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Some random notes for my daughters - on enjoying paintings

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While much of this is fantasy, there is also the considerable insight that art is something to be shared among friends and that our attentions to our companions and our treasures are inseparable.

After Xiao's album came into my hands at auction, I was excited to show it to Ching Ching, the oldest of you three girls and three years old at the time. As we looked at it, I saw that she wanted some way to enter it, some means to sustain herself on the pages. I invited her to weave with me a story of sorts, letting her invent as I directed, cut and turned the action, and finally polished the metaphors. Later, recollecting that time with her, I wrote down lines to accompany the paintings. I did this mostly with a view to the pleasure they might give both young and older readers, playfully recollecting other texts and paying scant regard to the bureaucratic concerns of scholarly accounts. I tried to write 'in the manner' of a past amateur taste, taking up the ambition to reanimate old things and imagine afresh their poetic possibilities. I think this is a sympathetic approach to the situation successive generations face in taking possession of the objects of the past. Hence, my own mixture of ancient and modern, the touches of Taoism along with the hints of Italo Calvino. The title is also my invention as the album had none; I've used the notion of days to cast an episodic structure.

I should also tell you something of the painter XIAO Yuncong 簫雲從 as it is his name that is carried on the cover. The standard records of biography tell us that Xiao lived from 1596 to 1673,and was a native of Anwei, then a rich province. As the Chinese are wont to say with no little irony, these were 'interesting times' as the native Ming dynasty was overwhelmed in 1644 and the nation conquered by those Manchurians who styled themselves as the Qing. Officials of the former regime had the unenviable prospect of collaboration, often with the fate of their families in the balance. It was Xiao's good fortune that he had earlier failed the exams that would have set him on a state career. The paintings here are undated, but seem to have been painted late in life, after the Qing conquest. Xiao's various noms de plume and the few stories recorded about him suggest that by then he offered himself as a Taoist hermit and cultivated an antique taste. It is hard to be sure of his actual circumstances as most of the appreciations have the ring of conventional praise, but quietism and painting would have allowed a dignified survival.

Somehow parted from Xiao, this small set of paintings has enjoyed the precarious life of fragile objects. Look closely, there are holes chewed in every painting. Imagine the day when they were lying in a dark room at the back of a great house and neglected by their owner―or he and they were merely daunted by the tenacity of the climate, and the inevitability of ruin. Small bugs and worms slowly consumed bare paper and painted portions alike, occasionally startled by a sudden airing or the light of a dry autumn afternoon. Incense scented the pages when they were left next to a bed overnight. The bindings slowly became torn and broken and stained by the oil left by hands soiled from summer sweat and small savoury dishes set out with yellow wine. Gradually, the book became an object whose neglect was an embarrassment and yet, irony of decay, a persuasive sign of its age and authenticity.