CLP 42: 2001 "The Problem of Value in 17th Century Chinese Painting."

The Problem of Value in Seventeenth Century Chinese Painting
(James Cahill, February 2001) (Jason: see note at end.)


Writing as someone who in years past has published two books, several exhibition catalog texts, and quite a few articles about 17th century Chinese painting, I can say that it is no less a pleasure and a challenge to return to this familiar terrain for yet another encounter. The problems and rewards of late Ming-early Ch’ing painting are inexhaustible, if only because so many schools and movements and stylistic directions make it up. This same extraordinary diversity, which we see as a positive condition, was viewed by writers and artists of the time, however, as a symptom of decline and weakness. I began the last chapter of my book The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Painting by quoting three major masters of the time giving their assessments of what had gone wrong in painting, and what the remedy might be. Wang Hui wrote in 1669:

“It is indeed a pity that painting of the present day has reached a new low, a decline occasioned by an overabundance of different ‘schools’. . . This predilection for schools stems from the lowering of artistic taste and the vulgarization of style.” (He lists four leading schools of his time, the Che, Wu, Yün-chien--Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and his followers--and the Lou-tung, his own. He continues:) “In addition to the painters in these main schools, those belonging to smaller branches and those claiming to be ‘individualists’ are too numerous to be counted. At any rate, with the existence of the four main styles and the handing down of misconceptions from generation to generation, there has been as a result the exhaustion of artistic excellence . . . To put it briefly, painters of Yün-chien laugh at the Che school and followers of Lou-tung scold the Wu school. In such confusion, the students, with brush in hand, are at such a complete loss that it is virtually impossible for them to penetrate the secrets of the art.”

The other two artist-writers quoted were Wang Yüan-ch’i and Shih-t’ao. Wang Yüan-ch’i agreed generally with Wang Hui (both were adherents of the Orthodox school) but saw salvation in a strict adherence to the right stylistic lineage, as it had been traced through a succession of old masters and continued in his own practice by Tung Ch’i-ch’ang. Shih-t’ao took a diametrically opposite position: he wanted to put an end altogether to imitation of the old masters and paint as if from a fresh, pristine beginning. Different as these three were in their paintings and their beliefs, they were in agreement that painting in their time was in a state of crisis. For us, by contrast, this is a great age of painting, producing a dazzling panoply of major masters and exciting stylistic innovations. We can take time, before turning to the paintings, to consider some of the factors that underlay the great diversity in 17th century painting.

Chinese painting after the Sung dynasty enters, I have argued in recent writings and lectures, a condition we can call post-historical. I took the term from writers such as Hans Belting and Arthur Danto who point out that while western art (primarily European) exhibits a traceable, seemingly orderly art-historical development through successive periods (medieval, early to late Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo/Romantic/Neo-classical etc.) up to Post-Impressionism, no such developmental pattern can be discerned in it after that. The same is true, I think, for Chinese painting after Sung. This is not the place to make that argument at length; I mean here to suggest only that the great diversity of 17th century painting is a natural outcome of that breakdown of developmental order--which was, to be sure, exacerbated by the social and political breakdown of that period. Even in an age when the best artists no longer feel constrained to commit themselves to any particular lineage or tradition, however, and enjoy far more latitude of stylistic choice, most of them are still inclined to follow artists and trends of their time or their recent past. Accordingly, we can classify painting of the period, following Chinese practice, into categories: Individualists, Orthodox, archaistic/bizarre, literati amateurs, etc. But these are only a tool for organizing our accounts. Most artists were affected also by regional affiliations, which permit us to write about a Nanjing school, an Anhui school, and others.

Other factors that underlay artists’ choices of styles included the social and economic situations in which they found themselves, and, closely tied to this, their educational backgrounds and training as painters. A major calligrapher such as Wang To would naturally be drawn to a painting style that built on the skills with the brush and abstract design with which he was already endowed through the practice of calligraphy. A more or less self-taught painter such as Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, committed as he was to the project of “imitating” ancient masters, obviously would not attempt to use the polished, professional ways of painting. For Chen Hung-shou, who was obliged to earn his living mainly as a painter, the scholar-amateur styles were of no use--although he was a classically educated scholar himself, he never attained the political rank or status that authorized the artist, so to speak, to paint in an amateurish manner, and also created a demand for his works among those who wanted them as emblems of that status.

Shifting our vantage point and considering the matter from the position of the painters’ audience, including collectors, we recognize immediately that no single set of value criteria can be effectively applied to such a diversity of styles and types of paintings. Connoisseurs who take pride in having “an eye for quality” are employing a figure of speech that simplifies a very complex process. Anyone engaged in the actual practice of making judgements of Ming-Ch’ing Chinese paintings is forever shifting from one set of value criteria to another; the unarticulated knowledge of which set is proper to a given kind of painting, and the ability to move smoothly from one to another is, in fact, an important aspect of becoming a connoisseur. The same is of course true for the earlier periods: one does not look at and judge a Ni Tsan landscape with “the same eyes”--the same set of visual responses, with their attendant evaluative functions--that are proper for appreciating a painting by Ma Yüan.

All the above is to introduce what will be the main theme of this essay: the problem of values in different types of paintings in Ming-Ch’ing China. While my discussions of the paintings and what makes them good or great--or, in a few cases, mediocre or bad--must necessarily be in some part subjective, I will try to formulate and articulate the values I believe they embody. I do not assume that these are necessarily the same that motivated Mr. Chen Chi-te in acquiring them; he has his own tastes and preferences, although I hope that some of what I write will resonate in his mind with the feelings he must have had at that exciting moment of acquisition.

