Art and Politics: how close are they really?

Attending the new exhibition at the British Museum I was up for a few unexpected surprises. Ming, the 50 years that changed China is a stunning show. Created in cooperation with some of the world’s major collections of Chinese art, it shows the formative years of the classical period of Chinese art and culture: the Great Ming (1368-1644). But is it possible to put together a good exhibition on China without entering a mushy ground of politics? Especially if BP is the main sponsor?

Before entering the Museum I was given a leaflet which I stuck in my bag without even reading it. During the routine bag search the leaflet was dug out. ‘We don’t allow these in here Madam’ I was told. Oh dear, I had no idea I was just about to smuggle some suspicious materials into the British Museum! On my way out I picked up another leaflet just to see what the whole fuss was about. Apparently members of a dubious religious organisation are imprisoned and their organs are harvested by the Chinese authorities. All this seems like a strange way to express ones political or religious values, no wonder the Museum wants to make its neutral position crystal clear.

International crowd filling the showrooms.

The exhibition was absolutely packed. Not sure many viewers noticed the small note accompanying the main map of the Ming Empire which drew my attention: ‘The names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the British Museum’. This brought more confusion than clarification. 

Silk robes excavated from the tombs of Prince Huang of Lu and their Korean pattern. Originally bright yellow, the 400 year old garments faded, but we are still able to appreciate the intricate embroidery with images of five clawed dragons. By wearing yellow silk reserved for the imperial family, the prince emphasised that he is representing the imperial family outside the capital.

The level of objects presented at the exhibition as well as the content is outstanding. You can view the absolute highlights from the Palace Museum in Beijing and the like, alongside the objects excavated from the tombs of the Ming emperors and their closest family members. 

The traditional court nine tasselled crown worn by theprinces sent to the provinces. The item is in an almost pristine condition, only two of this kind survived till this day.

A separate section of the exhibition showed the worldwide reach of the Ming Empire: Chinese people and objects of art depicted in Middle Eastern manuscripts and Italian renaissance paintings. At the same time the Ming artists sought inspiration in different cultures by juxtaposing items of foreign make with their exact porcelain equivalents.

Everyday use objects from the Middle East and their blue and white China equivalents: inspirations travelled both ways enriching the worldwide artistic influences. 

On a less serious note- one of the real highlights was a group of cinnabar lacquer dishes with stamps assigning them to the Department of Sweetmeats and Delicacies

Despite the patronage of a company which lost its face and shady organisations trying to piggyback on the exhibitions publicity, the show is not one to be missed. Let’s not forget that it is what it is: art, and the individuals who created it have nothing to do with the mess we make of the contemporary world.