Awed by masterpieces

I FIRST visited Beijing in 1979 while my husband's initial foray to the city was in 1990. Since then, we have journeyed to the Middle Kingdom almost annually, sometimes twice in the same year. After countless visits to China's capital, what else is there to see in Beijing?

This was the challenge my husband and I faced during the Hari Raya holidays. We discovered two familiar museums in Beijing – the National Museum of China (NMC) and the Palace Museum (also known as the Forbidden City) – offer new visual delights.

Among the NMC's permanent exhibits are a ceramic gallery spanning the Neolithic Age to the Ching dynasty and an outstanding collection of Buddhist sculptures. Although we have viewed the sculptures previously, we couldn't resist another look at two superb larger than life wooden figures.

New to the NMC were the Leiden Collection of Dutch paintings and a display of huanghuali and red sandalwood furniture.

That a fee was required to see the Leiden Collection didn't deter visitors. Named after the birthplace of the famed Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijin, the Leiden Collection, numbering more than 250 paintings, was assembled over a 14-year period by New-York born Thomas Kaplan and his wife Daphne.

Comprising 11 Rembrandt paintings, two drawings plus three early works from the famed "Allegory of the Senses" series, works by his pupils and his teacher Pieter Lastman, the Leiden Collection showcases the golden age of Dutch paintings.

First exhibited at the Louvre in February this year, the Leiden Collection moved to Beijing. On view in the NMC until Sept 3, it will relocate to Shanghai (Sept 23 to Feb 11, 2018) and to the Louvre Abu Dhabi – the only two Asian stopovers in the global tour.

Equally illuminating at the NMC was the exhibition of more than 100 masterpieces of huanghuali and red sandalwood antique Chinese furniture. Sourced from the NMC's own collection, Prince Kung's Mansion in Beijing, the Wuwei Museum in Gansu province and from two private dealers – Andy Hei Ltd and Grace Wu Bruce – this exhibition highlights items used during the Ming and Ching dynasties.

Because of its density and toughness, hardwoods facilitated the use of complicated mortise-and-tenon joinery to create an astonishing variety of household items: beds, couches, chairs, stools, tables, cabinets, chests and screens.

Not only were all these household items represented in the NMC display, they were so well placed so almost all exhibits could be viewed from every angle.

I wasn't allowed to use a small powerful torchlight to see more clearly details in the joinery and exquisite decorative designs but photography was permitted. My husband happily photographed nearly every item of this iconic furniture exhibition.

In the Palace Museum, we viewed four categories that we hadn't seen previously – paintings and calligraphy; architecture of the Forbidden City; items from countries along the Silk and Belt Road and jewellery crafted by Chaumet, the 18th century French jeweller favoured by Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine.
A large poster informed us a showcase of Afghan Treasures, comprising animal figurines fashioned in gold, had just ended.

Housed in the Hall of Martial Valour were the calligraphy and paintings of four monks: Hongren, Kuncan, Bada Shanren and Shitao.

Even to our Mandarin-illiterate eyes, the calligraphy was awe-inspiring. Also impressive was the state-of-the-art ambient lighting that illuminated without damaging the calligraphy and paintings.

In another section of this hall, a traditional Chinese scholar's study was re-created. Brass vessels and ceramic incense burners were placed on top of artfully arranged softwood tables while on two opposing sides of the study were four panels of sublime black-and-white ink drawings.

Another equally popular exhibit was a white circular screen on which was flashed a succession of ink paintings – a neat way to overcome the physical constraints of space, I thought.

Although the One Belt, One Road exhibits are aesthetically pleasing but not outstanding, I thought this was a clever way to demonstrate the tangible likely impact of President Xi Jinping's landmark policy.
Titled "Imperial Splendour", Chaumet's jewels, objets d'art, paintings and drawings, was another much-elbowed viewing. Particularly favoured were historic items like Napoleon's Coronation Sword and the glittering diamond-encrusted diadems.

On the way to the exit, we stopped at the Architecture Gallery. A video explained how the Forbidden City was built. Our interest was piqued by a photo of an unfinished Western-style building, presumably initiated during the dying days of the Ching dynasty.

Given the splendour of the Forbidden City, if completed, this Western-style edifice would have been a "carbuncle" (to borrow Prince Charles' description) on a near-flawless Chinese architectural visage.

Beijing offers an excellent example of how museums can continue to remain visually attractive through local and foreign touring exhibitions.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com