Before the Late Ming

With a work like “Auspicious Snow at South Mountain” ascribed to Shen Yü (no. 3), the problem of value criteria scarcely arises, since it is a powerful and highly successful work by the most traditional standards. While I admit some hesitation in accepting the inscription with Shen Yü’s signature and the date 1458,[1] the period and school seem roughly right, and the work quite believable as by a professional master working in Suzhou in the decades before the ascendancy of Shen Zhou (whose teacher Shen Yü was), using the broad, blunt brushwork that characterized much of the output of the Suzhou masters. Compositionally, it is a monumental landscape in the Northern Sung tradition; Chinese connoisseurs would classify it as in the style of Fan K’uan, while recognizing touches of Hsia Kuei. At the same time, the prominence and the dispersal of the narrative materials, figures and buildings, belong to a Ming mode: Ming viewers of paintings liked to have the implicit stories in their landscapes spelled out, not hidden or hinted at. Much of the monumentality of the Fan Kuan model survives in this impressive composition: the steep ascent of the mountain ridge, the pockets of dark, wintry mist at the sides, the diminution of the tree groves into distance, all are readable, ring true. Later Ming masters, even Hsieh Shih-ch’en (the successor to this kind of painting in the Suzhou region), could scarcely match it.

Large pictures such as this, intended for hanging in entrance halls and other high-ceilinged, semi-public rooms in large households, had to be stable and satisfying in composition and thematically unchallenging; in function and effect they were like Japanese screens. The expressiveness of the brushwork was less an issue than the pictorial whole. Not so with the handscroll, which, seen close-up, confronted the viewer inescapably with the painter’s hand, as making up the image or, it might be, even as somewhat independent of the image. In the 1540 landscape handscroll by Ch’en Shun (no. 6), a significant part of the pleasure a viewer takes in reading the scroll comes from the seemingly free way the ink is applied, and how the scenery nonetheless pulls together into clarity. Such a style is best applicable to conventional imagery, since the viewer of the painting must constitute the picture out of the loosely-rendered materials. So we are presented with, successively, a man crossing a bridge, another waiting for him in a house, another in a boat near the shore, gazing off at the hills (echoes of Wu Chen), two friends conversing on the riverbank, two more in boats pulled up alongside each other. A boldly energetic style and restful scenery: this was a winning combination for many middle-Ming artists and their audiences.

Another was the use of a familiar, well-established style to depict scenes of particular places, a pictorial strategem that had the effect of investing those places with cultural overtones, advancing further a process already initiated when the places were named and poems about them composed. The strategem was a favorite among Wu school or Suchou artists, who would portray in this way a series of notable places in their region, or the scenery along some route of travel, or. at the request of a rich landowner, poetically designated places in his villa or garden. Wen Po-jen’s 1560 album of “Fourteen Views of Hsün-yang” is an excellent example of the last type. The writers of the colophons identify the recipient, the owner of the estate, and set up poetic resonances around the pictures and the places. Although Wen Po-jen is known to have labored to free himself from dependence on the style of his famous uncle Wen Cheng-ming, and was largely successful in this work, the paintings remain comfortably within the collective school manner, while exhibiting the originality in compositions that the album form encouraged.

It was noted above that large hanging scrolls tended to be compositionally stable and relatively conventional in their materials; an impressive exception is Chou Lung’s “Seeing a Dragon in a Rainstorm,” painted in 1617. The subject and style belong to the Che school (an example by Wang Chao, active about a century earlier, is in the Palace Museum, Beijing.) Here the dashing brushwork and dramatic ink contrasts serve to stimulate the viewer’s visual sense, and the monumentality of the composition increases the powerful effect. The figures of the old man and his boy servant are highly active both in their poses and in the brushwork that delineates them (the latter in fact anticipates the figure style of Huang Shen in the 18th century.) The boy points excited upward at the dragon appearing in the clouds, while clutching a wrapped ch’in or zither--an instrument quite out of place in this tumultuous setting, in which nothing short of kettledrums could be heard. The rocks and tangled vegetation that fill the lower half all but obscure the thatched shelter and bridge over a rushing stream, and provide a highly activated base for the main theme in the upper part.

The above discussions give some sense, however incomplete, of the range of possibilities open to Ming artists up to the early 17th century, the late Wan-li period, and of the qualities their works could embody. Two artists, the towering figures of late Ming painting, vastly expanded that range, creating works that demanded more complex, multi-leveled responses from their viewers: Tung Ch’i-ch’ang for landscape and Ch’en Hung-shou for figures. But before turning to them we will consider a few other artists and trends in the late Ming period.

Amateurs and Calligraphers

The problem of value in Chinese painting has special ramifications in the cases of the amateur artists, since older values--entertaining or instructive subject matter, skillful execution, decorative beauty--were scorned by the literati painters, who aimed at persuading everyone that they were pursuing higher goals. In the cases of serious painters such as Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, the claim had some validity; but it could also be used to justify or excuse paintings that were amateurish in a negative sense. I will use two handscrolls in the exhibition (with apologies to their owner) to exemplify what I take to be this failing. Both are genuine works, and worthy of places in the collection on other grounds; my criticism is of their aesthetic qualities.

Feng K’o-pin’s “Rocks and Bamboo” (no. 20) bears a title and colophons by several notable men of his time; Feng appears to have been a highly respected person. But if he was also a good painter, there is little sign of it here: he has simply repeated, throughout the scroll, a simple lumpy convention for “rock” and another for “bamboo,” grouping them differently and placing them here and there in an attempt to provide variety and avoid monotony. But the attempt fails; appeals to “good brushwork” etc. will not save such a work as this. Much the same is true, I think, although to a lesser degree, of Wei Chih-huang’s landscape handscroll of 1640 (no. 22). At a time when stylistic individualism was becoming more prized than ever before, Wei attempts to create an eccentric style out of wavy contour drawing, repeated folds in the terrain forms, and simple shading--adding to these a few standard motifs such as a waterfall and a man in a house. Again, the result falls short of success, I believe, and monotony ensues. What we miss is the working of a real artistic intelligence. Perhaps over-production was a factor: the painter Kung Hsien tells us that Wei Chih-huang tried to support a household of forty people with his painting. His best work, moreover, had been done decades earlier; he may simply have run out of new ideas.

