"I see movement and colour"
So proclaimed Alexander Yacovlev, on completion of this stunning oil painting, The Battle of the Warriors, in 1918, in Peking. This flamboyant scene is taken from the series of plays named King-diau (Songs of Peking) which were extremely popular during the Manchu dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. These King-diau were performed in almost every theatre in China.
Intrigued by the union of modernity and tradition within these plays, Alexander Yakovlev was a regular visitor to the theatre in Peking where he made many drawings and paintings from life. In the preface to the book he published on Chinese theatre in 1922 he wrote:
'I should like to express and to explain the attraction of Chinese dramatic art and the importance which I attribute to it. It was in Peking, whose countless walls, one after the other, reveal the phantoms and ancient mysteries of the autocratic East, where the profane hands of the traveller may touch the abandoned throne of the Celestials, that I entered into contact with modernised China and that I attempted to understand and comprehend the charm of her thousand-year-old culture.'' (Tchou-Kia-Kien, Alexandre Iacovleff, The Chinese Theatre, London, John Lane, 1922).
In China, the role of theatre is not only to entertain but also to educate. The theatre is expected to lift the soul, by portraying great historic acts of bravery and patriotism where the virtuous are always rewarded, vice is condemned and the traitors and guilty- such as unfaithful women- are severely punished.
Often of modest origin, the actors have little recognition in society. In the absence of a School of Dramatic Art in China, they are taught to sing, fight and act by the company director. This strict training lasts between four to six years. Actors then repay their debts by acting for free for exactly the same number of years, and exclusively for their director.
In the ancient theatre, female roles were played by actresses until the Emperor K'ien-long took one as a concubine. As a result, up until 1900, the modern theatre banned the presence of women on stage and replaced them with young boys.
In The Battle of the Warriors, Alexander Yakovlev faithfully depicts the traditional décor of the Chinese theatre: the almost square stage is enclosed by a balustrade of golden and red wood. On each side are two doors draped with silk curtains and heavy drapes encrusted with tiny polished mirrors. Tradition has it that the actors enter through the right door and leave by the left. The entire backdrop is covered in silk, embroidery and little mirrors. Sky-lights allow for daylight to shine through; in the evening, oil lamps and, later, electric bulbs are used to light the stage. To either side of the stage, the galleries are divided into boxes, which can accommodate up to ten people (fig.1). Above, on the first floor, the more fortunate spectators sit on comfortable seats; their silhouettes visible to the right of the composition. In contrast to the European public, the spectators smoke, drink tea and eat cakes and fruits, with no reservations.
To the left of the stage is a musician dressed in black, whilst the rest of the orchestra is hidden behind the warrior on the right. The orchestra is central to Chinese theatre, since all plays are accompanied by music. Eight to ten musicians play several instruments such as the violin, the tambourine, tam-tams, the clarinet, castagnettes, the cymbal, the flute, the guitar, the mandolin or the 'pan-kou' (a type of very shrill drum). The combat scenes are usually accompanied by brass instruments whilst songs are sung to the sound of string instruments. Alexander Yakovlev also wrote that « The rhythm of this strange orchestra produces a visual impression similar to that created by music." (Tchou-Kia-Kien, Alexandre Iacovleff, The Chinese Theatre, London, John Lane, 1922).
The Battle of the Warriors depicts a scene from the play Tchan Houan Pro, where two high-ranking warriors throw themselves into combat in order to gain the upper hand. The actors simulated a fight, with such an astounding delivery that the artist was completely bewildered: « I do not know what it is all about, nor do I know what the play signifies. I see movement and colour. I feel their surprising and perfect connection with the precise and complicated rhythm of those instruments which exasperate me". (idem) Further on, Yakovlev goes on to describe the incredible dynamism of the Chinese actor: « His gestures and the composition of his attitudes produce pure and voluntary arabesques." (idem)
The plots of the King-diau are simple and the characters' professions are indicated by their names. But, as Yacovlev wrote, it is above all the make-up which is of extreme importance, as a way of expressing emotion. « The painted mask reminds me of one of those seen on ancient pictures and popular engravings. It is a real mask in which only the eyes live with an exaggerated life. But they squint and dance rather than mimic... It is art which thus serves to express the moral traits of a people.'' (idem)
Through their different attributes, the rich, varied and colourful costumes reflect the status of the characters. Here we see two male military characters; the details of their costumes reveal them to be warriors. The four small flags attached to their backs share the same colour as the uniform? embroidered with dragons. They wear octagonal silk hats adorned with pompons and mirrors. They are dressed in a sort of tight-fitting frock-coat which hangs just below the waist, revealing matching trousers. Black satin boots and a silk sash fringed with gold, tied in front and which falls to the knees, complete the outfit.
On the subject of these battle scenes, Alexander Yakovlev wrote: "There is nothing confused or hesitating. Combats and rapid movements are under absolute control. Suddenly everything is transformed into a statuesque vision.'' (idem).
The offered lot was particularly dear to Yakovlev as it is the only battle scene from his Chinese period which he exhibited at the exhibition Paintings and Drawings. China, Mongolia, Japan at the Barbazanges gallery in Paris in 1920 (fig.3). We should not forget that this first exhibition in Paris, was the one which would make his name.
In 1922, Yakovlev published The Battle of the Warriors, in his book The Chinese Theatre (fig.4) and, alongside it, several preparatory drawings and character sketches. Another measure of the importance Yakovlev accorded this work was his decision to include it as one of the fifty colour plates in the lavish volume of Drawings and Paintings of the Middle-East, published by Lucien Vogel in 1922.
We are grateful to Caroline Haardt de la Baume for providing this note.
To be included in the forthcoming Alexander Yakovlev Catalogue raisonné being prepared by Caroline Haardt de la Baume.
Oil on canvas
Alexander Evgenievich Yakovlev
Paris, Galerie Barbazanges, Peintures et Dessins, Chine, Mongolie, Japon, 18 April - 1 May 1920, No.12
Paris, Grand Palais, Mir Istkusstva, 1 November - 20 December 1921, No.290
60.5 by 95.5cm., 23¾ by 37½in.
Les Dessins & Peintures d'Extreme-Orient d'Alexandre Iacovleff, Paris, Editions Lucien Vogel, 1922, ill. in colour plate 29
Tchou-Kia -Kien, Le Théâtre Chinois, Paris, M. de Brunoff, 1922, ill. p.32