THE PROPERTY OF AN ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTOR
A Hardwood Embellished
‘Dragon and Clouds’ Screen
Zhang Rong –
Research Fellow – Palace Museum, Beijing
The present screen measures 288 cm high and 680 cm wide, and is comprised of ten panels. The basic material for the construction used for the framework is hardwood. The front-facing side is of with eight panels split into two registers, all within gilt-lacquered frames. The upper section is embellished with silk paintings depicting dragons amidst clouds above waves breaking against rocks. The five dragons within each panel are similarly painted. The border is decorated with bats amidst clouds. The two end panels are also designed in upper and lower section format. The panel’s upper section is in openwork with scrolling leaves opening into two cartouches. The upper cartouche is set with a panel containing sixty Shou characters; the lower cartouche is embellished with kesi depicting descending bat suspending a Shou roundel. The lower register of the main panels are each decorated with gilt and polychrome lacquers to depict a floral basket on a black lacquer ground. The reverse facing side of the large screen is also divided into two registers: the upper register reserves an ogee panel containing silk paintings of floral sprays. This is above a cartouche containing kesi panel of ornamental rocks issuing flower sprays. The lower section of the screen is decorated with purple lacquer embellished with formalised bamboo veneer scrolls on each of the four corners. This type of bamboo used is known as “Xiangfei” bamboo. The bamboo corners are placed to surround a full-faced dragon medallion above waves breaking against rocks, all reserved on a brocade ground, and further bordered with a pair of ascending and descending stylised bats.
Many different decorative techniques were employed in the making of this massive imperial piece of furniture including: wood carving, painting, kesi, lacquer, and bamboo veneer. The dominant decoration is paintings with coloured pigments including the front eight panels depicting dragons amidst clouds, and the reverse side with ten panels of floral paintings.
During the early Qing dynasty Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong periods, many palaces were built which required the skills of the best artists and artisans. Among notable artists who worked at the imperial workshops were Tang Dai, Gao Qipei, and Jiang Tingxi. The type of work varied depending on the requirement nature of the building’s design. Tang Dai adopted a formal style and followed the ‘Four Wangs’; and Jiang Tingxi adopted the flower paintings of Yun Shouping of the Kangxi period. These two artists are the most influential court artists active during the late Kangxi to Yongzheng periods. The upper floral panels are typical of Qing court paintings popular during this particular period.
The panels depicting dragons amidst clouds are not the conventional dragons that are commonly seen because they have been re-adapted as decorative motifs. These eight dragon panels are rendered in four pairs, with each pair shown in mirror image. Each panel is decorated with a border of twenty red bats. This screen is very similar to a nine dragon screen in the Palace Museum, dated to the Yongzheng period, particularly in the use of the openwork floral and scrolling motifs. The Palace Museum screen is also inset with golden ground panels similar to the present screen. Additionally, the mature full-faced, dragon with bushy hair and the five claws painted in a wheel format and a small tail, are identical those found on the Palace Museum example. Although the Palace dragon has an embroidered Shou character on its forehead, it is designed above similar breaking waves. The rocks on the Palace screen are narrow and small, and surrounded by smaller shaped clouds that are inter-locked. Dragon motifs were popularly adopted throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. During the Ming period, irrespective of their posture, dragons are invariably depicted with upswept hair. By the Qing dynasty Kangxi period, the hair of the dragon is depicted as dishevelled, the body is more muscular; they are powerful and lively. Ming dragons have upward pointing eyebrows. The eyebrows of Kangxi dragons are similar but their tips are rounded. Yongzheng dragons are similar to Kangxi dragons but their eyebrows are downward pointing with rounded tips. The Kangxi dragon has short hair with five or six tufts emerging from behind its head. Compared to the body, the Yongzheng dragon head is relatively smaller and the body is slimmer. By the Qianlong period, the dragon’s forehead is slightly different in that it is further detailed with the appearance of several nodules surrounding a larger central nodule. During and prior to the Qianlong period, dragons are elegantly and powerfully portrayed. Subsequently, dragons’ bodies tend to be over-sized, stylised and lacking in spirit.