These relative failures, as I would see them, can be offset with a notable success: the handscroll of “Orchids in Ink” painted in 1651 by the calligrapher-painter Wang To (no. 28). The creative intelligence deficient in the other two is admirably at work here. With a subject that could easily have been treated repetitively (as it is in numerous ink-orchids handscrolls that one rolls through quickly), Wang To invents variations, presenting, instead of the usual succession of clumps of orchids, passages with orchids growing with fungus and brambles, orchids with gravel in a shallow pot, orchids and bamboo on an earthy bank, all interspersed with inscriptions in his excellent calligraphy (written, he notes, with the painting brush.) Satin is a difficult ground for painting because its smoothness rules out rough-brush effects; Wang To exploits it for fluid strokes that can be shaded, or turn dry at their endings, while moving through a broad tonal range of ink values that is partly decorative, partly depth-creating. Calligrapher-painters are often carried away by the velocity of their brush movements to the point of dissolving their images; Wang To makes firm pictorial structures throughout. This is a scroll that offers rich visual pleasures.

Ch’en Hung-shou and Tseng Ching

For better or worse, landscape is the main subject of later Chinese painting, and masters of figure portrayal are relatively few. Standing out among them, surely, is Ch’en Hung-shou, as accomplished a painter in his way as Tung Ch’i-ch’ang was in his. But Ch’en was never to be deified as Tung was, not did he enjoy such a following--for one thing, his style, requiring a high level of technique, was more or less inaccessible to the amateurs. Moreover, figure painting, including most of Ch’en’s, is usually more overtly functional than landscape or plant subjects, and depends more than those on literary, historical, and other associations. In critical writings, then, it could be made to seem a less self-sufficient art, indebted to outside factors for much of its value. In practice, however, Ch’en Hung-shou can charge his painted images with refinements, resonances, and expressive complexities quite equal to those of Tung’s best landscapes.

In the case of Ch’en Hung-shou’s set of playing cards with imaginary portraits of the heroes of Shui-hu chuan (no. 15), the function is not only clear--the cards were used for a game played at drinking parties and other convivial gatherings--but is one that limits, in principle, the likelihood of survival for the works of art. The cards show signs of wear, suggesting that they were really used. For a major master, even at an early stage of his career (the style suggests a date in the 1620s), to expend so much time and painstaking skill on works that would in the natural course of things be worn out by use will seem to us excessively lavish. It fits easily, however, into late Ming patterns of elegant consumption of high-level craft objects, along with I-hsing tea wares, colorprinted poetry papers, and ink-cakes molded with fine relief designs. We can thank the person who made the decision to remove Chen’s paintings from the playing-card drawer and mount them for preservation before it was too late.

Ch’en Hung-shou’s fine, crotchety drawing of the Water Margin heroes, a manner seen also in others of his early works, appears to follow no established figure style, whether professional or amateur; it is perhaps best understood as a variant of pai-miao fine-line drawing but with the brushline moving somewhat more freely and fluctuating more markedly in breadth. It is reminiscent of some fen-pen or preparatory drawings, and may be based in part on those. Ch’en already, at around the age of twenty, has an impressive repertory of figure types, costume patterns, and props, and the poses of his figures are strongly varied--he introduces already a motif that he will favor later, the figure facing away from the viewer.

The four “Historical Scenes” by Ch’en Hung-shou, which belong to a later period, most likely the 1640s, are probably survivors from a larger series, and in the absence of the remainder or any inscriptions, their subject is difficult to identify. The scene of hanging the belt (of office) on the tree and the one featuring chrysanthemums would suggest T’ao Yüan-ming, a subject Ch’en depicted a number of times in his later years, but the other two, and the theme of the whole, remain to be determined. We are thus deprived of some part of the experience that the pictures would have provided to cultivated contemporaries of the artist. What we can still admire, no less than they, is the extraordinary strength and refinement of the drawing. If line is read as movement, what we read here is movement so controlled, so unrelentingly severe, as to scarcely reveal its agency in a human hand. The archaistic aspects of the style further distance it from any effect of arbitrariness in the artist: these images and their mode of delineation, the style implies, are as they must be, as if they had been engraved long ago in stone. And yet the highly special taste of Ch’en Hung-shou is actively present everywhere; even incidental patterns such as the weave of baskets or the crackled glaze on a porcelain brush-washer are visually absorbing. The exaggerated postures and gestures of the figures are equally affecting, and would be more so if we understood their literary or historical resonances. Such an achievement can make us for a time impatient, as Ch’en Hung-shou was, with the “inspired” brush-waving of ambitious amateurs; brushwork for him was something fundamentally other than what they argued it should be. But after noting this we will, of course, “shift aesthetic gears” once more and return to recognizing as well the inescapable greatness of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang.

More mundane and overtly functional, but still affecting in its own right, is Tseng Ching’s 1640 portrait of Liu Ching-t’ing (no. 23.) Liu, seated informally on a rock with his legs crossed, looks out at us, thrusting his face forward, with slightly hooded eyes and an expression that seems strangely plaintive. He is set, however, in the most comfortable and secure setting a Chinese litterateur could desire: some eighteen inscriptions, mostly by his contemporaries, hover in the space around him. They appear weightier than the picture--which is, nonetheless, a sensitive and accomplished work by this leading late-Ming portraitist, who raised this genre of painting to respectability after several centuries of languishing.

The original painting by another major late Ming master of figures, Ting Yün-p’eng, on which the copy by Ch’ing court artist Ting Kuan-p’eng (no. 60) is based, would have expanded this brief look at late Ming figure painting by introducing another subject type, Buddhist arhats, and another set of issues, including iconography. As it is, we can admire the later Ting’s work as polished and diverting, full of anecdotal indications of how these holy men and their attendants passed their time in religious devotions. The older Ting’s original must have exhibited some of the grotesqueries that appear in more extreme form in paintings of the same subject by Wu Pin.

Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, His Circle and His Following

Three paintings by contemporaries of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang can further fill in, before we turn to Tung himself, the art-historical ambiance within which he came to prominence. One is the six-leaf album of landscapes “after Yüan masters” painted in 1617 by Li Liu-fang (no. 12). Li, who lived in Chia-ting northwest of Shanghai and north of Sung-chiang, did not properly belong to Tung’s circle, but must have known him and his works, and can be seen as engaged in a large movement within literati painting for which Tung became the spearhead. Artists who followed this direction (which was in the following generation to become the Orthodox school of landscape) employed a compound mode of brushwork, derived from Yuan masters, notably Huang Kung-wang and Ni Tsan, in which the forms were rendered with overlays of brushwork, dry and wet, lighter and darker; they eliminated all narrative or anecdotal or historical themes from their paintings; and they practiced a kind of free imitation of canonical old masters called fang. Li Liu-fang’s album exemplifies all these: each leaf is inscribed as “imitating” (fang) one of the Yuan artists, and the brushwork, while wetter and looser than Tung’s, remains well within the prescribed mode. One appreciates, then, the sensitive execution of the paintings while also catching the nuanced references to the styles of the Yuan masters; both aspects of the experience are flattering to the viewer in their implication of a cultivated taste. The scenery is correspondingly unpeopled and unexciting. Nothing could move us further away, in intent and effect, from Chou Lung’s dynamic storm scene done in the same year.

