CLP 101: 1985 “Excellence in Chinese Painting.” Lecture, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Boston MFA lecture, Feb. 1989 (Quality in Ch. Ptg.)

The charge presented to lecturers in this series is an absorbing one, all the more so because it is so unfashionable: the questions of quality and excellence in art. Has an objectionably elitist ring for lots of people these days. CAA in NYC in two weeks has session called “Firing the Canon” (explain), with, for instance, paper on Harriet Powers’ “Bible Quilt” and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling. well. One of several disclosures and disclaimers I want to make at beginning of my talk tonight: I am confirmed canonist; believe that there are great works of art, good works, OK minor works, bad works, etc.; and that we can & should distinguish between these. Believe that there are works which can occupy our attn. longer, and have a more legitimate claim on our attn.; than others. That there are works that impress themselves lastingly on our consciousness, change our lives. (I state these as aspects of experience, rather than attributes of work, deliberately.)

Certain reluctance among writers on art today to confront what still seem to me urgent questions for people who study and write about art, if ultimately unresolvable questions: what is art; what is good or excellent art. (Excellent, as in title of this series, a useful word: it excels, i.e. is better than, something else. Not an absolute attribute of work. I’ll go with that.) To argue for the validity of the concept of quality & excellence in art isn’t to argue agst. pluralistic approach in making judgments, idea that works of art can be good or great in different ways; that I believe firmly, and will try to demonstrate in talking about Chinese paintings. But to grant that isn’t to say that they are all equally good, or great. I don’t believe that small piano pieces of Eric Satie are equals of late quartets of Beethoven, just different; or that the quilt, however fine, is likely to be the equal of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Basic problem in dealing with quality or excellence in art: we can derive, from what we take to be excellent or successful works of art, thru analysis of kind we do, qualities that appear to make them excel, to produce this kind of high-level aesthetic experience in us; we can observe these qualities recurring in one after another of works we consider excellent; but can’t reverse process, tell artist: if you do this and that, you will produce an excellent work of art. Nor can we say that work lacking these qualities cannot be excellent: will always be exceptions; doesn’t work that way.

But I’m not here, thank goodness, to argue general issues of quality in art; only wanted to get a few general beliefs out of the way before going on to talk about where & how I find excellence in Chinese paintings. Good, I think, that this series is on excellence in Asian art. Doesn’t mean to imply (I assume) that excellence somehow different there; but allows for special ways of defining criteria. One of basic questions, in fact, is: should we adopt criteria of cultures themselves, in dealing with arts of foreign cultures, or apply our own? Proponents of former, adopting criteria of the culture that produced the work, often quite vociferous, bring in emotion-charged issues such as so-called “Orientalism.” Proponents of latter, making judgements by our own criteria (whatever those are) often charged with “imposing Western values on artistic traditions where they don’t properly apply,” and so forth. I used to talk that way, in younger years. Period in which I came into field, early 1950s, was period when more people w. training in Chinese language began to work on Chinese painting; we were so pleased with ourselves for being able to read Ch. texts, critical & theoretical writings, apply these to our understanding of ptgs, that we accepted what Ch. writers said w/o thinking, uncritically, as truth about paintings. If there is anything I’m sure about now it’s that this is bad mistake; I argue now that we should continue to make every effort to reach deepest, most complete understanding of Ch. criteria of judgement that we can; and doing so will of course affect our judgements, open our eyes to qualities we were blind to before. But in the end we have to distance ourselves from Ch. criteria and Ch. judgements, recognizing that they, too, were time-bound and culture-bound, not to be regarded as having universal validity; that there will be wide differences between judgements made by Chinese writers of dif. periods, dif. levels of society, etc. within China; that they had their blind spots too; and that in the end we have to make our own criteria and our own judgements.

