The art of tapestry is a form of loom weaving using discontinuous weft strands on a continuous warp. Embroidery, on the other hand, is the sewing patterns by needle on a fabric. Practiced around the world, the translation of painting and calligraphy into tapestry and embroidery, however, is a unique feature of East Asian art, appearing in China, Japan, and Korea. Historically, textiles for the most part were practical in nature but also had a decorative function. Around the time of the Six Dynasties period (220-589 CE) in China, though, examples of concrete imagery appear in textiles, and by the Song dynasty (960-1279) artisans transformed works of painting and calligraphy into tapestry and embroidery for aesthetic enjoyment. Over the following centuries, much effort was devoted to the development of sewing and weaving skills in conjunction with technical innovations. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), connoisseurs brought tapestry and embroidery to a peak of appreciation. They paid particular attention to the precise placement of silk strands, the use and arrangement of colors, and the dazzling appearance of silk textiles, claiming that “fine ones surpass even paintings.” Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645), known as the master of fine living in the late Ming dynasty, even asserted that collectors “must have at least one or two scrolls (of them) to complement their paintings.”
To reproduce the effect of painting and calligraphy in tapestry and embroidery is an extremely time-consuming process, “proceeding throughout the year to complete” and making this art form all the more precious. The collection of the National Palace Museum, deriving from the imperial holdings of the former Qing dynasty court, includes more than two hundred such exquisite textiles. This special exhibition focuses on those from the Ming and Qing dynasties in a variety of various subjects, including figural, religious, and bird-and-flower themes. Since the display period spans the period of Museum celebrations and the New Year, they are being presented in a sequence of three sections to illuminate the diverse range of painting and calligraphy in tapestry and embroidery. In addition to introducing such important late Chinese schools as Gu Family and Guangdong embroidery as well as court tapestries, the exhibition also for the first time features new additions to the collection on the manner of early Ming embroidery.
Tapestry and embroidery originally evolved as different crafts, but by the Ming and Qing dynasties they had matured to the point of being able to emulate, combine with, and even surpass painting and calligraphy, the three arts of tapestry, embroidery, and painting seamlessly fusing into one. This exhibition features a selection of fine tapestry and embroidery from the Museum collection to demonstrate the cross-disciplinary efforts of these art forms at the time as well as the unique skills that developed to create effects difficult to express in other media. In terms of cultural history, these works also express the interaction and exchange that took place between China and other areas in Asia, such as Tibet and Korea, during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Birthdays are important times of joy in life, and the Eight Immortals celebrating longevity, Dongfang Shuo snatching the peaches of immortality, and large “shou” characters of long life serve as classic subjects in the Chinese tradition to bless people in achieving this goal. The themes for the works of tapestry and embroidery chosen here, representing conventions familiar to many Chinese, were painstakingly made into beautiful textiles as exquisite gifts to bless for long life and celebrate birthdays.
Two works on the Eight Immortals in this section, one a tapestry and the other an embroidery, best illuminate the unique features of these two art forms. The silk tapestry on the Eight Immortals offering longevity features all the legendary immortal figures in one scroll, while the Gu Family embroidery of the Eight Immortals celebrating long life features an immortal in each of its panels, the set as a whole both decorative and majestic. A tapestry of Shen Zhou’s depiction of an immortal with a peach and another with peaches of immortality also include literati inscriptions harmonizing in praise that vividly exclaim the wonders of silk tapestry weaving.
Compared to the Eight Immortals and the story of Dongfang Shuo, the “shou” character of longevity is one of the most direct expressions for the idea of long life. In a tapestry hanging scroll of a large “shou” character from the Qianlong reign (1735-1796), each stroke in the vermilion “shou” character for longevity features a floral pattern of magnolia, peony, and hydrangea blossoms, forming an unexpected expressiveness that is a pleasure to behold. Tapestry techniques at this time had reached a pinnacle of achievement, leading to these major productions and also incorporating washes of the brush to create a smooth continuity within silk weaving.
The art of cultural appreciation reached a high point in the Ming dynasty, and the subject of literati enjoying antiquities became popular in painting. Likewise, various antiques and curios of the scholar’s desk also were objects of depiction in painting as well as other crafts. The set of embroideries on antiquities in this section imitates in each scroll vessels of all kinds with flowers delicately rendered in silk. Everything from ancient bronzes to jade cups, porcelains, and scrolls of painting and calligraphy as well as decorative furniture is shown. All of them appear refined and classical, worthy of closer examination. Besides emphasizing a scholarly atmosphere, the theme of antiques is also one that evolved into and combined with the custom of making offerings for the New Year. Narcissi and branches of plum blossoms were planted and arranged in bronzes and porcelains to serve as harbingers for the arrival of spring. Combined with firecrackers and “ruyi” scepters, such depictions suggest the festive air of the old bringing in an auspicious new year.
And in Korea, the subject of appreciating antiquities also emerged, but with a new twist. Not only did images of blossoms in vessels similar to New Year images appear, the theme of curio cabinets also became popular. Flourishing from the latter half of the eighteenth century, it was the fashion among all classes of society, from the imperial family down to commoners. Some works even employ “trompe l’oeil” techniques to create the illusion of depth, yielding a clear contrast with the Chinese embroidery on exhibit.
III. Creations from a Heavenly Loom
New acquisitions to the Museum collection include a group of embroideries on Tibetan Buddhist and Daoist subjects covering a range of subjects, including the Heavenly Guardian King, Manjusri Bodhisattva, and Daoist immortals exceptionally rendered in vivid colors. In the history of tapestry and embroidery, the earliest examples of imagery resulted from religious needs, and only later did works similar to painting and calligraphy emerge. The textiles here follow in this early tradition, the techniques used to produce them increasing in complexity to offer a glimpse at the beginnings of weaving images and texts in silk.
Although a set of Buddhist lohan (arhat) figures in embroidery here is a religious subject, the effect is quite different. The coloring is light and elegant with pleasing forms that reveal a strongly secular scholarly touch. The theme of lohans was quite popular at the time, the stitching here not very complicated. With only a few variations to the details of interest, perhaps the work was made quickly to accommodate the wider needs of the market. As with the set of panels for the Eight Immortals in the first section, the album here also follows the tradition of Gu Family embroidery. Whereas the former is skillfully rendered in detail, the latter focuses more on elegant appearance, demonstrating the effect of greater commercialization during the Ming and Qing dynasties as well as marketing strategies among workshops to meet the needs of clients.