The ten paintings are typical of the style of Yun Shouping’s floral court paintings; they include camellia, hydrangea, wutong, peach blossoms, chrysanthemum, morning glory, pomegranate, lotus, geranium, peony, hibiscus and corn poppy. These flowers have traditional auspicious associations and as such they convey these good wishes to the recipient. The floral sprays are loose and depicting flowers of the four seasons. The paintings are finely executed in refined brushwork as well as expressionist brushwork.
The flower-heads are painted with fine strokes but the stems and leaves are expressionist, and in ‘boneless’ style using shadings. As such the colours are rendered refined and elegant. These paintings are undoubtedly by master painters working in the imperial workshops. Unfortunately, as these paintings are anonymous it is difficult to ascertain the name of the artists but their styles are often found among court paintings collected in the Palace. With exception of a restricted few artists who were permitted to sign their work, such as Jiao Bingzhen, Leng Mei, Lang Shining, Ding Guanpeng, Jing Tingbiao, a large number of court paintings remain anonymous.
The kesi panels are important decorations. The technique involves intact warps and cut woofs which renders visual contours on an otherwise flat surface. During the Qing dynasty, Suzhou was the primary, and the largest, source in the supply of materials to the imperial palaces.
The kesi design uses blue, moon-white, dark green, green, light green, crimson, pink, light pink, orange-yellow colours against a white ground. The techniques applied are known as pinke, jieke, changduanqiang, baoxinqing, mushuqian, quanke, and gouke to create a different variety of flowers including mallow, pomegranate, peony, peach blossom, magnolia, prunus, begonia, lingzhi, bamboo, chrysanthemum, osmanthus, day lilies and Taihu rocks. These form the rebus, Liansheng Guizhi, ‘Begetting sons every year’, and Yutang Fugui, ‘A jade vat of good fortunes’. It is of particular note that the use of gouge, permits the darker colours to demarcate lines of the rocks and trees; changduanqiang technique is used for the peaches, rocks and flowers to produce two different shades of light and dark colours. Baoxinqiang technique is used for the rocks, tree trunks; and this technique incorporates Changduanqiang to create the effect of shading effects of light to dark areas or dark emerging into light areas. The kesi technique and the composition of the floral sprays are exceedingly well combined.
The lower “skirt” section of the screen is lacquered with gilt and gilt and polychrome. Each panel depicts a flower basket at the centre surrounded by an ascending and descending bats in flight, amidst a dense ground of lingzhi scrolls. During the Qing dynasty, bats were popularly applied because of their auspicious association with the homophone for ‘fortune’. As such bats were popular with the Manchu. Lingzhi, on the other hand, has a legendary association with immortality and was regarded as an auspicious image for longevity. The bats and lingzhi form Fushou Mianchang, ‘Continuous Fortune and Longevity’. The lacquer decoration relies on gilt lacquer as an outline and the application of a brighter gilt colour as the infill. These two different tones of gilt provide a sharper overall decoration. Even though the brush strokes are of varied lengths, they are very precisely executed to provide a balanced composition. The reverse side is decorated with ten full-front dragon panels, with two more repeated on either end of the front facing side. Each of the dragons is portrayed with its hair dishevelled as though it is caught in strong winds above waves and amidst clouds, peony and chrysanthemum. The dragon’s eyes are wide opened, the claws are stretched in all directions and it is visually portrayed in a very strong stance. Each of the dragons is placed within a roundel against a brocade ground.
The bamboo used on the screen is known as “Xiangfei” bamboo and it is only found in the south particularly on Jinshan Island on the Dongting Lake. Their source is limited so this material is extremely precious.
Imperial screens are commonly found to be hinged to provide a 180 degree angle. However, the present screen is brass hinged to allow a 360 degree placement. This type of placement of screens is known but they are invariably all embellished using paper and silk.
This screen is undoubtedly made by the Zhaobanchu, imperial workshops based on the construction, painting style, the application of kesi, the use of lacquer and the inclusion of bamboo veneer.Qing imperial workshops supplied great many secular and religious furnishings for the palaces as well as furnishings that were produced as gifts. The workshops comprised of many different divisions and a divided workforce that co-operated with each other in the production of objects for the palaces. As such, this screen would have required the co-operative work of the following divisions: carpentry, painting, embroidery, lacquer and metalwork.
