CLP 119 1999


Cultural Values in E. Asian Art panel discussion, prepared comments

(May 15, 1999) Japan Society, Japan House

(A ``Discussion on The Concept of Masterpiece`, with Nobuo Tsuji, Hans Belting, Robt. Rosenblum``)

Learning rather late that we would be making presentations w. slides, I began thinking desperately how to deal w. subject of masterpieces in Ch ptg.  Obviously one could understand question in two senses; first, Chinese concept of masterpiece, if any, as we can derive it from Ch writings on ptg & especially abt particular ptgs; and to be masterpieces and why.  I decided a bit arbitrarily to get through the first rather quickly, since it is covered expertly if briefly in Amy Poster`s catalog essay, & spend more of allotted time on the second.  I apologize to those who would rather hear more abt Ch. Concept of masterpiece.  I`ll be talking mostly about LS ptg, to keep discussion manageable, and because for some other kinds, e.g. great Chìng-ming cityscape by Chang Tse-tuan, defining reasons why it`s a masterpiece is too easy to be interesting.

Ch. Have no term that corresp. To masterpiece or masterwork.   Ming-chi, term that comes immediately to mind, less strong-literally `famous relic,` designating a notable surviving work of some big name artist.  We sometimes encounter statement that partic. Ptg by an artist is `finest work of his whole life` or `No. 1 Tung Yuan under Heaven` and the like.  But as a lot of recent scholarship has shown, such judgement were made so lightly, and were affected so much by matters of who owned the work, how obligated the writer was to that person, and so forth, that they can`t be given a lot of weight.

S.S. Huang Kung-wang`s `Dwelling in the Fu-chùn Mts.`comes close to masterpiece category wéin Ch ptg, as Lan-tìng Preface of Wang His-chih does for callig., on two grounds: the quality of writing about it to be found in old Ch texts, and the magnitude of its effect on later ptg.  It may rank at the top on both counts.  For a ptg that occupies that position, it`s a curiously modest work—couldn`t put beside Sistine Chapel ceiling, say, and expect it to hold its own.  That recognizing its value depends on a certain level of connoisseurship, and a somewhat inbred kind of connoisseurship, an acquired taste, makes its masterpiece status all the more secure, even beyond argument, for Chinese literati critics, who are inclined to relegate to a lower level any work that exercises a broad popular appeal.  I myself agree that Fu-ch`un  scroll is a masterwork, and have tried to say why in numerous writings and lectures over many years.  But if opposed, eg. By Dick Barnhart, who once characterized it as thin & scratchy and dull (if my memory serves) I couldn`t come up with a quick & easy defense of it.  Can be done, but not quickly.

S.  Kuo His.  But instead of pursuing further Ch. Concept of masterpiece, would rather turn to ours.  Some early ptgs. have attained masterpiece status simply by surviving.  Kuo His`s `Early Spring` of 1072 may or may not rank high among what what evidently  a fairly prolific output of the artist—we have no way of knowing; in any case, this is our Kuo His, very probably the only one we have.  So it more or less inevitably takes its place as one of the masterpieces of Ch ptg.  Its extremely high level of quality and interest, of course, support that judgment, which presumably couldn`t have been made of just any work by Kuo.  And again, its traceable effect on later ptg. Is a factor in assessing its importance.

S. Fan K`uan.  The same is true of `the` Fan K`uan.  But this ptg`s pre-eminence can be argued as well on other grounds.  Those of us who have taught hist. of Ch LS for years know how effectively it can be presented as culmination of long dev., as the work that triumphantly solves the problems of early Ch LSists as we identified them (or defined them),  achieves what other landscapists had been striving toward, and so forth.  I am as aware as anyone of objections to that kind of formulation, and could demolish it w.  arguments as devastating as those that are now,  I assume, running around in the head of many of you, if that were to the present purpose.

S. Yen Wen-kuei.  But after we have had the satisfaction of doing this, a sense remains that that kind of argument isn`t altogether nonsensical—a body of art such as early Ch LS ptg can be seen legitimately as a large collective project w. aims & methods in considerable part shared, within which successes & failures—and, yes, masterpieces—can be recognized (Relat. To Yen Wen-kuei.)

