In the Palace Museum of the Forbidden City, for over one-thousand years, a party has been going on - it can be found painted in one of the most precious scrolls of the entire collection. The painting - an excellent copy of an original work by Gu Hongzhong (937-975) - isn’t merely extraordinary for its artistic value, or the richness of its detail, but also for the story behind it. Gu Hongzhong was a court painter at the Academy of Li Yu, last monarch of the Tang Dynasty. The Emperor was planning to nominate Han Xizai (902-970) as his Prime Minister but with reservations - in fact, there were rumours that Han Xizai lived a debauched existence. Gu Hongzhong, therefore, was called upon by the Emperor to spy on Han Xizai and give an account of the wild nights of the official, his eating, his drinking. Another version claims that this painting was used by Li Yu to level charges at Han Xizai during a trial - the official could do little more than try to make amends in front of such crushing evidence. However, both versions are quite clear about the role of Gu Hongzhong - observe and relate. The expressions of the more than forty figures in the painting are incredibly vivid and realistic. The Wild Nights of Han Xizai is more than the portrait of someone’s private life, but represents many aspects of the era, bearing clear witness to the life of the ruling class, seen in the five sections of the painting. Han Xiza listens to music, smokes a pipe while horsing around with dancers and his guests, he plays music, then rests. Yet, even at the height of the party, Gu Hongzhong captures the veiled melancholy of the aged master of the house. A sensation which penetrates time, making its way directly to us.
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