When faced w. preparing lecture these days, on any large subject, find myself drawn to typologies and taxonomies: classifying, categorizing. Would that work here? types of excellence? Possible; as I said, I believe firmly in pluralistic approaches to art, even in trying to define what art is and how it works. All good Ch ptgs aren’t good in same way, nor are they good in same way typical Eur. ptg is good. One encounters people who have firm faith in sharpness of their eye, in their ability to discern quality in art wherever and whenever. I think that’s an unrealistic claim, and that people can be, must be, sensitized to special qualities in certain kinds of art; that discrimination comes w. familiarity. One of things we do, as teachers and writers, is “program in” such familiarity, open paths of responses that allow people to appreciate nuances as well as broader distinctions in material we teach.

Enough of generalities; on to the paintings.

S,S. At very beginning of Ch ptg, neolithic ptd pots; these from Pan-p’o ts’un, ca. 4000 B.C.: issues already present. When does Ch art begin? Teaching course on early periods, I begin it here; make point that representation doesn’t equal art. Can have aesthetically barren representation, like one on left; or aesthetically engaging design, like pot on right. (Talk about.) I would argue that the one is art, the other isn’t, or at least not art of any quality or consequence; and that it’s a distinction we should try to make, artifact from art object.

Next step: w/in large category of objects that qualify as works of art, distinction between better and less good ones, excellent vs. mediocre, etc. In dealing with that basic & vexing question, I’ll consider cases of some MFA Chinese ptgs, along w. related works. And want to begin by clearing away several issues that are related to, but not the same as, the issue of aesthetic quality.

S,S. First is issue of importance: art-historical, historical, other. Perhaps most famous Ch. ptg in this museum is this one, “Portraits of the Emperors” handscroll attrib. to 7th cent. master Yen Li-pen. (In portraiture exhibition.) A book could be made out of published studies of this scroll, from Kojiro Tomita’s 1932 article onward, including the treatment of it in the1973 catalog Unearthing China’s Past by Jan Fontein and Tom Wu, Suzuki Kei’s discussion in his book on early Chinese painting, and Jin Weinuo’s recent article in Chinese. Chinese and Japanese scholars as well as Westerners have written about the dating, authorship, subject, style, and preservation of the scroll (the last, preservation, because the first six figures are believed to be a later restoration, or in any case to be from a different period and hand.) This is an unavoidable, inescapable painting, for better or worse; wherever you turn, it’s there. If you study Chinese portraiture, or early figure style, or the T’ang imperial icon, or what kind of ptg was seen & studied by the late Ming artist Ch’en Hung-shou when he served briefly in the court, you come up inevitably agst. this ptg. I tried to escape it--wrote a general book on Ch ptg pub. in 1960 and left it out. And was chastised for doing so in a review by the late Benjamin Rowland of Harvard. Inescapable. Highly important.

Does all this make it a great work of art? No, in sense that great work of art moves us deeply, delights us aesthetically; I don’t think I speak only for myself in suggesting that this one doesn’t. Does one look forward always to another viewing, apart from all these scholarly and pedagogical concerns? I think not. Equiv. for Ch. ptg of great unread books--I remember an article on these that I read long ago, in which the book nominated for the “great unread book” prize on this basis was The Pilgrim’s Progress. The “Portraits of the Emperors” scroll is similarly earnest, important, a bit of a bore.

I could, by contrast, show you aesthetically moving works of art that are of small art-historical or historical importance; but the point is too obvious to need making.

Next, the issue of authorship.

S. Here is a ptg in the MFA collection with an old attrib. to Li Wei, 11th cent. scholar-official who specialized in bamboo ptg. Signature, but partly missing. Seals of 12th cent. emperor Kao-tsung, and of Liang Ch’ing-piao, great 17c collector. I listed ptg in my Index of Early Ch. Ptrs & Ptgs as a “fine late Sung or early Yuan work,” i.e. 12th-13th cent. But I’ve had uneasy feelings abt it, and have never discussed it in publications or lectures until now.