This magnificent large screen has an imposing presence and its beautiful workmanship expresses a typical Qing imperial style. Even though it is difficult to precisey date this screen, it is without doubt a rare and highly treasured work of art.
Post Lot Text
From The Hands of Many Imperial Craftsmen:
A Folding Imperial Screen
International Academic Director Asian Art
This magnificent screen displays the remarkable talents of some of the most accomplished artists in a variety of imperial ateliers. These artists included the finest lacquer painters, kesi weavers, embroiderers, painters on silk, painters on paper, wood carvers and gilders. One can imagine each group of artists working in their own studios and then bringing all their efforts together to create a glorious screen. It appears that no other imperial screen decorated with this wealth of materials and techniques has been published. Its design combines a rich slightly European-influenced style with intricate traditional Chinese elements to create an opulent and impressive item of imperial furniture, reflecting court taste of the high Qing.
Such a screen, which required the cooperation of craftsmen from such diverse workshops, would have been a specific imperial commission, probably to commemorate a special occasion. A comparison may be made with the pair of massive screens, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, which was made for the celebration of the sixtieth birthday of the Kangxi Emperor (see fig. 1).1 Each panel of this latter screen has a zitan frame, embellished with mother-of-pearl and polychrome lacquer, inset with panels of calligraphy executed by the imperial princes. It is also interesting to compare a huali nine-fold screen, also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which is inset with kesi panels depicting flowers and rocks in a similar style to those on the current screen. This Beijing palace screen, which has been dated to the Yongzheng-Qianlong period, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 54 -Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, p.220, no. 189. Painted polychrome lacquer designs and intricately carved details, of similar quality to those seen on the current
screen, appear on an superb imperial throne, which was sent to the home of Prince Ji in order that the Qianlong Emperor could be seated upon it during his visit to the prince.2
At either end of the current screen on the reverse side is an ornately framed panel containing sixty shou longevity characters delicately embroidered with great precision in silk thread. Each of the characters is different and many are depicted in distinctive archaistic seal script. Interestingly, similar archaistic seal script characters can be seen on a large blue and white porcelain vase from the Kangxi reign decorated with ten thousand versions of the shou character in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.3 In the case of both the screen and the porcelain vase the reference is to the traditional imperial birthday greeting: wan shou wu jiang, ‘ten thousand years of long life without end’, which appears in similar archaistic characters within the border of the famous ‘birthday’ plates, believed to have been made for the sixtieth birthday of the Kangxi Emperor in AD 1713.4 The sixty shou at each end of the current screen also suggests the celebration of an imperial birthday, possibly that of the Kangxi Emperor’s sixtieth birthday in 1713, or perhaps that of his son the Yongzheng Emperor.
Imposing imperial five-clawed dragons have been painted both by artists working in ink and colours on paper and those painting in gold lacquer on a dark lacquered ground. In the case of the dragons painted on paper, each panel contains five dragons amongst clouds above rocks rising out of turbulent waves. Dragon are often depicted amongst clouds as it is said in the Book of Changes: ‘Clouds come from dragons, while wind comes from tigers’; the idea being that the breath of the dragons turns into clouds. The rock beneath the dragons, emerging from the waves, which is also seen on Qing dynasty imperial robes, provides a rebus for ‘may the kingdom be unified’ - shanhe yitong or jiangshan yitong. The waves symbolise a river - either he or jiang in Chinese - while the rock stands for a mountain - shan. They combine to give either jiangshan or shanhe, both of which refer to the lands of a kingdom. Thus the imperial dragon surveys his unified country.
