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The Emperor’s Private Paradise:
Treasures From The Forbidden City

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Plum Blossom Panel

When I visited The Forbidden City, over 20 years ago, large sections of the grounds were out-of-bounds because, due to civil war and a lack of funds, they had yet to be restored. That included a two-acre site in the northeast section of the vast compound, Qianlong Garden, built by Emperor Qianlong (in power from 1736 to 1795) to serve as his retirement complex. The site lay dormant until 2001 when two major institutions, the Palace Museum in Beijing and World Monuments Fund, began a collaborative project to restore it to its 18th Century glory. Like Cinderella it has reawakened and, for a short time, we are among the beneficiaries.

The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in partnership with the Palace Museum in Beijing, and the World Monuments Fund, offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a range of art works from Qianlong Garden — murals, furniture, inlaid panels, architectural elements, Buddhist icons, and decorative pieces – before they are permanently reinstalled in the Forbidden City.

Partition: Zitan, bamboo and painted glass

This is one of those exhibitions where a bit of historical background and close reading of wall texts are essential. The more one understands the cultural history and traditions of China as well as the artistic achievements and ambitions of Emperor Qianlong, the more one can appreciate the extraordinary level of sophistication and cross-cultural currents embodied in the 90 objects on view.

Emperor Qianlong: Formal Portrait, 81 years old

During Qianlong’s reign, which paralleled that of George Washington, 18th Century China was the world’s largest and richest civilization. With money no object, the finest artisans — using precious metals and complex artistic techniques – created exquisite objects to satisfy and indulge the Emperor’s refined, lavish and cosmopolitan taste.

Panel: Wood, lacquer, jade, semi-precious stones and glass

Three-dimensional Mandala made of cloisonné

The Emperor was a devout Buddhist, a highly trained calligrapher and prolific poet. His retreat reflects all his aesthetic and religious passions. Among the 27 buildings and pavilions, there are gardens, walkways and rookeries for meditation. Calligraphy and poetry are embedded on the walls, in architectural details and in images of the Emperor. He viewed his retreat as a metaphor for his well-ordered realm.

Statues of Amitabha and Stand

Though aware of and engaged with the West, Emperor Qianlong turned his back on trade with Europe, believing China had nothing to gain from the exchange. But through a Jesuit missionary and painter, Giuseppe Castiglione, Chinese artists learned and incorporated Western artistic techniques of perspective and chiaroscuro as well as trompe l’oeil into their work. The Emperor appreciated foreign technologies and techniques including mechanical clocks, enamels, Japanese-style lacquer, and tricks of illusion. For example, in a two-story theatre built for an audience of one, he installed a trompe-l’oeil mural of a summer garden at the end of a real garden.

Wall Clock With Two Faces

Table Screen

Emperor Qianlong reigned for 60 years. Like so many autocrats, he never actually retired, but his “private paradise,” untouched since imperial times, remains a time capsule of 18th century Chinese culture during one of its most extravagant eras of artistic achievement.

The best place to start the Exhibition is with the six-minute virtual reality screen tour. Then go back to the first rooms that display, among other wonders, an enormous screen of 16 Double-Sided Panels, a gift to the Emperor. One side (hidden until its recent restoration) portrays scenes of nature rendered in gold paint. The other side depicts a series of Buddhist wise men (who look astonishingly modern) in lacquer and white jade.

Screen of 16 Double-Sided Panels: A Gift to the Emperor

Complementing this Exhibition are two installations drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s holdings of Qing court art. It includes an eye-popping collection of theatrical costumes, lacquers, ivories, jades, porcelains and other works created for use within the imperial districts. Do not miss taking an elevator to the Third Floor, a quasi-secret series of rooms that hold some extraordinarily beautiful pieces.

A number of educational programs are being organized to coincide with the Exhibition. This Saturday, February 6th, a museum-wide all-day celebration of Chinese Lunar New Year will take place. On Sunday, February 6, a subscription event lecture program will feature best-selling author Amy Tan, and films about the Forbidden City. On March 10th at 6:30, Amy Tan and Maxwell Hearn, curator of The Exhibition, will discuss the uses of the past in the creative process. The evening is titled, “Where Truth and Fiction Merge: The Artistic Worlds of Amy Tan and the Qianlong Emperor.

Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Curator of Asian Art

The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City
Metropolitan Museum of Art, through May 1, 2011

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