Take a close look at the fragile beauty of Chinese painting


It still feels like early fall in the Chinese painting galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lighting is warm but dim; the decor, wheat beige and hazelnut. Despite sparks of color, the ink and brush paintings are visually restrained; their images can be difficult to read, even at close range.

And although the galleries hold the museum’s permanent collection of Chinese paintings, no images remain for long. Compared to Western-style oil painting – a sturdy, meat-and-potato-based survival medium – classical Chinese painting is fragile. Often done in ink on silk, it has two natural enemies: time and light. The danger is less that they fade the ink than that they blacken the silk. Paintings depicting daylight scenes can end up looking dark.

Most of the 60 paintings in the museum’s current relocation, “Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art,” were never intended to have extended exposure. Some were designed like album pages and kept between closed covers. Many in the form of scrolls were stored rolled up and taken out for occasional one-on-one viewing or as conversation starters at parties. (For conservation reasons, the paintings on display now, which range from the 11th to the 21st century, will remain outside until early January, and then be replaced by others.)

And if the reality of time, and of the passing of time, is physically integrated into these objects, it is also a theme addressed by art itself. Most of the paintings in “Companions in Solitude” depict landscapes, and many are not identified by a place name – mount so and so, lake such and such – but by season, as if changing weather were the real subject. .

In paintings like “Winter Landscape,” attributed to 16th-century artist Jiang Song, or “Colors of Autumn Among Streams and Mountains” by the great master of the Ming Shen Zhou dynasty, nature seems less represented than hallucinated. It’s in motion, in a state of molecular dispersion. Mountains dissolve in clouds, land in water as you look.

Yet while many of these landscapes suggest the operation of the ephemeral, they also embody a very specific cultural ideal: the possibility of escaping from a crowded and relentlessly urbanized world to re-isolate oneself in the psychologically milder realm and spiritually more spacious than Nature.

Reclusion had a long religious history in China, with Buddhist and Taoist monks and priests establishing hermitages, houses of contemplation, in remote sites. But in many of the Met’s landscapes, the desire for retirement also had an age-old, class-based source. It was generated largely by an educated urban elite attached to court or government, eager to escape the crush of professional pressures and unpredictable politics.

In some paintings, such as “Winter Landscape with Fisherman” by Shi Zhong, who lived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the idea of ​​seclusion seems theoretical. The images of fishermen and loggers going about their tasks correspond to those of shepherds in the pastoral tradition of European art. These fantasies of the carefree, nature-related life of the rural poor offer examples to be admired, but from a distance.

In other paintings, however, the vision of immersion in nature is immediate and personal. In a scroll titled “Summer Retreat in the Eastern Grove” by Wen Zhengming, one of the great Ming painter-calligraphers, the human protagonist, the retreat seeker, is just a point in a panorama of hills, forests and lakes. And in 20th century painter Fu Baoshi’s “Solitary Journey in the Mountains”, you have to hunt hard to find the pilgrim-traveler. He is little more than a knot of ink and paint half-absorbed in a spectacle of nature as energy.

Some artists were, indeed, vagabonds – monks and mystics. Many, however, were city dwellers, and for them and the clients who acquired their works, living the reclusive life wasn’t just about hitting the road with an all-weather hat and backpack. Practical arrangements had to be made. There was, for example, a long-standing vogue for paintings that incorporated images of rustic custom-built retreats. These served as hermitages for some noble urban refugees and as vacation properties for others.

The airy pavilion complex in Wu Li’s marvelous 1679 scroll, in God’s sight, titled “Spending Summer at the Inkwell Thatch Hut,” seems to suit either of the two. these goals, although the artist ended up not sticking to them. Two years after completing the painting, he was baptized as a Christian and then ordained a Catholic priest. He died while doing missionary work in bustling Shanghai.

And seclusion was not necessarily a rural or lonely condition. If you had the inclination and the means, you could bring the countryside into the city by building your own fortified mini-Eden. Wen Zhengming was born in Suzhou, and after trying to be successful in Beijing, and unsuccessfully, he returned home. Suzhou was famous for its private gardens, and he took one of them, known as the “Garden of the Inept Administrator,” as the subject for a series of extraordinary architectural paintings, one of which is on display. . This garden still exists in Suzhou, but has changed a lot. It survives in something like its original form in Wen’s art. (The Met’s Astor Court, around which the painting galleries wind, is based on a section of another garden in this city.)

As for solitude, seclusion did not strictly require it. In China, painting, like poetry – the two are closely linked by calligraphy – was an inherently social art, to be shared. Meetings of like-minded creators were common, and some have become legendary. One of the most famous took place in AD 353 when academic artist Wang Xizhi threw a party for some 40 supposedly lonely friends at a retreat called the Orchid Pavilion.

The wine was flowing; poetry too; and so, finally, the autumn-tinged reflections on the passage of time and mortality. Wang wrote the event; thanks to the copyists his story went viral and the orchid pavilion gathering became an ever-green subject of painting, as shown by two rather different examples at the Met, one a 1699 album page carefully executed by Lu Han , the other a several-foot-long hand scroll, dated 1560, by Qian Gu.

In general, scholarly confabs like this were all male affairs, although the Met show, expertly shaped and annotated by Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, the museum’s associate curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy, does free up space. for the female image, although almost all of the work in this section is by men. A roundabout exception occurs in an album dated 1799, entitled “Famous Women”. Her painter, Gai Qi, was male, but her images were based on poems by scholar Cao Zhenxiu, all dedicated to historical female heroes – warriors, artists, poets, and calligraphers like her. The album was actually commissioned by Cao.

And what about at the end of this show which, technically, is not a show at all, but a permanent overhaul of the collection? For me, there are several. The most obvious is the reminder that “Companions in Solitude” is a reminder of how beautiful, varied and demanding the Chinese tradition of landscape painting is for the mind and the eyes. Its formal beauties are so fine and its themes subtly articulated that it is an art easy to ignore, until you stop, watch and fall in love. “Companions in Solitude” is an opportunity to fall in love with it again.

It also gives an idea of ​​how rich the Met’s holdings are: 14 pieces of the rehang are on display for the first time, with more surprises promised in the next spin. And the stories of familiar works have been reconsidered and updated. The attribution of the monumental scroll “Dwellings Among Mountains and Clouds”, once considered one of Nanjing’s Eight Masters and a dying recluse, is now being reconsidered by scholars. Do their questions make the painting less worrying? No.

And the resonances between past and present are striking. In the aftermath of the Covid lockdown, loneliness, ideal and real, seems to be a more complicated condition than it once was. The same is true of communion, now shaped by new technological interfaces and permanent hesitation. In an age of acute environmental awareness, the earthly view projected by Chinese landscape painting – of the world, not as a collection of disparate and disposable material pieces, but as a single, responsive organism – has immediate relevance.

So is a principle – call it physical, call it Taoist – that seems to inform almost every footage on this show: the one thing that never changes is the fact of the change itself, a difficult certainty. but strangely consoling to wear from fall to winter.

Companions of solitude: seclusion and communion in Chinese art

The current rotation until January 9; second rotation, January 31-August. 14, 2022. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.


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