The single dragons in roundels painted in lacquer on the other side of the screen appear to rise from the waves, in reference to the belief that the dragon rises from hibernation amongst the waves at the spring equinox in order to bring the rain needed to water the crops and ensure a bountiful harvest. The lacquer dragons are shown amongst clouds, like those painted on paper on the other side of the screen, but are also accompanied by a flaming pearl and emblems, such as coral, which is one of the Eight Treasures and a symbol of the first rank. In addition, sprays of the flowers representing the Four Seasons - peony, chrysanthemum, lotus and camellia are scattered amongst the clouds. The lacquer painting on these panels is exceptionally well executed in a style that was particularly admired by the Yongzheng emperor.5
The front of the screen has exquisite panels depicting flowers and rocks. The lower, fan-shaped, panels are worked in the finest kesi woven silk, while the rectangular upper panels are delicately painted on silk in a style reminiscent of the famous artist Yun Shouping (1633–1690). Yun Shouping, who was one of the ‘Six Masters’ of the early Qing dynasty is especially known for his delicate depictions of flowers, which he preferred to paint using the so-called ‘boneless’ style, without ink outlines. Many of the flowers contained in the panels on the current screen can also be seen on Yun Shouping’s Scroll of Flowers, now in the collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum, on his Hundred Flowers in the Style of Xu Chongsi sold by Christie’s in 2003 (see fig. 2),6 or among the flowers of Yun Shouping’s album of flowers in the collection of the Shanghai Museum. However, these exquisite flower paintings were not chosen for their beauty alone, but for their auspicious meanings.
Amongst the painted panels, for example, one includes a nandina plant with fluttering leaves and brilliant red berries, which in China is known as tianzhu or heavenly bamboo. It is often displayed at the New Year, but is also used for birthday greetings, since it is a rebus for ‘heaven’ and ‘to congratulate’. The red berries of the nandina are tianzhuzi and therefore symbolize the emperor, who is the Son of Heaven, tianzi. Sometimes nandina is shown with blossoming wax plum, but on this panel it appears in combination with plum blossom meihua, which is regarded as a harbinger of spring. The five petals of the plum blossom make it an auspicious plant since five is a sacred number in China. The five petals also suggest the Five Blessings of long life, health, wealth, love of virtue and a peaceful death. Thus a branch of plum blossom can represent the wish ‘May the blossoms bring you the Five Blessings’, which is an appropriate wish both the for New Year and also for a birthday.
Another of the painted panels is decorated with an attractive combination of peach blossom and white hydrangeas. The peach blossoms, taohua, which in this case have double petals, are symbols of both love and spring. The peach fruit is a symbol of longevity, while the multi-petalled peach flower is called the ‘immortal flower’, shenxianhua, also suggesting longevity. The white hydrangea has the common name of xiuqiu or ‘embroidered ball’ in China, but it is also known as Baxianhua ‘Eight Immortals flower’ (a name it shares with one of the varieties of viburnum). The emphasis of this decoration is therefore a wish for longevity. Another rectangular panel is painted with tree peonies and morning glory. The morning glory is a symbol of marital happiness. It is called labahua or qianniuhua in China. The latter name, which means ‘leading an ox’ derives from a legend that says that the seeds of the plant once cured a sick farmer of his illness, and he led his cattle into the field in order to give thanks to the plant which had saved his life. Thus it is associated with good health. The tree peony is known in China as the ‘king of flowers’ and is associated with royalty since it was grown in the imperial gardens as early as the Sui dynasty. It is also known as the ‘flower of riches and honours’. This panel therefore contains wishes for marital happiness, good health, riches and honours.
The painted panels naturally include two more of the most popular flowers - lotus and chrysanthemum. The painting of lotus flowers and leaves is especially fine, with charming details such as the browning and slightly insect-eaten look of the older leaves. Lotus is the flower which represents summer. It is an important symbol within Buddhism, providing the shape of thrones for Buddhist deities and being particularly associated with the Bodhisattva Guanyin. Lotus flowers are also symbols both of feminine beauty and of purity - the latter because the blossoms rise unsullied from the mud. The open seed pod of the lotus is also regarded as auspicious in China, symbolising the early arrival of children. One of the Chinese words for lotus is he, which is a homophone for the word for harmony, also he, and so provides a wish for harmony in a number of contexts, but particularly marriage.