The other two paintings are by Sung-chiang artists of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s time, artists more professionally oriented than he, who lacked status as scholar-bureaucrats or gentry: Chao Tso and Shen Shih-ch’ung. Both reportedly ghost-painted for Tung on occasion, and indeed we can find paintings signed by Tung that might well be their work. Chao Tso’s handscroll of 1611 (no. 11) bears a title written by Tung, and a colophon by him full of praise for the artist. But Chao’s work, fine as it is in itself, represents just the kind of mild, inoffensive picture from which Tung was determined to break away, as a comparison of it with any of Tung’s from the same period (e.g. his “Calling the Hermit at Ching-hsi” of 1611)[2] will immediately reveal. Viewed on its own terms, Chao’s picture has notable strengths: the masterly ease with which he draws the viewer’s eye between leafy trees to a further space in which he sets a pavilion with two figures, or back over marshy ground, peopled with fishermen and travelers, to a distant shore with houses, or up two ravines, the first occupied by a recluse’s dwelling, the second only by mist. Tung can admire pictorial richness and atmospheric effects such as these, but is unwilling to attempt them in his own painting, choosing to move instead into starkness and abstraction. The leaves of Shen Shih-ch’ung’s undated eight-leaf album (no. 21) portray the same warm, idealized world as Chao Tso’s scroll, in which old friends meet beneath bare trees or rest in a mountain inn. Shen follows expertly the practice of doing his leaves “in old styles,” but not at the expense of simpler pictorial pleasures.

If Chao Tso’s and Shen Shih-ch’ung’s paintings were designed to soothe and charm their audiences, Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s were intended to unsettle, even shock, his. Where Chao and Shen soften their masses in atmospheric haze, Tung sets his off with heavy contours; where they lean toward naturalism, he leans toward abstraction. There are, to be sure, exceptions: a leaf in Shen Shih-ch’ung’s album (ref. to reprod.) in a highly geometricized form of the Ma Yuan-Hsia Kuei manner is as stark and striking in its way as one of Tung’s pictures. But Shen, the secondary master, lacks the creative drive and historical sense to exploit his own semi-chance openings to new stylistic directions, and such a leaf represents an isolated achievement. Tung, by contrast, with his seldom-relaxed artistic intelligence, never misses a chance to push to a further extreme some anomalous configuration that appears in his work. This side of Tung’s art, its propensity for stylistic extremism, was to be a powerful inspiration for the Individualist masters of the early Ch’ing.

The other aspect of Tung’s art that was to have a profound effect on landscape painting of the following periods is its insistence on following self-imposed formal strictures, imposing a special order on the work and the depicted world. What we have termed the post-historical state of later Chinese painting, and see as a condition of exciting diversity, Tung Ch’i-ch’ang saw as a weakening lack of clear direction, a condition he set about to remedy single-handed with his grand concept of the Southern school and his creation of its stylistic coordinates for his time. He was only partly successful, fortunately for the rest of Chinese painting-- which, if he had succeeded and all later landscapists followed his Orthodox direction, would have been immeasureably impoverished. As it happened, both the Orthodox masters and the Individualists were able to draw heavily on the theories and practice of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, and a healthy diversity continued, at least for a century or so.

The two landscapes by Tung Ch’i-ch’ang in the exhibition are from the same period, 1620-21, when Tung was nearing the end of a long period of living in retirement in Sung-chiang; in 1622 he would return to Peking, and later Nanking, for four years of service as historian and high minister. “A Winding River and Twisting Road” (no. 17) was painted in 1620, and augmented or retouched in the following year, according to Tung’s brief second inscription. We can speculate that it was the rows of horizontal tien or dots along the upper contours of his forms that were added, perhaps together with some other dark accents; some of these appear a bit detached from the rest of the picture. They suggest low vegetation, and serve to blur slightly the outlines. The system of building the landscape masses as composites of repeated forms, distantly derived from Huang Kung-wang, supplies the basic structure within which oddities are inserted: in this picture, several huge slanting slabs of earth or rock--Tung Ch’i-ch’ang scarcely distinguishes one from the other--that stand out in the upper part, relieving, along with other formal oddities, what might otherwise have slipped into monotony, a kind of orthodoxy before the founding of the Orthodox school.

The other 1621 work (no. 18) is inscribed by Tung Ch’i-ch’ang with a poem by the Tang poet Wang Wei, and, although he does not say so explicitly, is based on Tung’s understanding of Wang Wei’s painting style. which in turn was based largely on certain archaistic paintings known to him that were ascribed to Wang Wei. As usual in Tung’s pictures of this type, the upper and lower parts answer each other formally, even though the materials--trees on a shore vs. rocky cliffs--are entirely different. The geometricizing mode of Tung’s middle period is seen here at its best. The brilliant new compositional structures he creates are sanctioned, in his own view and that of his adherents, by their supposed reliance on the styles of the Southern school founder and other early masters; for us this is a lesser attraction than their quasi-cubist manipulations of mass and space. It is obvious that the value system by which we evaluate Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s works must be as complex as those we apply to the great 20th century masters of the west. Neither criteria of representation, at one end, nor pure brushwork at the other are alone adequate.

The two older of the Four Wangs, Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s leading followers in the Orthodox school direction, Wang Shih-min and Wang Chien, are unrepresented in the exhibition, but the two younger can be seen in excellent works: Wang Yüan-ch’i represented by two hanging scrolls and a handscroll, Wang Hui by two albums. Although Wang Yüan-ch’i is the younger by ten years we will consider him first, as the more direct recipient of the master’s legacy (his grandfather Wang Shih-min was Tung’s direct pupil) and as more unproblematically Orthodox in his production. That last observation is not at all intended to disparage him--he is one of the strongest, most consistently masterful of later Chinese painters.

