This is an ambitious and utterly absorbing show, with superb loans drawn from a wide range of institutions, including several of the big American museums. It passes from Buddhist banners of the 9th century, through the exquisite landscapes of the Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279), through the flowering of artistic talent following the conquest of China by the Mongols, to the Ming (1368-1644) and beyond. The labels give translations of many verses featured in the works, and explanations of hidden meanings, particularly political and social content. A simple pair of doves by the 13th century scholar Qian Xuan is said to express the alienation he experienced during a time of political upheaval. The display includes many handscrolls, shown in full. They repay a slow and meticulous viewing. The bewilderingly detailed Prosperous Suzhou by Xu Yang, finished in 1759, took multiple painters three years to produce and was intended for posterity. Further highlights include the mesmerising Auspicious Cranes of Emperor Huizong, the Qiao Zhongchang scroll illustrating the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff by Su Shi, the wistful Winter Evening Landscape by Li Gongnian, and the controlled delicacy of Ni Zan's Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu. Amazing.
Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
26 October 2013 to 19 January 2014
Above: Qian Xuan (c.1235-before 1307), Doves and Pear Blossoms after Rain (detail). Handscroll, ink and colour on paper. Height 30.5cm; length 97.8cm. Cincinnati Art Museum. Image: Cincinnati Art Museum, at http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org/explore/collection/collections/?u=6041180
Below: Emperor Huizong (?) (1082-1135), Auspicious Cranes (detail). Album leaf mounted as hand scroll, ink and colour on silk. Height 51cm; length 138.2cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum. Image: V&A, at http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/masterpieces-of-chinese-painting/about-the-exhibition/
Below: Ni Zan (1306-74), Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Height 94.6cm; width 35.9cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, at http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections