Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Hanging paintings, one of 4 leisure activities

A poem by emperor Song Huizong under a painting of two birds on a blossoming wax plum

Tao Qian admiring chrysanthemums, Zhao Lingrang
Last October, I visited the National Palace Museum with my tea classmates to see the exhibition 'Four leisure activities : arranging flowers, burning incense, hanging paintings, tasting tea.' These were the top four leisure activities of the Song dynasty, around the 12th century. (Today, it would be luxury tourism, fast cars, modern art and fine wine?) The concept of the exhibition was interesting: combining 4 leisure activities that were centered on beauty, elegance and a deeper meaning. The connection of arranging flowers, incense burning and tasting tea is ceramics! It was used to make vases, incense burners and tea ware! And these wares were often depicted in the paintings of the time: In Zhao Lingrang's painting we can see two people drinking tea next to a vase while admiring the flowers from their pavilion. The scent of incense would echo the scents of flowers and of tea. The painting would try to capture not reality, but the spirit, the essence of these beautiful activities and convey their symbolical meaning. 

In the case of the first picture, the meaning of two white head birds cuddling on a plum blossom branch is quite obvious: it's the hope of aging (a thousand autumns, as the poem says) together with your love. Plum blossoms are particularly fitting, because they symbolize winter and the capacity of old people to 'blossom', to give their best in this final season in the cycle of life.

This exhibition about paintings and tea felt interesting for me, because of the construction of a new building just across the street. My tea room's view is about to be blocked forever and I won't be able to enjoy the panoramic city view I used to have.

So, at first, I thought I'd get some scrolls from the National Palace Museum for my tea room. After the exhibition, I headed to the museum's gift shop and was surprised by the high prices for the reproduction of their masterpieces. And I was even more surprised when I saw their quotes for turning these simple posters into scrolls! This didn't make sense.

My dear wife came up with a fantastic solution: select and purchase works from living Chinese artists and have them turned into scrolls by a craftsman her family has known for over 20 years. The result feels more alive and real, because these works are originals and not copies. These artists are not Picasso or Zhang DaQian, but they are Chinese painting professors and professionals in their 40s to 60s and their works do a good job of being peaceful to look at and conveying meaning through their symbolism.

They bring harmony to the tea session and help lift our gaze from below to the higher realms!

Here are the 4 noble plants representing the 4 seasons and virtuous character. It starts with the plum blossom

Then the orchid

Then bamboo:

And chrysanthemum:

Here we have a painting dedicated to spring. Notice how our 2 birds are young and flying in the air!

And the largest painting is in the style of Mountains and rivers:

With these pictures of nature, my mind can now escape the city that is growing higher. And the flavors of tea also help to transport myself to the tea mountains where the leaves grow! These moments of visual peace and liquid bliss add meaning and depth to my daily tea practice. Maybe such paintings will also inspire you to add your own art to enhance your tea!

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