S.S. For later ptg—WM , Tung C-c—certain works have moved into masterpiece status by being reproduced & written about over the years as the outstanding, most complex, absorbing, exciting, whatever, work of some major master.  WM`s Chìng-pien Mts. Of 1366 in Shanghai Mus.;  Tung Ch`i-ch`ang`s ptg ostensibly of same subject from 1617 in Cleveland Mus. Are two examples.  It isn`t, of course, that writing or talking abt them in itself makes them masterpieces, but the possibility of doing certain kinds of analysis and exposition of what`s involved in a relatively full experience of such a ptg., the capacity of the work to sustain analysis of that kind, indicates the richness of content w. which artist has endowed it—the allusions to older ptg., esp. the ways the artist has used by subverted well-established conventions, raising expectations & then confounding them., and so forth. Any good Ch ptg specialist, given the right slides of related works & ten minutes to organize her or his thoughts, could give an hour-long lecture on either of these ptgs that would leave listeners w. no doubt abt whether they belong in the masterpiece category.

S.S. Wu Pin vs. ``Kuan T`ùng.`` Same true of this work by Wu Pin, which might be considered one of masterpieces of late Mind, and derives much of its unsettling power from what it does to a model that had once stood for order and stability in the world, the Northern Sung monumental landscape.  By evoking that model only to distort it, deny its stability and readability, Wu Pin determines the world view that lay behind it.

S.S. Honolulu, Sumitomo Hung-jens. When I did my Skira book in the late 50s, I represented the great Individualist master Hung-jen by the section at left from his 1661 handscroll in Sumitomo Col.  It wasn`t a bad choice, but now I would use instead the great hanging scroll ``The Sound of Autumn`` in the Honolulu Acad. (Story: exhib. Of  Anhui ptg. General public, newspaper critics, all bowled over.  Has been the same whenever & wherever exhib.)  If we set about analyzing why this should be so—why, in the midst of a whole exhibition of strikingly spare, linear paintings, this on held everyone`s attention, why this is widely regarded as the masterwork of Hung-jen--we arrive, I think, at a formulation similar  to the one I was attempting this morning: a fusion, or reconciling, of the startling new with the reassuringly old.

S. (Yen Wen-kuei). In a process I traced at length in one of my Compelling Image lectures, Hung-jen learned certain techniques of the Northern Sun landscapists for drawing volumetric landmasses w. readably sloping tops and receding sides, and then repeating these, more or less, to construct compostions with strong qualities of order and monumentality.  And among the artist`s many extant works, the Honolulu ptg supremely exemplifies this achievement, staying within the spare, linear manner of the Anhui school while calling up the spaciousness and clarity of Northern Sung monumental landscape.  Linear renderings of what had once been more substantial forms in western painting, when these are new works of art and not just simplified copies, too often end up as reductive, even parodistic. Whether it be Roy Lichtenstein`s funny parodies of the Abstract Expressionist gestural brushstroke in flat-colored outline, or, not at all funny and much more disturbing, Robert Motherwell`s late linear renderings of the form that had earlier made up his powerful  and deeply affecting ``Elegies for the Spanish Republic.``      Hung-jen manages to escape diminishing grandeur  of the No. Sung model while stripping away most of its substance, dematerializing it in accord with the whole Anhui School project.

With more time I would develop this idea, with more examples, to support my argument that it isn`t the radical move in itself, but a dynamic and successful reconciliation of the radical with some strengths preserved from the past, that is most likely to produce the masterpiece.  I would call on the musical analogies I like to use, pointing out perhaps that in early 20th cent. Music Edgar Varese and Anton Webern are not much listened to, while it is Stravinsky, with his early roots in late romantic Russian music and his later intricate and delightful uses of baroque and earlier materials, who produces the masterpieces that one never tire of.  And finally I would apply this formulation to characterize the whole later, post-Sung period of Ch ptg., to suggest how a post-historical art (in other, less daunting company I might say ``art after the end of the history of art``) can continue to have a certain coherence instead of flying madly off  in all directions, like some other artistic traditions one could name.  But for now I had best stop, having already exceeded my time and my competence.  Thank you.

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