In China, power was not formed with words like at the Greek agora, the Roman forum or in Western democracy… In China, power was formed with the brush.
The name Grimaldi is inexplicably tied to Monaco. In 1395, descendants of a 12th century Genoese statesman took control of the principality and it has remained in their hands ever since. On the other side of the world and 250 years later, a similar attempt to seize power was taking place as the Qing dynasty swept through China.
It took them over four decades to conquer the country, from the mid-17th century onwards, but the 150-year reign was a period of great stability for the ever-growing nation.
“The Qing dynasty were builders, bureaucrats, artists, scientists… They built modern China,” says exhibition curator and Honorary General Curator of Heritage Jean-Paul Desroches. “They had a new approach, a new dynamic.”
The Qings heritage was somewhat at odds with Chinese culture at the time. They had semi-nomadic roots while the rest of China was invested in agriculture. But despite their differences, the Qing epoch was a golden period for China and its people in terms of culture, art and the pursuit of knowledge.
The Grimaldi Forum’s summer exhibition, La Cité Interdite, takes visitors on a tour of the Forbidden City, which was first built in 1420s and remained the imperial palace throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. Of the 250 paintings and artefacts that feature in the exhibition, 200 have been sourced from the Forbidden City palace itself and many have never been seen before outside of China. The remaining works have been provided by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions such as the Louvre and the Musée des Arts de l’Asie in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Desroches first presented a China-themed exhibition in Monaco back in 2001 with China, the Century of the First Emperor. This time it is the Qings (1644-1911), their home and their heritage who have piqued his interest. “The Forbidden City is at the heart of the Beijing, which is at the heart of China, which — in turn — is at the heart of the world for the Chinese people,” says Desroches. “We want to immerse visitors in the world of the Forbidden City.”
The Beijing palace, which can be explored in depth at the exhibition, is a replica of the skies, with the emperor as the polar star and the rest of the world moving around him. The Chinese were famous for their astronomy — the exhibition includes the first documented map of the solar system by Chinese hands and dates from the early Tang dynasty — but it was during the time of the Qing that this art truly flourished.
Struggling to secure support from the Chinese elite, who thought of the Qings in the early days as uncultured invaders, Jesuit scholars and artists were invited to work at court and assist the Chinese in further developing their expertise. Their Western influence and breath of knowledge revolutionised China. The second Qing emperor, Kangxi (1662-1722), was particularly welcoming of the Jesuits and was a proficient mathematic and intellectual himself. He was also an accomplished musician and had a teacher called Grimaldi – although it isn’t know if this family was directly related to the sovereign family of Monaco!
One wool and silk painting from the early 8th century and a feature at the exhibition is believed to have been painted by a Frenchman and depicts Emperor Kangxi listening to German astronomer Adam Schall. The annual calendar was established by Schall and his Flemish successor, astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest.
Another notable Westerner to infiltrate Chinese culture was Frenchman Jean-Denis Attiret who was trained in Rome then sent to China. Works attributed to him include an oil painting of a concubine dating from 1750-60. At over 2.5 metres tall, the Hongli Hunting Deer silk painting is one of the largest pieces to be included in the exhibition, but it is also one of the most telling. Emperor Qianlong, who is depicted in the painting, was the fourth and most prolific Qing emperor, and was in many ways entirely assimilated with Chinese cultural norms. This stylised artwork of unknown origin, however, reveals that Qianlong was still very much in touch with his Manchu Mongolian ancestry and every autumn would participate in great, traditional stag hunts. Perhaps one such successful hunt resulted in the construction of the beautiful antler throne that features in the exhibition.
From calligraphy, sketches and paintings to furniture and pieces of ceremonial dress, which are extremely rare finds and each piece may only have been worn once, twice or even three times in its lifetime, the exhibition is designed to be wholly immersive. As Desroches explains, it was envisioned as a place where the visitor is transported to the realm of Qing and the vast Forbidden City, which measures an astonishing 72 hectares.
The exhibition is taking place from 14th July to 10th September. Tickets can be reserved online for 5€.