His two hanging scrolls, one from his middle period and in the manner of Huang Kung-wang (no. 50, dated 1686), the other late and in the Wang Meng manner (no. 51, dated 1710), exemplify the uniformly high quality of his output: they present no surprises to the artist’s admirers--who, to be sure, neither expected nor desired surprises. The two pictures differ slightly in style: brushwork is looser in the earlier work, done when Wang was still more concerned with the special textures of the school’s prescribed system of overlaid brushstrokes; in the later one, a formalist or constructivist urge replaces brushwork as the central concern, and the earth masses are more clearly demarcated modules that make up the whole structure. Even the trees function more as compositional units than as natural images. The slightly sloping water plane at right, and the sense of mismatched horizons on the two sides of the continuous upward-rising ridge that dominates the picture, are features often seen, sometimes much more radically, in Wang’s late works.

These hanging scrolls are in the styles of two of the Four Yüan Masters; Wang Yüan-ch’i’s undated handscroll (no. 52), according to his incription on it, follows the “brush ideas” of all four, and all at once--without shifting, that is, from one style to another within the scroll. In his inscription after the painting, dated 1710 (the painting must be from around the same time), he expresses some pride in having thus combined or synthesized the styles. But the Orthodox school landscape style was already, in large part, a synthesis of those styles, and it is in Wang Yüan-ch’i’s particular version of it that this handscroll is executed. The homogeneity of the landscape materials recalls Max Loehr’s well-known characterization of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s style as “volumes of nondescript matter arranged in a disarrayed space.” To write this is, again, not to disparage either artist: it is exactly this abstraction, this stripping away of all differentiations of geological forms, tree types, even houses, that clear the way for the powerful compositional manipulations they give us. Their practice sets severe limits on what they can adopt from the old masters whom they invoke, any one of whom (even Ni Tsan) would have endowed his picture with more of truly pictorial qualities, more readable masses and spaces, more particularized details. The pleasures of viewing Wang Yüan-ch’i’s scroll arise from encountering his familiar materials engaged in ever-new patterns of movement and stasis, tension and resolution, “opening” and “closing” movements, forms answering forms in intricate interplay.

Wang Hui, even while he became in principle an adherent to the Orthodox school (as a protégé of both Wang Shih-min and Wang Chien), resisted accepting its regimentation to quite such a degree. Especially in his earlier period, as beautifully exemplified in the album of 1672 (no. 38), Wang Hui recognizes that old masters such as Chü-jan or Chao Ling-jang or Chao Meng-fu were making landscape pictures, not abstract designs, and does the same in his “imitations” of them. For some critics of his time this might seem to be compromising principles; for us, it augments the Orthodox formulae with pictorial pleasures. Moreover, Wang Hui will include leaves in his albums, such as the storm scene with a dragon in the clouds in this one, that follow no old master at all, and are all the more fresh and stimulating. His sensitive hand sets up variety even within the old-masterish exercises, never--at least at this stage of his career--slipping into repetition and monotony.

The other album (no. 39) is undated but, judging from the style, belongs to his middle period. Here Wang Hui seems more consciously art-historical, invoking particular old paintings (Chao Meng-fu’s Shui-ts’un t’u, Ni Tsan’s Shih-tzu lin) in original variations, including less revered masters, or later ones such as Shen Chou and T’ang Yin, among his models. The viewer’s memories are stirred at the same time that his visual sense is deeply satisfied. In later years Wang Hui, driven by over-production, would come to rely too heavily on formulae, but there is no sign of that failing here.

The Anhui School

The two leading regional movements in early Ch’ing painting, the Anhui and Nanjing schools, are well represented in the exhibition in works by major masters of both schools. We turn first to the Anhui school, which was more strongly affected by the ideas and stylistic innovations of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang. In the 1981 exhibition catalog Shadows of Mount Huang devoted to this school, I and my graduate students argued that the spare, linear styles that originated in Sung-chiang painting and were taken up (and taken to extremes) by the Anhui-school artists were, among other things, emblems of high-culture values for merchant class and other newly affluent patrons, just as Ni Tsan’s paintings had been in the late Yüan; and that formulation, even while it over-simplifies the situation, still seems true.

Hsiao Yün-ts’ung’s 1664 album of landscapes after Sung and Yüan masters (no. 31), for instance, was surely affected by the popularity of such albums among Orthodox-school artists and their audiences. He writes that he painted it after acquiring (or, one suspects, being able to see and study) genuine works by these masters. The changes in style from one leaf to another seem in fact minimal, and Hsiao does not name his sources (with one exception) in his inscriptions. But the pictures do reveal some general acquaintance with old modes of composition and old motifs, and stand high among Hsiao Yün-ts’ung’s works. He was one of the older and more conservative artists of the school, and although he would sometimes venture into the more extreme reaches of the Anhui manner, the striking innovations were to be in the paintings of others, especially Hung-jen.

Hung-jen’s 1656 Strange Scenery at Huangshan (no. 30) is from a period when he is just moving into his full maturity, but exhibits already most of the subtle devices that raise him above the other masters of the school and manifest a high level of artistic intelligence: the shift in scale between the house atop the middleground bluff and the simple shelter below at right, contradicting their location equidistant from the viewer; the exaggerated size of foreground trees, as against the bluff and house; the leftward leaning of that bluff and its answer in the rightward progression of flat-topped masses above; the extreme economy with which he applies grey washes in a few areas, and adds squared outcroppings here and there. And all this is rendered, cleanly and precisely, in an extremely sensitive hand, going far beyond any simple “imitation” of Ni Tsan. In his inscription Hung-jen uses the term hsieh-i, which usually would suggest a degree of sketchiness, but nothing that is gestural or improvisatory is permissable within this cool, disciplined style.