S. Recently my colleague Hironobu Kohara has suggested in a letter that the ptg is really by a Ch’ing dyn. master named Shen Ts’ang; not much known of him; active in K’ang-hsi period, late 17-early 18c. And once suggestion made, seemed to me absolutely right: distinctive style, which I knew well from alb. by him I own myself and another in Princeton Art Museum dtd. 1714. Everything in so-called Li Wei ptg--way rocks and hillsides are ptd, figures, S. Clouds, architecture (which I expect architectural historian could have identified as Ch’ing, not Sung)--all correspond so closely as to be, for me at least, decisive. Can’t take time to convince you completely (altho I think I could); but want to use this case to raise further questions abt. quality. Supposing (as I believe) that it can be proved to have been painted by Shen Ts’ang, in early 18th cent.. Does quality, aesthetic value, of ptg change? In simplest sense, no, since ptg. is same as before; and if we think of quality as immutable attribute of physical object, that’s the end of the matter. Scholars change their minds and their attributions, but nobody tells the ptg about these changes, and it stays exactly as it was.

As a physical object, that is; but as a work of art that evokes a certain kind of experience in people, it does change; and the latter is crucial to aesthetic judgements; what we know abt ptg can’t be separated from those judgements. (For readers of Dewey’s Art as Experience I will be on familiar ground; book I read long ago, which affected my thinking deeply.) Someone who has bought a fake ptg (and I hasten to say that this one isn’t a fake--honest, original and fine work of later artist, misattributed & provided with fake seals in modern times)--someone who has bought fake ptg, when this is pointed out to him, will sometimes say: I don’t care what scholars think, or who ptd it; I like the ptg, and that’s enough for me. I don’t try, in such cases, to argue with him; he has enough trouble already. But know very well it doesn’t work that way: once person who bought, let’s say, fake Wang Yuan-ch’i landscape sees enough real ones to realize truth, or is told by knowledgeable people he shows it to that it’s not genuine, there’s no way he can go on seeing it in same way; for him, not same ptg at all. (Dewey’s paradox). Li Wei ptg not diminished in quality, but seen in different context; obviously very conservative work for early 18c; remarkable, on other hand, that ptr of that period, and little-known one, can re-create Sung style so well. Re-attribution creates new set of critical problems and issues.

S,S. To balance that case, in which MFA ptg declines in age & importance when its true authorship discovered, here is another in which one rises, in my judgement at least. Handscroll w. inscription by Hung-jen, greatest of Anhui province masters of early Ch’ing, active in brief period from late 1640s to his death in 1663. Lovely ptg, but doesn’t match what we think of as Hung-jen’s style, as rep. supremely by great LS in Honolulu Acad. of Arts titled “The Coming of Autumn” When I & eight students organized exhib. of Anhui School ptg in 1981, saw & admired MFA scroll on trip to East Coast, but decided not to include in show because of uncertainly abt authenticity--looked too much like work of one of lesser masters of school; nothing to match it in Hung-jen’s accepted oeuvre.

S. In 1986, scroll by Hung-jen in same style, w. same date--spring of 1663, shortly before death (he died in summer of that year)--appeared in great exhib. at Shanghai Museum. Agrees so well, in so many points, as to force us to reconsider and probably revise our assessment of MFA scroll. Both are depictions of actual places, done presum. for owners of villas portrayed in ptgs. Known that he was travelling in spring of that year, to Lu-shan in Kiangsi province; perhaps further research (I haven’t done it) will reveal that these were ptgs done for people with whom he stayed while traveling--common practice. Ptg would then be read not for semi-abstract manipulation of forms, like Honolulu work but less successful, but for its sensitive, idealizing portrayal of real scenery, or adaptation of artist’s stylistic repertory to depiction of real scene; less radically conventionalized than usual because of this different purpose. In any case, quality of ptg in a sense enhanced by appearance of other one; gives context w/in which we understand it, perhaps removes stigma of suspicion of in-authenticity. But again, of course, ptg itself doesn’t change at all.