Along with lotus, orchid and bamboo, the chrysanthemum is regarded as one of the ‘Four Gentlemen of Flowers’, and chrysanthemums also appear on one of the painted rectangular panels of the current screen. The admiration of chrysanthemums has a very long history in China, and they are even mentioned in the ancient Chinese classic work the Book of Odes. From the Eastern Jin period chrysanthemums have also been closely linked to the famous reclusive poet Tao Yuanming (AD 372-427), who is noted for his love of chrysanthemums and for references to them in his poetry. They have remained popular in art and literature ever since. Apart from its beauty, the chrysanthemum is valued for the fact that it blossoms at a time of year when most flowers fade with the onset of cold and frosty weather, and for the health-giving properties of infusions made with its petals. In the Han dynasty chrysanthemum wine was drunk on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month to promote longevity. Another reason that they are associated with longevity is because the word for chrysanthemum ju sounds similar to the word jiu, meaning ‘long enduring’. The chrysanthemum has thus become a symbol of longevity and good health, as well as being the flower representing autumn.
Chrysanthemums also feature amongst the flowers that appear in the in the beautiful fan-shaped silk kesi panels set below the painted rectangular panels. All the flowers on these kesi panels have also been chosen with care, for their auspicious meaning.
Another kesi panel has a design of daylilies. These flowers have a number of common names in China including wangyoucao ‘herb that dispels grief ’ and yi’nancao ‘boy-favouring herb’. It was believed that if a woman wore daylilies throughout her pregnancy, she would have a son. Thus, the daylily also represents many descendants. In addition it is a symbol of longevity and a metaphor for ‘mother’. In this panel the daylilies are shown with ornamental rocks. These two symbols combine to extend the auspicious wishes, as daylily and rock suggest the wish: yi’nan yishou ‘May you have sons and live long’, or xuanshou yanling ‘May the daylily and rock extend your years’.
Another popular flower, osmanthus, appears in one of the woven silk panels on this screen. The tiny flowers of the osmanthus, which come into blossom in autumn around the time of the Moon Festival, are very fragrant and are used to flavour both tea and wine. More significantly, osmanthus guihua provides a rebus for the Chinese word gui, meaning ‘noble’ or ‘distinguished’. This flower also suggests scholastic success, representing the passing of the civil service examinations at the highest level. Folklore suggests that Chang E on the moon presents such a successful scholar with a branch of osmanthus, hence the phrase changong zhegui ‘to pluck the guihua from the Moon Palace’. The inclusion of this flower usually implied a wish for sons who distinguished themselves through noble accomplishments.
A particularly attractive kesi panel depicts blossoming white magnolia and crab apple. The majestic white magnolia flowers are used to great effect by craftsmen in the Chinese decorative arts, and the flowers are emblems of purity. In Chinese they are often called either yulan ‘jade orchid’ or baiyulan ‘white jade orchid’. The white magnolia is therefore often used as a rebus for jade. Crab apple is haitang in Chinese, and thus combines with the white magnolia to provide a rebus for the Jade Hall yutang. This was an elegant way of referring to the Hanlin Academy, which was an institution of scholars who were responsible for both administrative and literary undertakings on behalf of the court. Thus, in addition to the suggestion of purity implicit in the white magnolia, the combination of these two flowers provide a wish for entrance to this revered academy.7
These, and all the other flowers included in the painted and woven silk panels on this splendid screen are not depicted merely for their delightful appearance, but also for their auspicious wishes. As with all aspects of this superb screen, the designs have been carefully selected, and have then been prepared by the most skilled artists in each field.
1 The Complete collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 54 - Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pp. 228-231, no. 196-7.
2 This throne was formerly in the Philippe Berthelot and Regency collections. It is illustrated by M. Beurdeley in Chinese Furniture, Tokyo/New York/San Francisco, 1979, p. 130, pl. 176 and subsequent colour detail.
3 Illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 36 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 8-9, no. 5.
4 An example from the collection of Sir Percival David is illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, London, 1992, p. 116, no. 126.
5 This is discussed by Zhu Jiajin, ‘Yongzheng Lacquerware in the Palace Museum, Beijing’ Orientations, March 1988, pp. 28-39.
6 Christie’s Hong Kong, Fine Classical Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, 6 July 2003, lot 2137.
7 For further discussion of flower symbolism see T. Tse Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, San Francisco, 2006.