Friday, 24 June 2011

The Art of Serendipity: Vermilion Ink by David Su Li-Qun and Diana Gore

Earlier in the year, I was asked to review a book about an Italian Jesuit, Guiseppe Castiglione, who was a court artist in eighteenth century China. I was a bit daunted, because my recent reviewing had been restricted to short story collections and plays. However, I really liked the book, so I enjoyed reading and summarising the chapters, until I was interrupted by a hospital investigation that went wrong. It took weeks for me to recover enough to write the review. (I wasn't to know when I signed the consent form, but it wasn't a good idea to be in the middle of anything)

One link for me was having seen Castiglione's portraits and depictions of animals and birds, in Edinburgh and London galleries. I'd even bought the catalogue at the first one. The three emperors the artist worked for were Manchus, whose cultural influence was evident in the part of northern China where I worked in 2003-4, another link. I was fascinated to read about Castiglione's sometimes gruesome experiences at the hands of the moody rulers, against a backdrop of China in troubled times. Not much was known about him except that he had a profound influence on Chinese painting and met a lot of opposition, partly for religious reasons.

I was struggling to give the review some contemporary relevance, and conscious that the date of the book launch was at hand. Then, by chance, I visited an exhibition at Somerset House, about contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and found a link: not only is Ai WeiWei also an artist who's fallen foul of Chinese authorities, but his Circle of Animals installation at Somerset House is based on an original design by Castiglione.

I posted the finished review to Dimsum, the website for Chinese in the UK, happy, and relieved, to be able to report this to the authors.

You can read the review here.

It was good to read yesterday that Ai WeiWei has been released from detention.

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