In the Garden of Satisfaction The Chinese Painting Collection at the Museum Angewandte Kunst

23 March – 14 July 2024

In the 6th century, the Chinese scholar Xie He formulated the first of his “Six Rules” that painting must fulfill: “In the resonance of spiritual energy dynamic life may arise” – qiyun shengdong 氣韻生動. Where this “reflex of the spiritual” was missing, Xie He wrote, a painting was not worth looking at. The spiritual dynamism of art that is invoked here is undoubtedly a central idea that has shaped Chinese painting for centuries. The creation of such a work of art is often processual, and often extraordinarily complex: a painter, in the presence of his friends, composes e.g. a mountain landscape with a scholar’s hermitage on a piece of paper. Often this happens in a rather rapid process with a brush and ink. Later, the painter himself, his friends, collectors and/or later viewers of the painting formulate their comments, either on the painting itself or in inscriptions that follow the actual composition when a handscroll is opened – the work of art thus becomes an interactive process that can even last for centuries.

Other paintings are more restricted to the action of a single artist. They are created in a few moments, are perhaps only provided with an artist’s signature and a seal – or not even this. These works are nevertheless hardly less fascinating to the viewer. They captivate with their immediate, emotional expression, a spontaneous gesture that in its own way makes one feel the vibrant spiritual energy that Xie He spoke of a millennium and a half ago.

Chinese painting has many faces: landscapes, religious and mythological subjects, genre scenes or portraits. For a long time, a distinction has been made between commissioned works executed by professional painters and those created by educated “amateurs”, which have always been held in far higher esteem than the former. These “literati paintings” have many manifestations, but are basically characterised by a remarkable continuity and a restrained, quiet language. Not infrequently, color is dispensed with completely, and the world appears in them solely in delicate traces of ink. For the viewer, such works offer great challenges. And so it is hardly surprising that, unlike e.g. Chinese porcelain, paintings from China only found their way into Western collections much later and to a far lesser extent.

At the Museum Angewandte Kunst, which has an extensive Asian collection dating back to the late 19th century, Chinese painting remained a niche topic for a long time. Nevertheless, around sixty works, some of which are highly significant, are now part of the museum’s collection. Due to their sensitivity to light, they are only shown on rare occasions and for a limited time. From 2020, these exhibits were scientifically analysed in a multi-year research project. To mark the completion of the project, the previously largely unknown collection of Chinese paintings will be presented in an exhibition at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in 2024. At the same time, all works will be made accessible to the public with precise descriptions, transcriptions and translations of all inscriptions in the new collection module on the museum website. This will allow the quiet and multi-layered language of these works of art to be fully experienced.

Curator: Dr Stephan von der Schulenburg

Academic exhibition catalogue available for download here.
Magazine accompanying the exhibition for download here.