Published: October 12, 2010
Hidden deep within the Forbidden City in Beijing where few eyes ever beheld them, exquisite treasures gathered by the Eighteenth Century Chinese Qianlong emperor reveal a ruler of unsurpassed sensibility and stunning accomplishments.
Over the course of his 60-year reign, October 1735 to February 1796, the Qianlong emperor changed the face of China as he expanded its borders by millions of square miles. His reign represented the apex of Chinese power †militarily, commercially, agriculturally and culturally; he was the most powerful ruler of the time, outflanking Louis XV and Louis XVI in every way, including happy endings.
Artistry and craftsmanship achieved an all-time brilliance in China, particularly within the walls of the Forbidden City. Home of the Ming and Qing emperors, it was built between 1406 and 1420 and remained in use until 1924 when the last emperor, Puyi, went into exile.
Between 1771 and 1776 the Qianlong emperor created the Palace of Tranquil Longevity garden, known as the Qianlong Garden, as a small and secluded complex. A scholar, a connoisseur and a Buddhist, he intended the garden as a private sanctuary for his own contemplation and self-cultivation in retirement.
The Qianlong Garden represents the pinnacle of the emperor’s artistic contributions and is considered the most beautiful and historically significant space within the Forbidden City. After the emperor’s death in 1799, it was left untouched in accordance with his edict that the garden be preserved as part of a palace for future emperors who retired. Its remote location protected it from the vicissitudes of war and political upheaval and it came to be used as closed storage.
Now, in a remarkable ten-year collaboration between the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the Palace Museum, Beijing, the Qianlong Garden will resume its prior glory. The project, which involves the restoration of buildings, pavilions, ancient trees and rockeries, is but one aspect of a monumental conservation of the entire Forbidden City by the two entities that will be complete in 2019.
By the time the project is complete, notes Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art and culture at the Peabody Essex Museum, it will be time to start again. The benefit to American eyes: the new exhibit, “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City,” is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Ninety historic cultural heritage objects and interiors, unseen by anyone outside the Forbidden City until now, make their first public appearance in the United States at the Peabody Essex Museum. The works are from the emperor’s personal collection in his sanctuary and most were made in the imperial workshops. Others were designed in the imperial workshops and sent south to Yangzhou for execution from models by artisans there. These objects, paintings, porcelain, metals, furniture and furnishings all exhibit the best possible use of pre-industrial age craftsmanship. They are the best of the best.
The finest paintings and murals, furniture and jades on view were chosen from the thousands upon thousands of objects in the Emperor’s Garden to illustrate the extraordinary range of materials and the techniques used to create them. Selected to reflect the pursuits and interests of the Qianlong emperor within the splendor of the garden, the objects also suggest his abiding fascination with European aesthetics and technology. On another level, these objects and interiors emphasize the complexity of the conservation and restoration processes †and what is revealed by them.
Berliner is also a consultant to the WMF, and her connections with the top art historians in Beijing, which she regards as a second home, facilitated the historic exhibit. She went to Beijing in 1982 to study at the Central Academy of Art and established relationships with curators and historians, including some who lived in the Forbidden City.
Berliner’s prior coup of bringing the Eighteenth Century Yin Yu Tang house to the Peabody Essex was another factor in the Chinese and WMF officials relying on her counsel. Henry Tzu Ng, vice president of the World Monuments Fund, said in remarks during a show preview that Berliner and the Peabody Essex Museum were the only choice for the opening venue in the United States.
When she speaks of her first visit to the Qianlong Garden, Berliner says, “It felt like a place that had been asleep for 100 years.” She makes it sound magical, describing the interior of the compound as “quiet, with elaborate rockeries that feel like mountains, with tunnels and grottoes amid the vegetation.” The buildings are small and intimate, but with the most luxurious decoration. The objects within are simply splendid.
At around 6,400 square feet and housing 27 pavilions and pagodas, the Palace of Tranquil Longevity occupies a very small corner of the more than 7.8 million-square-foot Forbidden City. Its buildings represent a tiny percentage of the area, which numbers 800 or 980 buildings and 8,707 rooms (although the official number is the auspicious 9,999.)
The Qianlong emperor was endowed with a highly refined aesthetic and a high moral sense; he was a devout Tibetan-style Buddhist. He retreated to the solitude of the Qianlong Garden where he spent time practicing calligraphy, writing poetry and in contemplation and connoisseurship.
