The Empress Dowager Cixi
China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904 Glass plate negative
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SC-GR 251
In celebration of the 2012 Chinese New Year, I thought, what could be better than a post honoring this year’s animal sign, the Dragon. The sign of the Dragon represents power, nobility and wisdom. All three of these attributes are significant to the Chinese culture and history of past rulers.
For those of you who have just missed the exhibition, Power/Play: China’s Empress Dowager at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, have no fear; I will not overrule your right to read this blog!
The exhibition follows the rein of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835- 1908), nicknamed, “The dragon lady”, through the illustration of powerful, captivating black and white photographic portraiture. Cixi served as the dominant political role of China’s Qing dynasty lasting from 1644-1911. During her rein, Cixi’s image became fragile when she was accused of supporting the killing of foreigners and Chinese Christians. To redeem her reputation in the Qing court, Cixi requested an aristocratic photographer, named Xunling, to re-create her image as Empress. Xunling captured the Empress with the royal characteristics of imperial authority, elegance and devout religious principles in mind. As seen in the photograph above, the settings vary from private to public locations, incorporated with decadent backdrops and symbolic props.
The photo that captivated me over all the others is the one featured above. This portrait is part of a series, in which the Empress stands alone, in front of a busy backdrop and elegant décor. Cixi is placing a flower in her hair while gazing into a mirror. This could possibly represent her vanity as a powerful empress or maybe a sense of longing for her youth? The delicately stacked mounds of apples on either side of Cixi could also have multiple meanings. The apples may be a symbol of peace to reconcile Cixi’s previous accusation or possibly to simply sweeten the air? Whatever the overall message may be, the empress is successfully making a powerful statement to the public.
Interested in finding any other notable symbolic references in the photo or eager to learn more about the exhibition/Chinese culture? Here are some links that will take you there!
Power/Play: China’s Empress Dowager:
The Chinese Calendar:
History of China: