This piece is an excerpt from an ink on silk scroll painting called the Admonitions of the Court Instructress to the Court Ladies which is attributed to work by artist Gu Kaizhi (345-406 CE). The selection is referred to as the rejection scene where an emperor turns down the approaches of a beautiful maiden who is too secure in her own beauty. The painting is believed to be a copy made between the 6th-8th century CE in China during the Tang Dynasty. Admonitions was a collection of scenes that shared stories believed to be intended as parodies that criticized the behavior of an empress.
Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies is comprised of a total on nine scenes, but the first two scenes of the scroll are missing along with the text that accompanied it [see The British Museum]. Scholars have been unable to pinpoint exactly when the painting was made and by who. The inscriptions and seals found on the scroll indicate that it dates back to 8th century CE when it was believed to have copied Gu Kaizhi's original. The common belief is that the painting is a freehand from Pre-Tang or early Tang period (618-906) [see Hwan 2001, 97]. The scroll is made of silk and uses fine linear style of brush strokes typical of of Gu Kaizhi's time. The ink technique of gossamerlike ink-outline found in Admonitions is similar to the traditional style of Kaizhi, but includes more modern shading effects found during the Tang dynasty art. Kaizhi's renowned ink-outline technique was used as a method "to bring his sunject to life through profound identification with the spirit and character of the figure portrayed" [see McCausland 2005, 691]. Having a character's "spirit",or "shen", in the painting was of great importance to Kaizhi. The Tang technique of ink lines incorporated this as well, but relied on more controlled brush work.
Before Admonitions became a part of the British Museum, the scroll was passed down to through many owners. One of the most prominent was Manchu Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-95) who acquired it in 1746. Before 1746, the painting belonged to connoisseurs who added their personal seals and inscriptions when it came into their possession. These seals and inscriptions are some of the only evidence used to date the painting or indicate previous ownership.
Local Historical Context:
Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies' origins were based off of a political parody by Zhang Hua(232-300 CE). Hua used the parody as a means to criticize and express his Confucian beliefs in regards to feminine etiquette. The Admonitions used the Instructress as the protagonist of the composition who helped instruct the ladies in court on correct behavior. During the time this parody was written, China was in a decentralized state. China suffered from short lived regimes to outside nomadic invaders' attacks. Scholars view Admonitions as "a form of political engagement: one moment an expression of the civilizing influence of the Confucian state, and the next, a symbol of dissent"[see Hwan 2001,97]. It is believed that Admonitions directly addressed and attempted to correct the notorious Empress Jia's abuses of power. Gu Kaizhi's painting based the illustrations and calligraphy work on Hua's parody.
The reason for the creation of the copy of Admonitions is unknown. However, the events before and around its creation could have led to its renewal. Around the time the Admonitions copy was made, Tang China developed a successful government and administration based on the Sui model [see Britannica]. This led to a thriving cultural developments and the beginnings of a golden age. Before the peak of the golden age in the 8th century, an empress named Wu Zhao gained power. She gained her position as empress through intrigue and strenghtened her role by expanding the bureaucracy when Gaozong emperor (r. 649-683) became ill. Wu Zhao's reign was ruthless and resulted in the persecution of members of the aristocracy. Her tyranny parralled that of Empress Jia. After Wu Zhao was forced to abdicate, the aritocracy was restored and initiated the reform that led to the golden age. Artists during this golden age reinterpreted previous interpretations of images and artforms according to the views at the time [see Qiang 2008, 97].
Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies is referred to as "one of the treasures in the British Museum" and one of the most famous Chinese art pieces [see McClausland 2005,688]. It is considered one of the oldest surviving Chinese paintings and a masterpiece attributed to Gu Kaizhi, who is esteemed as the "the founding father of Chines figure painting"[see McCausland 2005,688]. The use of shading in Admonitions is viewed as the precedent for painting sophistication in art history. The portraiture of the Tang period, that is found in Admonitions, is viewed as one of "full maturity and basic achievement which could serve as the starting position and classic standard not only for future developments in China but also Korea and Japan" [see Seckel 1993,21]. This has led to copies of the 8th century Admonitions piece during the late 12th century from China's Song Dynasty and in the 20th century by Japenese artists. The flourishing art and culture at the height of the Tang Dynasty became a model for the world to follow in years to come.
The uncertainity of date, author, and true purpose for Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies has led to much debate and scruntiny of the painting. Art historians today are still analyzing and debating over the piece to make more sense out of its existence.
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McCausland, Shane. "Nihonga Meets Gu Kaizhi: A Japanese Copy of a Chinese Painting in the British Museum." Art Bulletin 87, no. 4 (December 2005): 688. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2011).
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