S,.S. Altho recognizing work as authentic doesn’t make it better, increases our expectations of quality in viewing it, since authentic work of good artist is likely to be better work, both because orig. artist presumably had some solid basis for his reputation, so that prob. better ptr than imitators; and because doing something for first time seems to endow work w. qualities we speak of as freshness, spontaneity, inventiveness, sense of artist creating before your eyes; whereas ptrs of imitations and copies slip into repetitious uses of mannered forms, and into what one speaks of “dead hand of copyist.” Exceptions: I will speak later of possibility of good or even great artist producing second-rate ptgs, sometimes by imitating himself (Ch’i Pai-shih did this in modern times). Also, always possibility that imitation can be by better artist than one to whom work is attributed. Especially possible in cases of amateur painters, as many of best artists in China were: ptrs whose strengths didn’t lie in technique.

This is famous ptg of “Five-colored Parokeet” by early 12th cent. emperor Hui-tsung, in MFA. Authenticity has been questioned by some; I myself wrote of it “Late Sung or early Yuan copy?” in my Index, on basis of style. But inclined now to think it’s prob. OK, from hand of emperor, fine work. Flatness that worried me then can be accounted for as aspect of amateurism, and of purpose of ptg: quasi-ornithological study of rare bird in aviary in imperial garden; markings and other identifying features more important than roundness, or spacious setting, or sense of life.

S,S. I could make argument for accepting it as authentic by comparison with others; this is one in Palace Museum, Beijing; but that’s not to my purpose here.

S. Seeing this ptg in Japan attrib. to Hui-tsung, quail and bit of narcissus, we may find it has more space, more roundness, more presence, than MFA ptg; but unlikely to be work of emperor’s hand. Ptg of kind brought to Japan in early times, provided with false attributions and often signatures, used as tea-ceremony hanging; other one wouldn’t do for that. Strength of image, along w. a certain subtlety and mystery, were what tea-masters wanted. So, is ptg in Japan better? By certain set of criteria, yes. Chinese would probably prefer MFA ptg; Japanese the one in Japan. Question of function inevitably intrudes on judgements of quality, whether or not we feel that in theory it should. Chinese sometimes thought of ptgs that way: said ptg of Mu-ch’i, for instance, great Ch’an Buddhist master of 13c., not for refined appreciation, good only for hanging in monk’s hut as aids to meditation. A put-down, to be sure; but also a definition of suitability to function as a criterion of quality.

S,S. I show these two details from awful handscroll in Shanghai Museum attrib. to Hui-tsung only to remark that odd argument has sometimes been made--e.g. by Osvald Siren--that most inept ptgs among works attrib. to emperor are most likely to be genuine, since he probably wasn’t very good ptr. Fallacy of that argument doesn’t need pointing out; even as imperial amateur, he needed to do ptgs that would be taken serious in age of great painting; this obviously wouldn’t have been. From acknowledging that less good ptg. could be genuine Hui-tsung, in other words, one might leap, in non-sequitur way, to saying that less good ptg should be genuine Hui-tsung. Idea of amateur artist complicates judgements of quality, but shouldn’t induce us to abandon them altogether.

S,S. Problem of amateurism arises also in case of Chao Ling-jang, slightly earlier artist; handscroll by him in MFA, signed, dtd. 1100. Chao Ling-jang was member of Sung imperial family; practiced ptg as elegant avocation (altho very serious about it--major artist, not just Sunday painter.) MFA handscroll is, to my knowledge, only work of this artist w. reliable signature; makes it important work, the work one begins with in treating him in classes or in writing. But also lovely ptg, in what was for the time a new poetic mode, a break with the dominant trad. of monumental LS. For cultured viewers, also rep. a reversion to the style of the great 8th cent. poet-painter Wang Wei. So we are told in texts; with no evidence for reconstructing the style of Wang Wei, we necessarily miss much of this allusive aspect of Chao Ling-jang’s ptg; some part of its quality doesn’t communicate itself to us. But enough does communicate to make viewing the scroll a quietly moving experience, just because of the absence of dramatic, or strikingly unusual scenery of any sort. Instead, scenery is (as Loehr put it) “Restful and gentle, not heroic but homely and intimate and protected.” In style, quality of cultivated reserve is felt in simple, slightly amateurish drawing and plain subject-matter.

