On returning from China it was apposite that I went to the V and A's Chinese Painting survey and two hefty new publications, the catalogue to the V and A exhibition and The Phaidon Chinese Art Book testify how Chinese art has endured for 3000 years. In England while nobles were living in drafty, smelly Norman keeps, with a few chattels, and barely anything decorative, the Chinese were painting exquisite and intricate landscapes on silken scrolls and emperors and their entourages were living it up in palaces.
Over the millennia from the Han to the Qing dynasty, Chinese painting does not change much stylistically, save for becoming more detailed and intricate. Most paintings were executed on scrolls as long as gantry charts that were only unrolled on ceremonial occasions. The masters over the centuries copied their even greater antecedents, refining techniques and composition. Calligraphy and painting were the highest forms of art that man could attain; artists were monks, princes and poets, while many of the paintings incorporated poems and related prose of great beauty and simplicity.
The curators had the foresight to translate many of the spare and sublime verses and stanzas that sometimes wander off inconclusively leaving words to float down the riverine scenes.
Come the 19th century, Chinese artists lost their way when European prints and engravings flooded in with the missionaries and merchants, which were slavishly copied to no great effect.
The Phaidon Chinese Art book spans 4 millennia and juxtaposes ancient and contemporary works, in feeble attempts to make clever comparisons; such as a delicate 13th century ink drawing of a winter flower with an explosion in the shape of a blossoming flower in 2009, by Cai Guo-Qiang, a pyrotechnic and a wizard with gunpowder - after-all the Chinese invented gunpowder.
While the V and A exhibition is a survey of painting from the Han to the Qing dynasty, i.e. 700BC -1900, the Phaidon book delves way back to bronzes cast in 16th century B.C from the Zhou dynasty, fast forwarding to propaganda art during the Cultural Revolution, being rehabilitated into its dynamic contemporary state, impacting on the international art scene. Chinese artists have got the Midas touch, when they put paint to canvas, commanding record-breaking prices under the hammer. The might of Chinese commerce equals its cultural one.
To Vienna (in parts a peculiarly un-peopled city), and the T-B A21 space in the Augarten to view Amar Kanwar's Sovereign Forest, an installation that is simultaneously showing at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Thyssen-Bornemisza art of the 21st century showcases multi disciplinary art; and funds ambitious art projects under the auspices of the eponymously named Francesca, aka Habsburg, who is the archduchess of Austria. The Augarten contemporary TBA21 is a flagship of exciting and extraordinary art, with Francesca at the helm, she is a philanthropic patron who realizes artists' ideas and projects, however fantastical.
The Sovereign Forest highlights the plight of stricken tribal communities in Odisha, India, whose ancestral lands are being seized by international mining cartels. In vast darkened chambers film loops move in real time, elegiac and profound, showing a vanishing agrarian state being replaced by industrial sites - of paddy fields, fishermen, oxen and goat-herds, juxtaposed with vultures swooping down on obsidian slag heaps; the detritus of mining.
The charity 'Fine Cell Work', enables prisoners to do petite-point, embroidered tapestry work cushions and textiles, sold to museums and designers thus giving prisoners a small nest egg upon their release and a vital sense of purpose. There was a fundraising event for the charity at Lancaster House, so gilded and grand that Queen Victoria on visiting the then owner, The Duke of Sutherland, remarked "I have come from my house to your palace."
For candle light therapy in these dark winter evenings, I burn Bougie parfum, but I have a bet noire with some charlatan chandlers who do not put in the proper steel lined wicks, before pouring in the wax, instead they simply put tapers into the wax leaving a lot of residue wax and are better deployed as firelighters. The culprits are Janjira therapy massage candle and Paloma White Grape, not smelling remotely of ripening Umbrian grapes, its like an invasive antiperspirant mingled with stale sweat, while the Janjira does not lift jaded spirits, because it whiffs of fabric conditioner.
Whereas Jehanne de Biolley's Chinese sandalwood and geranium has the aroma of a courtesan, with hints of profane musk and Cloon Keen's minted candle from Galway recalls the dew filled pastures there; and they both burn brightly right down to the wick, with not a drop of wax wasted.
The Great Book of Mobile Talk, Overheard by Andrew Barrow and observed by Posy Simmmonds (£7.99) is peppered with snippets of the hilarious and the mundane. This Blackberry-sized book says a lot about ubiquitous mobiles, they kill the art of conversation and have an insidious effect on our daily lives. In the evolution to come, mobiles may be extensions of our bodies; who knows? The author, Andrew Barrow, (this is now his eleventh book,) I have it on good authority, does not have a mobile and still composes his highly original and witty writing on a typewriter.
Instead of watching Top Gear ad nauseum, my sons have acquired a pair of Syrian skateboarding hamsters, 'Snowy' and 'Fang' scoot down the shoot on a mini skateboard. Another cage has appeared for some Siberian ones too, and I feel this is the beginning of a menagerie; I don't care about the trails of sawdust, the smells and the squeals of delight at dawn, as the t.v and x box is now seldom switched on.
Chef's hats off to Jamie Oliver's new 1950's retro look Trattoria in Richmond exceling in authentic Italian peasant fare with flourishes of Oliver's flair for food and its presentation. Worthy of Escoffier, fresh young olives were served on dry ice, emitting vapourous clouds. Tarquin a born cynic, (in the classical sense,) pronounced that his Gennaro burger was actually better than 'Chicken Cottage' and sotto voce he added 'it's very upper middle class here," which indeed it is, awash with the rich in Richmond. Julian, so enthralled by the dry ice and the- etch a sketch tablets handed out to children, left his salmon fish fingers untouched. So I demolished them, along with chips, crisp rosemary, caponata, and hake, washed down with a lemon and mint soda.
I doubt whether Hare and wild boar ragu would ever be on Jamie's menu and we feasted on these gamey sauces with papardelle in the Val d'Orcia, over yuletide and New Year. We escaped from this damp and diluvian island to a wild region in Tuscany, at a fattoria on the late Iris Origo's estate, La Foce. Origo wrote wonderful books; the Merchant of Prato, an autobiography and her best, her diary from WWII when she and her husband Antonio, the Marquesa risked their lives to save others, in sheltering and hiding p.o.w s, partisans and Jews in their farmhouses and extensive woods. It is a vivid account of the evil Fascists, who were even crueler and more punitive to their own people than the Nazis were, (the Gentiles that is).
My room-with-a-view was of a serpentine lane, cypresses standing sentinel, olive groves and grapevines contouring the hills and many towered medieval hamlets, dominated by Monte Amiata, where I watched shadows and scenes shifting in swirling mists, storms, sunshine and sunsets of crimson and pink skies morphing into winged chariots and the clouds into galleons.