The minimalist direction seen in Hung-jen’s painting, in which the landscape is executed in a dry, linear manner and decorative effects of all kinds are eschewed, became very popular among Anhui collectors of paintings and is used in different forms by most of the other masters of the school. While the tendency toward geometricism is strong, the aim in their best works was to reconcile this manner with effects traditionally pursued in landscape painting: volumetric mass and space, deep distance, even monumentality. Occasionally they would venture into other modes of painting, to sustain variety within their works. Cheng Min, for instance, who was a friend of Hung-jen and often painted in a manner similar to his, could also work in a wetter, inkier style, as his “Landscape After Rain” (no. 40) reveals.

In the generation after Hung-jen, two leading painters of the school were Cha Shih-piao and Ch’eng Sui. Both spent much of their later life in Yangchou, a city where patronage and the market for paintings were abundant--many merchants who had made their fortunes in Anhui and elsewhere moved to Yangchou to build mansions and gardens and enjoy the elegant pleasures the city afforded. The emergence in Yangchou of a middle-level clientele for paintings encouraged artists who worked there, Cha Shih-piao among them, to adopt looser and quicker manners of painting. Works from Cha’s earlier years are typically in the dry Ni Tsan/Hung-jen manner; after the move to Yangchou he paints prolifically and too often repetitively. His 1696 long handscroll in the manner of Wu Chen (no. 36), done for a particular patron from whom he had received or expected more substantial rewards, is especially fine for his late period. The style is derived, not directly from Wu Chen, but from Shen Chou’s works in the Wu Chen manner.

Ch’eng Sui came from a well-off family and did not depend on painting for his livelihood; each of his relatively few surviving works is the outcome of unhurried, original thought. His “Autumn Hills” handscroll (no. 35), done for Cha Shih-piao, is an exercise in building a complex landscape out of dry brushline and large tien or dots, both applied in a range from pale to deep black. The faux-naif drawing of houses and trees further removes the picture from any mundane realism. An even more remarkable achievement is his undated “Landscape” (no. 34). Artists of his time and region, he writes in the inscription, all follow the “level distance” mode of composition; here he attempts the neglected “high distance” mode, in which one ascends a steep mountain slope to a high skyline. Most of the picture space is filled with small forms done in dry brushwork and even ink tone, seeming to allow no recession, leaving only small areas of sky at the top and water at the bottom. And yet the ascent of the mountainside, as one gazes longer, becomes both readable and visually engrossing. When this picture was shown in our Shadows of Mount Huang exhibition, it proved to be one of the most popular; visitors would stand for long periods in front of it, fascinated by its subtlety and complexity.

A somewhat separate branch of the Anhui school was located in Hsüan-ch’eng in northern Anhui; the principal artists active there were Mei Ch’ing, his younger brother Mei Keng, and his grand-nephew Mei Ch’ung. Mei Ch’ing, the oldest and most famous, is a painter stronger in poetic fancy than in painterly technique; his style nonetheless dominates the family output. Even Shih-t’ao, who lived in a monastery near Hsüan-ch’eng from 1666 to 1680, was affected by it. Of the Mei family, on the other hand, Ch’ung may be the most technically accomplished. His undated album of ten scenes of the Huangshan region (no. 37), with inscriptions by both the artist and Mei Ch’ing, follows a practice seen earlier in Hsiao Yün-ts’ung’s 1648 woodblock-printed series of Landscapes of T’ai-p’ing County, in which each leaf, besides portraying a real place, refers in its style to some old master. The pictures thus require of the viewer a multilevel reading, which includes appreciation of the poems and the calligraphy in which they are written, making up an intricate, culture-heavy, and necessarily unhurried experience within which the topographically descriptive aspects of the pictures are all but obscured. But it was exactly the long-established function of such paintings to endow the places with overlays of literary culture. Pictures of the local scenery, notably Huangshan, constitute, in fact, a major part of the school’s output, as it had of the Wu or Suchou school in the Ming.

The Nanking School

The city of Nanjing, which had been a secondary capital in the Ming, was another major center of painting in the seventeenth century. The Nanjing masters, for the most part, resisted being caught up in the new movement of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and his Sung-chiang followers, along with the extensions of this movement into Anhui and other parts of the Chiang-nan region. Instead, they were inclined to preserve their commitment to the tradition of the great Sung landscapists, who were well represented in local collections. They were also affected by the illusionistic devices to be learned, by anyone who chose to do so, from the European engravings and paintings brought by the Jesuits, who had one of their major missions in Nanjing. This unlikely coming-together of Sung Chinese and northern European pictorial traditions, reflected already in the best works of the late Ming master Wu Pin, pervades much of the Nanjing-school painting of early Ch’ing.

The leading master, for us--he was not recognized as that in his time--is Kung Hsien. His 1655 landscape in the exhibition (no. 29), however, does not bear out the above observations. In his early years Kung employed the dry linear manner; by 1655 he was adding shading between parallel contours and multiplying forms to produce monumental landscapes, of which this one is a prime example. It was only later that he would move into the extraordinary explorations of illusionistic light and space, and the quasi-expressionist compositions, for which he is best known. The 1655 landscape, packed with heavily-outlined and strongly shaded forms, evokes the massive power of Northern Sung landscapes, but without the atmospheric and naturalistic softening of those; it follows rather the abstracting direction of much early Ch’ing painting, adhering to the picture surface for the most part, moving back only in a few scooped-out gullies and hollows behind repoussoir trees.

Nothing could be further from this in intent and effect than the 1666 album by Kung Hsien’s contemporary Fan Ch’i (no. 32). Atmospheric space pervades these enchanting pictures, recessions into deep distance is essential to them, and transit through the landscape is their very theme: moving through the world, along paths and roads, or, in two of the leaves, by boat. Effects of sunshine and dusk, and sensitive evocations of time of day, intensify the immediacy of the experiences. Houses are stopping places on the journey, not (as in typical Wu-school paintings of the Ming) refuges for reclusion. Roads lead to temples or hamlets, but are understood to continue beyond. The thematic program seen here originates in painting of the Southern Sung, and is continued in some works by late Ming painters such as Sheng Mao-yeh; it is the central subject of my book The Lyric Journey (1996). Fan Ch’i’s re-creation of of it sacrifices nothing of its evocative poignancy, the feelings of transience and lateness. The original order of the leaves is unknowable, but the winter scene bearing Fan’s inscription must be the last, and is an effective close: the cluster of houses, with no passage indicated beyond them, represents shelter from the cold and a destination finally reached.