S. This is ptg in same style by Li An-chung, artist of Imperial Academy, done 17 years later, in 1117 (Cleveland Museum of Art). Even though other artist (Li An-chung) is more adept at locating parts of picture in misty space, in making ground plane recede properly, etc., misses the refinements and slight quirkiness of Chao Ling-jang’s, ends up being rather bland.

S,S. (Tung C-c leaves n & r) Without leaving topic of amateurism in Ch. ptg., want to consider album of sketches by Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, done probably in 1620s (he died 1636). No insc. by him, or even sig. or seals; attrib. by style, but perfectly convincing. Its status unclear--done as models for a student, as Kung Hsien’s sketchbooks were, a bit later? Probably not. Sketches from nature? A few leaves, such as these two, might be read that way, and are as far in the direction of naturalism as Tung ever goes. But that assumption doesn’t seem applicable to any but a few of the twenty leaves. It seems most likely, given the nature of the ptgs (and the fact that they are on different paper and of different sizes & shapes) that they are simply records of the artist’s trying out small ideas, with the intent of incorporating them into finished paintings later. And the ideas are of several types.

S,S. (Leaves b & k) There are leaves in which Tung seems to be trying out the effects of different kinds of brushwork, ways of applying the ink to the paper with deft and sensitive touches, or lines, differing in ink values and in wetness or dryness. One important criterion of value in Ch. ptg is that of brushwork; for some traditional Chinese connoisseurs, it was the central criterion: good brushwork = good painting. My friend Wang Chi-ch’ien, distinguished painter and connoisseur, has a favorite analogy for making this point: (etc., about Caruso and voice in opera.) I argue with him that his analogy is faulty at both ends: because nobody who cares for opera goes only for the quality of the singing any more, if they ever did--we demand that the opera work also as drama; and in Ch ptg, a work in which only brushwork can be admired (as in these two sketches) won’t hold one’s interest for long, or qualify as really good ptg.

S,S. (leaves e, s) What we require for good ptg--and Wang, when thus pinned down, agrees--is brushwork that functions not merely as expressive in itself, as the “hand of the artist,” but functions effectively also to render forms. And that combination: brushwork that is in itself expressive, distinctive, strong, and is also effective in building forms that are expressive, distinctive, strong--seems to me a satisfactory initial statement of what, for me and many others, constitutes quality in Ch. ptg. Leaves some questions unanswered--what do you mean by brushwork expressive in itself?--but this isn’t the occasion to branch out into those large questions, except to say: we read Chinese brushwork as traces or records of movements of the artist’s hand, and read feeling and meaning empathically into these movements. And if you respond: “Oh, just like Chinese calligraphy!” I answer: No and no and no! The notion that Ch. callig. is a key to appreciating Ch ptg is a very prevalent delusion, popular because it seems to offer enlightenment without really offering much of anything. Ch. callig. and Ch. ptg are separate arts in just about every way; as I pointed out in lecture on Tung C-c delivered across the river some years ago, Ch. callig. offers no parallel to the kinds of compounding or overlaying of brushstrokes that constitutes “good brushwork” in Ch. literati ptg, quite apart from the fact that the compositional and other problems of the two arts are totally different. So this is, I think, dead end.

S,S. (leaves f & o) As with other ptgs we considered earlier, some leaves in Tung C-c’s album refer back, in their styles, to great masters of the past, enriching their content, for knowledgeable viewers, by these cultural references. Leaf on right is in manner of 11th cent. landscapist Mi Fu (as writer of inscription notes); one on left is a schematic rendering of compositional type that Tung did more completely S. in LS of 1621, designated in his insc. as “in manner of Wang Wei,” 8th cent. landscapist mentioned earlier, whom Tung took to be forefather of literati lineage of ptg in which he located himself. What Tung finds in Wang Wei very dif. from what Chao Ling-jang found in him; seem unrelated, referring to two different artists. Really matter of 17th cent. understanding, based on later imitations in absence of originals, vs. 11th cent. understanding, closer to source.

