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A Brocade of Images: Landscapes and Figures in Tapestry and Embroidery


Tapestry is a form of textile art done on a simple plain loom with discontinuous weft threads woven onto a full expanse of warp threads. It involves first composing a draft of the intended image on the warp threads and then separately shuttling threads of various colors and lengths attached as the weft based on the desired pattern. Shuttling back and forth on the loom thereby builds up the individual parts of the image, but the edges between them appear abrupt with a saw-tooth gap as if cut out. Thus referred to as “cut silk” in Chinese, tapestry is also known as the art of “producing something from nothing.” Chinese embroidery involves outlining a pattern on a foundation of various weaves of silk, such as plain, twill, light, and satin, and then embroidering with silk threads. Hence, embroidery has been compared to the expression “adding flowers to brocade” (making something even more beautiful).

Tapestry and embroidery both have a long history in China. As the techniques to produce them matured, these two crafts became increasingly appreciated as art forms in their own right, especially during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Artists often took inspiration from the fine arts, copying the works of famous painters and calligraphers to transform them into beautiful silk textiles in a wide variety of subjects, including bird-and-flower, landscape, religious, and narrative depictions. Reproducing the engaging and fascinating world of painting, even down to the smallest details, textile artists sometimes even exceeded the realm of painting, demonstrating the extraordinary heights achieved in the arts of silk tapestry and embroidery.

The works of tapestry and embroidery in the National Palace Museum collection are superlative in both quantity and quality. This special exhibition brings together those on the subjects of landscapes and figures, dividing them into four sections: “Pure Sounds of the Landscape,” “Buddhist and Daoist Figures,” “Characters in Popular Stories,” and “Famous Masters, Famous Works.” On one hand, they portray the arrangements and techniques of representing landscapes and figures as well as other elements, revealing the amazing beauty and skill in weaving tapestry and embroidery. On the other hand, these works from the Song and later periods also illustrate the period styles and artistic accomplishments of their respective eras. From the diverse facets of Chinese tapestry and embroidery, audiences can not only appreciate the beauty of these art forms in the works on display but also their developments over the ages.