You know that feeling when you’re looking at a painting and there’s something about it that just draws you in? In Li Xinsheng’s watercolours I find the birds flying overhead to be the element that catches my eye.
We are used to seeing art on the wall. So much so that how often do we walk into a house and not even notice what’s there?
There is a way to provide contrast with a form of art that didn’t hang on the wall because it was part of the wall. These are architectural house elements that were once windows. Traditional Chinese homes didn’t have glass windows, instead they had handmade solid timber windows. They came in an astonishing array of sizes and designs depending on how they were to be used. External windows were sheltered by large overhanging eves and they were covered in rice paper. The panels were often ornately carved with decorations that carried timeless and universal messages wishing the family to enjoy long, happy and prosperous lives. Every now and then you’ll come across a piece like this panel that immediately piques your interest and curiosity.
The lower panel has a monkey shaking a wasp’s nest. Behind him is a box wrapped in a ribbon. The meaning lies in the Chinese love of linguistic puns. The Chinese language has many words with the same sound but different written characters and therefore different meanings. Here the word for wasp is “feng” and the word for money is “hou”. Change the words but keep the pronunciation and it means to be conferred the rank of marquis. Such scenes are called rebuses. A rebus is a representation of words by pictures.
And the box behind the monkey? That’s the official insignia wrapped up ready to open.
The monkey is standing on a branch of plum blossom, each petal representing one of the Five Blessings of happiness, good health, love of virtue, long life and a peaceful death. The adjacent bamboo is another longevity symbol. The bottom corner has bats. These are symbols of happiness – another rebus as the words for bat and happiness share the same pronunciation.
The small panel above has a fruit called Buddha’s Hand which is a longevity symbol. The top open panel has double circles and double lozenges that are part of the Eight Treasures that include wishes for wealth. There is also the four-petal peach blossom that symbolises long life.
Window panels make interesting three dimensional art and their cultural iconography brings a meaningful contrast to other art forms. They can sit by themselves or together with an existing collection.
These and other fascinating pieces are available to purchase from our online exhibition Oriental: Art and Architecture