The pathways and chambers within the emperor’s garden differ from the formality of much of the Forbidden City by their harmonic flow. They were laid out to accommodate one person, designed as a sanctuary “to cultivate the self and please the heart.”
The entire garden is layered carefully, interweaving art, architecture and landscape, blending symmetry with irregularity, the natural with the artificial and the subtle and the bold, achieving a pervasive harmony. Towering rockeries and trees recreate mountainous terrain, the traditional home of the Immortals.
Furnishings and objets d’art have come to the United States and are installed in the galleries with architectural and other elements that replicate the sensations of the emperor’s garden. Imperial yellow and vermillion have been used throughout, doorways that accommodate one person at a time lead to narrow pathways bordered by rockeries †all convey the measured pace of the garden, slowing the visitor to absorb the details.
The exhibit is a succession of surprises, promises Nancy Berliner; the juxtaposition of the sublimely simple with fantastic detail reveals much about the Chinese aesthetic.
Three thrones have traveled to the United States. One is made with panels of glass imported from Europe by the emperor and set between jade and stone carvings of blossoms and branches. So dirty was it when it was discovered that it was assumed to have been made of slate. Glass was a western innovation imported to China under the Qianlong emperor and was regarded as a highly precious material.
A second throne, a carved wooden example, is decorated with bamboo thread marquetry, gold paintings and a jade inlay. When it came time to restore the marquetry, He Fuli, an elderly craftsman from Zhejiang Province, was located. He traveled to Beijing to assist the process and to teach other artisans the art of bamboo thread restoration.
A third example, made of zitan, the most precious and probably the hardest and densest wood from ancient trees and once reserved for imperial use only, is decorated with gold painting on lacquer, bamboo thread marquetry and inlay of jade and precious stones. It is estimated that it would have taken a year to make the piece.
A hanging Buddhist thangka painted on silk is innovative for the two- and three-dimensional deities set within circular clay niches beneath individual glass domes. The emperor is depicted in a central niche as the Bodhisattva Manjusri. The piece is a mandala, a Buddhist depiction of the arranged universe that is used in meditation.
Several calligraphic works hand painted by the emperor, well known for his wit and love of the arts, have been restored and hung. The Qianlong emperor was prolific; he wrote some 40,000 poems. His calligraphy was exceptional. One large example of a couplet is on view.
The emperor was much taken by the European sensibility and aesthetic innovations and was particularly fascinated by the European three-point perspective. In decorating the Qianlong Garden, he commissioned Chinese court artists trained in the genre by European artists to create the trompe l’oeil painted silk murals that produce a gardenlike setting. A ceiling mural replicates a bamboo trellis of trailing wisteria, which heightens the aspect of solitude.
One 15-foot trompe l’oeil mural, one of six that survive, is on view. The emperor is seated in a root throne surrounded by frolicking children and attentive attendants celebrating the New Year with fireworks. One of the other examples, an interior scene, will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the murals are too fragile for prolonged exposure.
A theater in the emperor’s garden was designed to be enjoyed by one person only, with a second seat above stairs for a different perspective rather than to accommodate another person; it is accessible through a secret door hidden in a mirror in the emperor’s bedroom. Since the pavilion itself remains in Beijing, true-to-life murals of it have been created and are on view.
Berliner hopes that visitors to the exhibit will come away with a sense of the inventiveness of the Qianlong emperor’s aesthetic and a delight in that aesthetic. She also hopes that visitors will come to understand his underlying belief system and moral values, gaining a sense of the integration of nature and art.
Passing by a hanging shrine in the exhibit, she points to a paper label on the side of the frame. She explains that is part of the cultural heritage as it dates from 1912 when the last Qianlong emperor abdicated and the earliest inventory was made. The paper label has become part of the history of the object.
Organized by a partnership of the Palace Museum, Beijing, with World Monuments Fund, and the Peabody Essex Museum, “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City” remains on view through January 11. The exhibition catalog The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City by Berliner with Mark C. Elliott and Liu Chang, Yuan Hongqi and Henry Tzu Ng will be published by the Peabody Essex Museum and Yale University Press.
“The Emperor’s Private Paradise” will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the Milwaukee Art Museum before returning to China. The entire Forbidden City will reopen on completion of the restoration in 2019.
The Peabody Essex Museum is at East India Square, Salem, Mass. For information, www.pem.org or 978-745-9500.
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