On the evening of the second day of the New Year festival of 1112, an extraordinary sight was seen in the Chinese city of Kaifeng.
A flock of 20 Manchurian cranes wheeled in formation above the gate of the Imperial Palace as if they were dancing. The Emperor himself, Huizong, was moved to paint a picture of this auspicious spectacle.
A picture said by historians to be that very work is now on view in a magnificent exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900” is, for my money, the show of the season in London (with Daumier at the Royal Academy of Arts coming a distinguished second).
If you’re interested in painting, globally there are two great traditions to consider: the Western and the Eastern, and the fountainhead of the latter was the art of China.
Chinese painting reached its greatest peak about 1,000 years ago, during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), of which Kaifeng was the capital.
The earliest works in this show dates in English terms from around the time of the Venerable Bede, and those are by no means the first, just among the oldest still in existence.
By the 12th century, Chinese painting reached a majestic technical and intellectual maturity. This was expressed above all in landscape.
As in much Western landscape, there was a religious idea behind this. These pictures often express a Taoist sense of the yin and yang of the universe, perfectly caught in a contemporary description of the work of Li Gongnian: “shapes of objects appearing and disappearing in vast emptiness.”
Li Gongnian’s “Winter Evening Landscape” (early 12th century) is one of the highlights of the exhibition. It depicts, well, almost nothing.
In the foreground is a gnarled, leafless tree. Behind, steep mountain peaks rise from misty valleys and vanish into the void beyond.
There is vast space in these old pictures. In “Landscape With Pavilions,” possibly by Yan Wengui (967-1030), a range of jagged hills comes down to the sea. They fade away at a far distant point to merge with the sky. As a 12th-century critic put it, “a thousand miles in a single foot -- such was his subtlety.”
A great deal of Chinese artistry was contained in the exact nature of the ink stroke on silk or paper.
The master Ni Zan (1306-74) for example, used a distinctive dry, spare style. His paintings, such as “Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu” (1372) appear to reflect his changing moods, and the little group of trees in the foreground stands for his circle of friends.
In the astonishing 10-meter (32-foot) scroll of “Nine Dragons” by Cheng Rong (c. 1189-1268), the creatures -- symbols of the energies of nature -- swirl out of billowing clouds, summoned up by a virtuoso range of black marks from firm and inky to faint and vaporous.
Looking at this, you might think of Jackson Pollock. There are many artistic interconnections between East and West.
Chinese artists began looking at European pictures in the 18th and 19th centuries, the point at which this exhibition ends. Much Western art of the last two centuries has been inflected by the styles of the East.
The process continues. A British artist such as Anish Kapoor, contemporary master of the void, names Chinese painting among his reference points.
A contemporary Chinese art star such as Zeng Fanzhi manages to combine the moods of Song Dynasty painting with Bacon, Pollock and Freud in a fresh global synthesis.
Now, as we contemplate the revived economic energies of the dragon in the East, is an auspicious moment to consider the glories of Chinese painting.
“Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900” is at the V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL until Jan. 19, 2014. Information: +44 20 7942 2000 or http://www.vam.ac.uk/
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. His latest book is “Michelangelo: His Epic Life.” The opinions expressed are his own.)