Buddhism spread with the help of the rich families that commissioned artist to create sculptures and painting for Buddhist temples. For instance, the sculpture of Bodhisattva from the Longmen grottoes were commissioned by several patrons to promote this new religion. 

Anon., Vairocana Buddha, Fengxian Temple at Longmen, 672-675, Grey Limestone. Longmen, China.

Patrons wanted to be depicted in the temples so everyone could know their involvement in supporting the religious life of the community. Commissioning a deity figure and donating it to a temple was a way to gain prestige and to improve one's social status. 

Anon., Cave 428, Corridor, South Wall, N. Zhou (557-581), Pebbled sandstone. Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China. 

Private patrons also commissioned to paint scrolls as guides to proper Confucian behaviour in the society. Through the painting of landscape, the artists were able to help the patrons to understand the Confucian rules and the hierarchy of the society as in Fan Kuan's painting with the emperor at the top of the mountain. 

Fan Kuan, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, 1000, ink on silk, National Palace Museum, Taipei. 

Emperors understood the importance of the religious patronage to reinforcing their own power. For instance, the painting The Emperor as the Bodhisattva Manjusri depicted the emperor as a Bodhisattva who has to help people to reach Buddha, in the middle of the Buddhist cosmos. In this case, the emperor wanted to be identified as the center of spiritual life. 

Giuseppe Castiglione, The Emperor as the Bodhisattva Manjusri, 1735-1795, ink and color on silk,  Palace Museum, Beijing

In summary, rich and aristocratic or the emperor himself became patrons for religious reasons but also to prove their economic and political power. Patronage is not only designed to help artists but also to enhance the social status of the donor. 

Further readings:

Cahill, James. The Painter's Practice: How Artists lived and Worked in Traditional China. New York: Columbia University. 1994.

Hongman,Kim. The Life of a Patron: Zhou Lianggong (1612-1672) and the Painters of Seventeenth-century China. New York: China Institute of America. 1996.

Jenyns, Soame. A Background to Chinese Painting. New York: Shocken Books. 1966.

Li Chu-Tsing, James Cahill, Wai-Kam Ho, and Claudia Brown. Artists and Patrons: Some Social and Economic Aspects of Chinese Painting. Lawrence, Ks: Kress Foundation Dept. of Art History, University of Kansas, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City in Association with the University of Washington Press. 1989. 

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