Wang Kai was a later and lesser master of the school, best known for his role in the production of the landscape section of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, published in 1679. His 1686 Pavilions on Mt. Li in Snow (no. 48) exemplifies his eclectic approach to painting, and his preference for Sung models. It is a work solidly put together, with no surprises.

Pa-ta Shan-jen and Shih-t’ao

These two major Individualist artists worked independently of regional schools, the first because he lived in a city, Nan-ch’ang, that was far from the major centers of painting, the other because he moved around the great regional centers during his long career--Anhui, Nanjing, Beijing, Yangchou--without, until the end, settling into any one place or style. Both are represented in the exhibition by works so unlike as to demonstrate already the brilliance and versatility of their artists.

Chu Ta or Pa-ta Shan-jen seems to have begun by following a mode of painting, devoted mainly to plant and bird subjects, preserved from the late Sung in Ch’an monasteries, and developing this in odd, non-conformist directions as he painted more and was able to see more paintings by other artists outside that tradition. His “Ink Lotus” (no. 42) is a fine and typical work from his great period in the late 1680s and 1690s, his full maturity. Paintings from this period offer visual ambiguities of space and mass--here, for instance, in the way the lotus stalks are readable (mistakenly) as the outer contours of solid forms, like the outline of the rock--and effects of unbalance, with the weight of massed ink at the top insufficiently supported by the curving lotus stalks. No other late artist except Shih-t’ao stands so prominently apart from his contemporaries, or sustains such a level of originality throughout his oeuvre.

A seemingly minor production comprising two album-leaf landscapes and two works of calligraphy (no. 43) proves to be another that plays tricks with the viewer’s perception. One of the landscapes loosely alludes to the Tung Ch’i-ch’ang mode, which Pa-ta often followed. The other, small and simple as it is, holds more interest, as a kind of backwards performance of the Ni Tsan formula. By placing the ting-tz’u or rest-shelter, a staple of Ni Tsan’s pictures (one imagined sitting in it and gazing off at distant hills), in the far distance without diminishing it in size, Pa-ta turns an old idea upside down, forcing the viewer to locate out there and look back at the ungainly pine tree. The picture offers a quiet jolt with this strange confrontation. If it were done in the ordinary Ni Tsan manner it would be only a trick; in Pa-ta’s prickly brushwork and tight compositional structure it is a small delight.

In a consideration of the problem of value in later Chinese painting, the most difficult artist to encompass, but also the most rewarding, is Shih-t’ao. If he can be very great, he can also, especially in his late period, be dull. He cannot, like Wang Yüan-ch’i, be held to a single standard of quality, nor is he so consistent in stylistic direction as Pa-ta Shan-jen. He seems to experiment with every style he encounters, seeing how he can turn it to his purposes, sometimes but by no means always rewardingly. Any attempt to appraise him as a whole must take into account so many factors that no simple set of criteria will encompass it.

Shih-t’ao’s early style is now established by enough datable works to allow us to place in it such a picture as his Boating on a Clear River (no. 44). At this stage, his strength is in the delicacy and imagination with which small passages are executed--the group of trees in upper left and another just below it, the trees-and-house unit below the boating scholar. The larger projects of organizing these into a coherent composition and controlling specific effects (do the slanting strokes of ink in the upper part indicate rain, or approaching dusk, or just murky sky?), still elude the artist somewhat. Even so, the picture offers many subtle pleasures. By the time of the superb album of 1678 (no. 45) Shih-t’ao has all of his artistic means under control, and can draw on an impressive repertory of brush-manners and compositional types without risking awardness. Each leaf is consistent in style, original in conception, clear in theme--and, most extraordinary of all, the themes are fresh and unhackneyed. Much of the rest of Shih-t’ao’s long career is anticipated in this album--which has been so much written about, by myself among others, that it need not be dealt with at length here.

The other masterwork among the Shih-t’ao group, and a prize within the whole collection, is the 1696 hanging scroll representing The Blue Lotus Pavilion at Kuang-ling (no. 47). This is a painting that deserves quiet, prolonged viewing, a richly-furnished world in itself, revealing more the more one gazes. Shih-t’ao did it while staying in Yangchou, several years after his return from Peking; he records a gathering of friends at this pavilion and adds that at the request of his host he “casually caught its likeness.” The pavilion is presumably the two-storey bulding in lower right, with birds flying around it; another flock of birds is seen in middle left, circling over the village, about to roost, as some have already in the foreground trees. Beyond are masts of fishing boats pulled up on the river shore. The time is evening, and the scene is suffused with mist and sunset light. No human figures are to be seen. The passage into far distance, ending in an undramatic row of hilltops, is done with an ease that belies its real mastery, accomplished through diminution of trees, gradual elimination of detail, atmospheric blurring and dimming.

This nostalgic, poetic, meditative picture bears out Shih-t’ao’s late-period claim to having given up the practice of imitating old styles--or, for that matter, recent and contemporary styles--to simply paint as though he were inventing the art. Just as Shih-t’ao challenged the orthodoxies of painting in his time, a work such as this challenges the Chinese connoisseurs’ contention that one should look at the brushwork in a painting, not the “scenery.” To do that here, to attend to brushwork and style and fail to read the painting as a picture, would be to miss its essence, and miss also much of the pleasure it offers. The same is true of many others of Shih-t’ao’s best works, and much of the best painting that followed him. His achievement, besides opening the way for a broad range of stylistic departures (by artists who mostly cannot, however, be said to have imitated him in any direct way) reveals a large, important truth about eighteenth century and later Chinese painting: the best of the artists after Shih-t’ao were emancipated from the orthodoxy of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and the Four Wangs, while at the same time most of the critics and theorists, up to the present day, were not. The gap between the values of later Chinese painting as they are manifested in the works themselves and the values propounded by theoretical writers of the same period is a problem that confronts anyone trying to deal with the late period. We are best advised, I think, to recognize the gap and believe the paintings.