All this will seem esoteric; cultivated taste, requiring a lot of prior familiarity with ptgs & issues. Very real values, not just snobbism; but hard for outsider to penetrate. Makes ptg into an in-group art; and this is what artists and their associates in scholar-literati class intended. They argued, and traditional Ch. connoisseurs argue to this day, that this is highest taste; but we don’t have to agree. Idea that any kind of art that requires more advanced kind of appreciation, restricting audience to narrow group of cognascenti, is therefore a higher form of art, is another aesthetic delusion, or fallacy, I think. I knew a collector in Japan, a Mr. Hiraki who made his fortune with sewing machines (Brother company, which made sewing machines before they made typewriters), who had fine col. of Ming-Ch’ing ptgs. I visited him several times to see them. Then, when I came to see him one summer, to see what he’d acquired since I was last there, he told me he’d sold his M-C ptg collection in order to pursue another kind of collecting: of chashaku (etc.) So I sat there, for much longer than I wanted to, looking at these dumb little pieces of bent bamboo, and also looking at Mr. Hiraki, feeling sorry for someone who would sacrifice riches of Ming-Ch’ing ptg to collect these. I admit a certain bias myself in the matter; but I want to use this case to illustrate important issue in quality in art. Don’t be buffaloed by people who argue that recherche values are the highest values. (I don’t want to come on like Orson Welles on TV selling Gallo wine, suggesting discrimination is all snobbism; but that’s an element, surely, in too many appreciations of esoteric materials.)

S. Chinese connoisseurs who insist that the austere manner of Tung C-c and other literati ptrs is highest taste w/in Ch. ptgs can be confronted with many kinds of ptg that that taste excludes, and to which they were accordingly blinded; while Japanese, for whom they sometimes profess disdain, or foreigners, even more, have often been the ones who give these artists and paintings their due. Here is wonderful LS by Chang Hung, somewhat younger contemp. of Tung C-c, in MFA collection: “Wind in Pines at Mt. Kou-ch’ü,” painted in 1650. Admiring such a work requires that we shift gears, aesthetically, after looking at Tung Ch’i-ch’ang; we cannot look for “good brushwork” in literati sense, since there scarcely is any; we cannot talk of cultivated allusions to old ptgs, since Chang Hung (although he was quite capable of them) chooses not to introduce any.

S. (Detail: too pictorial for traditional Chinese connoisseurs.) We have to be able to say: in this case the Chinese were simply wrong, in ignoring or belittling the achievement of Chang Hung (as they were wrong about quite a few other excellent artists, over the centuries) We can take pleasure in exactly the absence of conventions and conformities to old standards that disqualifies ptg for trad. Chinese connoisseur, and admire it for freshness, unhackneyed quality, responsiveness to phenomena of nature, sheer originality. (And of course, if honest, we admit that we have our own blind spots and biases, and can be just as wrong.)

S,S. Pursuing idea of highest level of quality in Ch ptg as ideal reconciliation of brushwork values w. certain representational and pictorial values, I show pair of ptgs in MFA by T’ang Yin, great Ming master (d. 1523), which rep. that reconciliation at best. Two hanging scrolls, prob. two sec’ns of screen; sec’n w. his inscription separated, lost. Remaining two used to be catalogued as Anon Ming. Chiang Chao-shen of Palace Mus. in Taipei, later myself in book on Ming ptg, argued that these are fine works of T’ang Yin. MFA version certainly the finest; but version in China (only partly corresponding) looks, from reproduction, to be possibly genuine also. Anyway, finding structures of brushstrokes that will render forms in nature, hover between naturalistic portrayal and calligraphy, was project of Ch ptr at his best. (Putting it this way--seeing artist as if translating natural image into structure of brushstrokes, or finding brushstroke equivalents that convey attributes, visual and other, of natural materials, has brought on me charges of naivete about relations of art and nature; I know the arguments against this way of thinking and talking well enough, but am not deterred by such charges, since still seems to me true to materials themselves and our experience of them, as more “hard-minded” approaches that undermine very idea of representation are not.)

