Lingnan School paintings at the Ashmolean

Kapok Flower

Chinese paintings from the Lingnan region can be seen at the Ashmolean until later this month.  “Lingnan” refers to Cantonese-speaking south China, including Guangdong and Hong Kong.  In the early 20th century, the Lingnan School sought to innovate and experiment, not always following the existing practices of traditional Chinese painting.

The three artists leading the movement were from Guangdong: two brothers, Gao Jianfu (1879-1951) and Gao Qifeng (1889-1933), and their friend Chen Shuren (1884-1948).  All three spent time studying painting in Japan, where they took inspiration from Japanese painters who had adopted more Western styles.  Their approach drew criticism from more traditional artists.

The display presents works by the “Three Masters”, their followers and other artists.  The challenge with this material seems to be around communicating both that there is an artistic lineage (suggesting similarity) and that the output is extremely varied (suggesting difference).  In my mind, variety won the day – variety of formats, styles and subjects, from figure painting and flower painting to landscapes and calligraphy.

Among the more modern pieces is Kapok Flower by Zhao Shao’ang (1905-1998), who studied under Gao Qifeng.  The brilliant colour and bold fluidity of the brushwork make this hugely appealing.

Lingnan Masters: South Chinese Painting in Transition
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
29 November 2013 to 23 February 2014

There is an online version of the exhibition.

Above: Zhao Shao’ang, Kapok Flower, 1978. Ink and colour on paper. Height: 29.4cm; width: 37.8cm. Ashmolean Museum. Image: artist’s estate, at

Japanese books at the Brunei Gallery

The Brunei Gallery, based on the SOAS campus, is showing a fascinating array of Japanese texts – printed, calligraphic, illustrated – lent by Tenri Central Library, Japan.  The Edo period (1603-1868) feels especially well-represented but not to the exclusion of more ancient or modern works: from the 12th century, a series of stamped Buddha images with a handwritten note dating them to 1162; from the 20th, a series of waka poems by the woman poet Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), inspired by the Tale of Genji and executed in elegant calligraphy on 54 sheets of coloured paper.  I was very taken with the first Japanese scientific text on snowflakes, the Sekka Zusetsu of Doi Toshitsura (1789-1848), who studied the crystals under his western microscope.  I was charmed too by the very rare akakohon, miniature printed books containing children’s folktales for use at Hinamatsuri (the Girls’ or Doll’s Festival in March).  A scholarly treat.

1000 Years of the Art of Japanese Books
The Brunei Gallery, London
18 April to 22 June 2013