Thursday, 31 July 2014

Never mind all tea in China – the art's not bad either

Andrew Graham-Dixon gets up close to terracotta warriors
The older I get, the more I find myself wondering at just how many evenings I spent, in my youth, waiting to be entertained by the television: or rather, how our family entertainment/relaxation was dependent on the box in the corner.

These days, I tend to watch far less TV – sport is a rare exception and even that’s hardly a daily occurrence.

The disadvantage of this is that I have a tendency to miss things that I would enjoy, so it was with some relief that I discovered, in good time, that a new, three-part series from Andrew Graham-Dixon, on The Art of China, was due to begin last night on BBC4.

Three hours is hardly long to explore an art history of such a vast nation – a history that dates back, uninterrupted, many thousands of years – so Graham-Dixon picks threads and plots themes that allow him to create a remarkably coherent picture of a culture that few of us are very familiar with.

We’ve seen this approach before, in his excellent series on The Art of Germany, for instance, where the first episode had, as an umbrella idea, the importance of the forest in the German psyche.

It’s a recurring analysis that much art is concerned with the afterlife: in the German series, this found realisation in the extraordinary works of religious art, carved from the trees of those same forests.

In China, Graham-Dixon began by introducing us to the extraordinary, freestanding bronze sculptures from the city of Sanxingdui, which is in the south west of the country, in what is now Sichuan.

These artifacts were only uncovered by archeologists in 1987 and radiocarbon dating places them as coming from the 12th-11th centuries BCE. Now that’s old.

Bronze head from Sanxingdui
Many of the sculptures are heads, with protruding eyes and, in some cases, gold masks. There is also an astonishingly intricate and delicate sculpture of a tree, complete with birds.

Various theories abound, but it seems possible that these were linked to some form of worship or ritual, possibly connected to ancestors.

The works had to be pieced, painstakingly back together, after being found, smashed, in two pits.

It all adds to the fascination: not only is this a question of why they were made, but also of why they were destroyed.

The theme continued with a visit to Mr Yang’s Emporium, where the eponymous Mr Yang creates card and paper models for people to burn as tributes to the dead.

However old such an idea might be, the subjects of the tributes were not, with Graham-Dixon showing us a computer on a desk and a Mercedes, although he found a cardboard cow, complete with udder, rather more amusing.

But while the programme branched off into looking at the written Chinese language – it’s the one remaining hieroglyphic language in the world – and explaining some of those hieroglyphs, it returned to the theme of people’s relationship with the afterlife when Graham-Dixon went to look at the Terracotta Army.

Bronze tree from Sanxingdui
It’s incredible to think that they were only legend until being first unearthed as recently as 1974, and that the 8,000 figures are only from a small part of a vast, 22-square-mile site, which could take as long as another century to be fully excavated.

Graham-Dixon was allowed to walk among the figures, which gave him the opportunity to show us how each one was an individual and how they also reflected the ethnic diversity of the realm of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BCE).

Looking inside the lower body of one, he was able to point out where the fingers of its maker had pulled up the clay. And on another, where the maker had first made his mark – and then the supervisor had stamped it.

And it was a wonderful description when, looking over the vast building that now houses them, he described it as being “like King’s Cross!” before adding: “Here they are. The imperial guard, the Terracotta Army lined up for all time like commuters waiting to travel into eternity.”

Less familiar, but even more extraordinary, he asserted, is the Qin bronze chariot, which was also found in the site and is formed of more than 3,000 bronze pieces.

But what is just as fascinating about the Terracotta Army as its scale and the skill involved in creating it, is the probable influence of art from further west – in particular, art that more realistically portrayed the human face.

How would that influence have found its way to China? That was where the Silk Road came into the picture.

This trading route – incredibly dangerous in places – provided a way both in and out of China.

Wu Zetian as a Buddha
And along part of it stands the labyrinthine Buddhist cave complex at Dunhuang.

Carved right into rocky cliffs, the individual chapels are decorated lavishly with Buddhist images, including a vast statue of a female Buddha, which is said to represent Wu Zetian (624-705 CE), China’s first female ruler.

She was a great patron of Buddhism – a religion that had been imported to the country from India.

The first programme was, all in all, a fascinating look at the art of China.

Graham-Dixon has the gift of being able to make things approachable and easy to grasp without ever dumbing down.

And the way in which he introduces themes is never forced, but leaves the viewer with more than enough to actually consider well after the closing titles have concluded.

There’s plenty of time to catch up with the first episode – it’s available now on iPlayer – but this bodes very well for two further weeks of seriously good, grown-up and intelligent telly.

You can find out more about the series at the programme’s dedicated website.

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