Published: August 31, 2010
When the last emperor of China, Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924, the doors closed on a secluded compound of pavilions and gardens deep within the palace. Filled with exquisite objects personally commissioned by the Eighteenth Century Qianlong emperor for his personal enjoyment, the complex of lavish buildings and exquisite landscaping lay dormant for decades. Now for the first time, 90 objects of ceremony and leisure †murals, paintings, furniture, architectural and garden components, jades and cloisonné †will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum.
“The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City,” set to run from September 14 to January 9, will reveal the contemplative life and refined vision of one of history’s most influential rulers with artworks from one of the most magnificent places in the world.
A model of international cooperation, the exhibition was organized by PEM in partnership with the Palace Museum, Beijing, and in cooperation with World Monuments Fund (WMF). The exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Milwaukee Art Museum in 2011.
A jewel in the immense Forbidden City complex, the Qianlong Garden had remained untouched for more than 230 years when in 2001 the Palace Museum and WMF began the restoration of the 27 buildings, pavilions and outdoor elements, including ancient trees and rockeries.
Built when China was the largest and most prosperous nation in the world, the garden complex was part of the emperor’s ambitious commission undertaken in anticipation of his retirement. Buddhist shrines, open-air gazebos, sitting rooms, libraries, theaters and gardens were interspersed with bamboo groves and other natural arrangements. In the garden’s worlds within worlds, the Qianlong emperor would retreat from affairs of state and meditate in closeted niches, write poetry, study the classics and delight in his collection and artistic creations.
The exhibition includes a film and other interactive elements highlighting the conservation process undertaken by the Palace Museum and WMF, as well as the gifted artisans who restored the objects and architecture to their original condition. A computerized walk-through will offer visitors a vicarious experience of one of the principal structures, the Juanqinzhai building, conservation of which has just been completed. Museumgoers will be able to try their hand at calligraphy with a touch station that will lead them through the brush strokes.
The artworks crafted for the Qianlong emperor echoed and supported his dedication to Buddhist spiritual pursuits, Confucian morals, love of literature and reverence for nature.
A hanging Buddhist shrine painted on silk evokes a paradisiacal realm, radiant with color and glittering with gold. The work is a mandala, a Buddhist cosmogram depicting a portion of the universe with deities and other supernatural beings arranged in a ritually auspicious design that can aid the meditation of initiated worshippers. In an innovative combination of two- and three-dimensional formats, painted figures sit nestled in glass-covered insets, dotting the piece like set gemstones. The emperor, a devotee of a form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and Mongolia, is depicted in gold as the Bodhisattva Manjusri at the center.
The throne exemplifies the exceptional craftsmanship of artisans engaged by the emperor to furnish his private world. This piece was carved from zitan, a wood so hard and dense that it sinks in water. Techniques including gold painting on lacquer, bamboo thread marquetry, fine woodcarving and jade and hardstone inlay contributed to the elegant solidity of the piece, which likely took well over a year to complete.
An impressive sight for Buddhist devotees or art connoisseurs is the monumental jade and lacquer screen of 16 luohan, or enlightened beings –†the celebrated, quasi-legendary disciples of the Buddha. Each character is depicted in a surprisingly grotesque manner after an earlier painting by a master who saw them appear this way in a dream. Visually arresting in black and white, the reverse side of the screen is equally striking, with glorious botanical images painted in gold.
Also included in the exhibition is one of the rare extant examples of imperial trompe-l’oeil mural painting, a15-foot-wide work depicting women and children in a palace hall celebrating the New Year. The mural is one of only six such surviving Eighteenth Century works. Painted by Chinese court artists who had been trained by a European artist, the mural reflects a successful blending of European and Chinese traditions.
Other objects range from the quietly personal to the flamboyantly crafted and hued. Calligraphy written in the emperor’s own hand conveys a sense of his refined thinking and brush technique. Panels carved in semiprecious gemstone or rendered in brilliantly pigmented cloisonné are as vibrant and pleasing as the day they were created.
The Peabody Essex Museum is in East India Square. For information, 866-745-1876 or www.pem.org .
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