AGGV: Silk Splendour

Working in an art gallery sure has its perks.  One perk is the great pick-up lines that make me look sophisticated and suave.  The other is being able to attend curator tours around the exhibitions that would normally be private or expensive.

As a history student I am quite fascinated by art.  Art, and other forms of recording, is at the same time a depiction of history and history itself.  Yes, many works of art are fiction or imaginary, but they still represent the ideas and styles of their era or location and are themselves fixed to the time they were created.  My interest in history allows me to see, or at least search for, the wider context behind the art – when was it created, what does it represent, what does it say of the times, etc.

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has an historical exhibition going for the summer which is right up my alley.  Silk Splendour: Textiles of Late Imperial China (1644-1911), curated by the Gallery’s own Curator of Asian Art Barry Till, features works of silk from the Qing Dynasty.  Elements of the Gallery’s own extensive collection were bolstered by a large donation from the estate of Helen Jahnke (through the Council for Canadian American Relations) to create the exhibition.

AGGV East Asian Art Curator Barry Till talks about the style changes the Manchus brought to China during the Qing dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty ruled as outsiders who became more Chinese than the Chinese.  Coming from Manchuria, the Manchu’s changed little in the way of governance, but did change the dress to distinguish themselves from the previous rulers.  The Chinese pigtail was introduced and the clothing was influenced by the nomadic, horse-ridding Manchu’s.  Longer arms used for gloves while still holding reins came from the horse culture and buttons were brought under the arm in a stylistic change.

One of Silk Splendour’s Qing dynasty-era garments.

What the Manchu’s changed the most was China’s place in the world.  China’s population, land, and economy blossomed under the foreign rulers in what became known as the “pure” dynasty, but the West was ignored.  Europe was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.  Weapons were not the only things changing in Europe, and soon China was outmatched in almost every regard, except silk production.  As Western nations began encroaching on China’s sovereignty, society and politics began breaking apart and indirectly resulted in the Gallery being able to show so many excellent quality textiles.

You see, in Imperial China rank was important, and showing it off even more so.  When things were going great, the Emperor was symbolized by a five-clawed dragon, at times having nine dragons on one garment.  Officials representing him could also wear dragons, and other officials’ ranks were symbolized by other animals (birds for civic officials for example) and their families could also wear these ranks on “Manchurian Squares” sewn onto their clothing.

The Gallery has a great example of this rank system in a painting of a man wearing his badge on his chest, but the painting is even more important because it is in oils and with a western perspective, meaning it was either painted by a Westerner or a Chinese trained in post-Enlightenment techniques.  Today, after smoothing the cracks resulting from being stored rolled up for a century, it is worth around $100,000.

As society’s structure fell, more and more people began cheating and wearing higher rank badges.  The Chinese, after having a monopoly on silk production for over 3,000 years and who could never be topped in quality or production time, began trading their garments for western clothing, and when the dynasty finally fell in 1911 the nation switched to Western dress.

Silk was an important textile material.  Made from the silk worm and available only in China until Byzantium monks smuggled some worms out in the 6thCentury AD, silk is lightweight, cool in the summers and warm in the winters, naturally strong, and easy to dye.  Genghis Khan wore silk robes under his leather armour for comfort and protection, as an arrow shot at a loose piece of silk will twist and push but not pierce the cloth. 

Barry Till explains the Partheon Shot shown in this cut silk tapestry brought from China in the 18th Century by a British envoy.

This is one of the main reasons credited for the Mongol success in Europe – along with the tactic of using a Partheon Shot (riding away from a target, drawing them in by feigning a retreat, and then shooting backwards) which was only made possible by the Manchu-styled clothing.

All silk in China was handmade and could take up to 30 months to make a garment for the Emperor.  The industry around the Emperor’s new clothes was massive as he would only wear each piece once or twice.  Silk Splendour has some excellent examples of unfinished silk garments likely from the Emperor’s factories.

Curator Barry Till answers a question while standing near platform shoes – designed to give Western women a bound-foot gait!

The beauty of Chinese silk is evident today, with the colours changing in the light and the minute damask details unrivalled by modern sewing techniques.  Foreign women arriving in China wanted what the Chinese were wearing and went as far as wearing platform shoes to imitate the crippled gait of Chinese bound feet. 

These women saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese garments from destruction by bringing them back to the West.

The Gallery has one such item, brought back from China as a costume and worn by the Mrs. Ross (of The Butchart Gardens fame) on a cross-Atlantic voyage in the 1920s.  Her costume was envied (and likely worn) by Charlie Chaplin, a fellow passenger, during a party onboard.  A stain at the back, not visible to visitors, confirms the likelihood of this story.

The Gallery also has an informal Chinese-style dress made in the 1920s for the last Empress of China.  Wan Rang (1906-1946) married the Emperor’s son, who had been exiled in 1911 as a young boy, when she was 17 and was with him when the Imperial Japanese Army reinstated him in Manchukuo (Manchuria’s new name under Japanese annexation) in 1933.  The Emperor and his wife were executed for war crimes by the Chinese after the war and the Chinese don’t consider him to be the last Emperor of China.  They never had children and were the end of the Chinese Imperial family.

As you can tell, there are plenty of things for a history student to learn even in an art gallery!  I was fascinated by the tour Barry Till gave (and I hope I remembered all the stories correctly) and look forward to spending more time in that exhibition.  Silk Splendour runs at the Gallery until September 23.  Barry will be leading a Gallery-sponsored tour through South East Asia in November, and I’m currently trying to convince him he needs an intern to accompany him…

Next time…William Kurelek comes to the AGGV!

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