The Eighteenth Century

The deaths of three major early Ch'ing landscapists within a decade--Shih-t'ao in 1707, Wang Yüan-ch'i in 1715, Wang Hui in 1717--mark a turning point in Chinese painting, of which the sharp decline in the production and importance of landscape is only one symptomatic aspect. We will conclude with a brief look at the small but high-level representation in the exhibition of this aftermath of the 17th century.

Marxist writers in P. R. China were inclined to regard the Yangchou “eccentrics” of the 18th century, as they regarded Hsü Wei and Shih-t’ao before them, as artists who liberated painting from a stifling orthodoxy, which they associated with political conservatism and oppression. Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and the Four Wangs were the villains in this particular narrative, and Tung’s works were not to be seen in pre-1977 exhibitions in China. More recent scholarship, whether by Chinese or foreign specialists, has largely rejected this ideological approach and judgements based on it, to adopt more apolitical stances. There is still enough truth in the argument, however, leaving politics aside, that it need not be discarded altogether. Before Shih-t’ao (to oversimplify), good painting accomplished its ends within sets of rules; after him, it often accomplished them by breaking the rules. The corollary of this observation is that breaking the rules can carry more risk, bring about more bad painting, than working within them--a practice that never (as Sung painting attests) precluded or even diminished originality. Non-conformist artists are obliged to formulate styles that offer new value systems to replace the old-established ones, in order to sustain a comparable level of quality and interest in their works.

Before turning to the radicals, a brief look at a curious conservative: Ku Fu-chen. Because of his meticulous and antiquarian style, one encounters his paintings sometimes with false attributions to old masters. Good works by him, nonetheless, such as his 1715 Road to Shu (no. 53), have their charms, in diverting detail and a mild quirkiness. The profusion of small, evenly-weighted forms, however, precludes compositional strength, and Ku’s works in the end barely escape being merely decorative.

Kao Ch’i-p’ei’s variety of rule-breaking lay, as is well known, in his use of his fingers instead of a brush to apply the ink and pigments, a departure that can be a refreshing relief from “good brushwork,” especially when the pictures hold up as interesting and original in other regards--too many of them depend on the unorthodox technique for their appeal. The 1722 album (no. 54) contains leaves of both kinds: some that present too-familiar imagery and do not hold one’s attention for long, others (the female immortal riding a tiger in the clouds, the cormorant fisherman, the two men gazing upward at a rather ominous flight of large, black birds) that seem fresh and unhackneyed.

Ch’en Chuan’s small album of ink-plum paintings (a work I have known for many years--it was owned by a little-known Tokyo dealer, Murakami Tôjidô) is one of the delights of the whole collection. The subject is conventional enough, and the extraordinary dry-brush drawing requires you to attend closely to the pictures for intimate encounters, since they will not leap out at you. Ch’en Chuan’s compositional method, and especially the way he brilliantly exploits the frame, letting it partly dictate the crotchety movements of the branches and twigs, constricting them without uncomfortably cramping them, is anticipated only in some pictures of the same subject by Shih-t’ao, and imitated by later Yangchou artists, notably Wang Shih-shen. But it is the slow, sensitive, dry brushline, often so pale that it all but disappears into the paper, that is most affecting, conveying the extremely soft touch of the artist’s hand. Remains of creases up the center of each leaf show that the album was originally folded vertically, and so was only half its present size; such an album could be carried about in one’s handbag and enjoyed in quiet moments.

At an opposite extreme in manner of execution is Huang Shen’s 1726 album of flower and plant subjects (no. 56). Here the brush moves quickly, as if flutteringly, over the paper. in some places to the point of nearly dissolving the image into configurations of brushstrokes--it is like Hsü Wei without the tension, Pa-ta Shan-jen without the dark aberrations. Huang Shen has learned from Pa-ta the device of isolating the image in the picture space, or forcing it partly out through one margin. His brushwork is dashing, exhilarating, especially where he leaves breaks between strokes without losing the momentum between them, so that the whole structure keeps its coherence. The pervasiveness of tightly curling brush movements stops just short of creating a rococo effect. Even so, this is a performance few artists in the late period could match.

Two more 18th century landscapes and one from the early 19th century complete the exhibition, but, good as they are in themselves (one would be happy to live with Li Shih-cho’s, no. 59, on one’s study wall) they cannot sustain the level reached by the great 17th-century landscapists; the main energies of Chinese painting had moved elsewhere. The exhibition leaves us, then, with the big picture of later Chinese painting essentially unaltered, but filled out with a series of high-quality works by the major masters that allows us to experience again its complexity and its greatness.

Jason: I count on you to make corrections--this was written rather in a hurry, and must have factual mistakes. I didn’t have available most of my library (still in Berkeley, or packed in boxes until we build an addition to this house), or the catalog notes on the individual paintings--some of these are being sent to me by Ms. Huang, and I will write you again with corrections and additions. I’m probably inconsistent in Wade-Giles/pinyin; I used the former, thinking it is standard in Taiwan. (No?) Please insert, wherever you think wise, references to Compelling Image and Distant Mountains, books you know all too well; insert also dates for artists, biblio. info. for books, etc. if the editor requires them. And generally, coordinate with the rest of the catalog. Many thanks, as always. JFC

Dear Ms. Tsai: Here is my manuscript, which I will send in both hard copy and on disc. The latter may have a problem: My computer has recently been de-bugged--a number of viruses--and some may survive on this disc. I assume you have the means to eradicate them.

In Taipei I was shown by Ms. Huang two works by Mei Ch’ing, a hanging scroll and an album, which were not on the printed list. If either or both of these are to be included, let me know and I will write paragraphs about them to be inserted at the proper place--I have slides of both.

I don’t think I will include the album for Wen Cheng-ming’s 80th birthday of which you sent me photos, since I haven’t seen it in the original.

I’m glad to learn from your most recent fax that you are considering printing my essay in English--I would be especially pleased if this were possible.

All the best. Yours,

References in the text

[1] To my eye, the writing may lie too much on the surface of the worn paper. But since the painting might have been trimmed at top--the mountain peak is very close to upper limit, and probably originally had more space above it--the inscription could have been copied from a now-missing upper section.

[2] Cahill, The Distant Mountains, Fig. 39.

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...