S. Another. T’ang Yin, in any case, did this supremely well: nervous energy of fluid brushline imparted to natural forms--rock, trees, vines, bamboo. Viewer experiences on two levels simultaneously, dazzled by ease with which artist creates feeling of growing life in plant subjects, of tactile surface and atmospheric space, and by fluency of brushwork. But most of all, by how these work together, neither seeming to detract from other. Relatively rare accomplishment in Ch. ptg., at least on this level.

S,S. T’ang Yin’s ptg of “Singing Bird on Branch” in Shanghai Museum has same quality of vitality in brushstroke, execution, charging image with same vitality. Strokes for branch rough, as if undisciplined; don’t connect, but cohere as if magically through continuity of movement, into image of leafy branch still wet with rain; sun comes out, bird bursts into song. Small masterwork; kind of thing lots of Ch ptrs aim at, never achieve. (Another, aesthetically very shaky criterion: artist achieves what others seem to be aiming at without achieving; therefore excellent. Don’t offer this seriously.)

S,S. Great master of this kind of ptg was Hsü Wei, active in later 16th cent: two details from great handscroll in Nanking Museum rep. flower, fruits, and vegetables: melon on vine, pomegranate. Qualities of this kind of ptg communicate themselves immediately to viewer; visually exciting; brush drawing that seems free, spontaneous, but communicates properties of things portrayed.

S,S. Then, what of ptg like this one? Fine work by Ch’iu Ying, T’ang Yin’s contemporary, in MFA: lady on verandah of upstairs room of house, looking out over river. If we adopt rhetoric used by critics to praise other kind of ptg, so-called hsieh-i, this becomes kung-pi, “fine brushwork” manner, supposed to be conservative, duller. But just dif. set of values, not dull at all. Ch’iu Ying a straightforward professional master, not, like T’ang Yin, educated & cultivated man who turned to ptg for livelihood after failing to pursue official career. Ptr in Ch’iu Ying’s situation not encouraged to display temperament in ptg style, brushwork, the way T’ang Yin and Hsü Wei did. One is scarcely conscious of Ch’iu’s hand; what one admires is exquisite refinement of form and sense of reserve in all aspects of ptg. This, too, a poetic ptg, presenting in pictorial form a them endlessly treated in poetry. (Describe). Everything in ptg contributes to perfectly-realized effect.

S. Success of Ch’iu Ying’s picture can be understood if we place it beside another of same theme by some imitator of Ch’iu’s contemporary Wen Cheng-ming; purports to be by Wen, but fake, I think. Clumsy, heavy-handed painting, ineffective in conveying idea work is supposed to convey.In any case, Ch’iu Ying, the professional, supposed to be Wen C-m’s inferior in aesthetic refinement, beats him at his own game.

S. A bit later, in late Ming, Ch’en Hung-shou does same theme a bit parodistically, tongue-in-cheek (leaf in album in Freer Gallery), raises it to high level once more; but invites different response from viewer, as if subtly making fun of Ch’iu Ying’s straight-faced version; or, more properly, at ptgs of this kind. Expression of ptg complicated, playing agst theme at same time it seems to celebrate it. But to pursue values of ironic and parodistic treatments of old themes in ptgs of Ch’en Hung-shou would take us too far afield; will only point out how, in our time, ironic treatment of old, familiar subject will often make it tolerable, even enjoyable, while straight-faced treatment of it wouldn’t be.

S,S. To suggest dif sets of values appropriate for dif. kinds of ptgs, as I’ve been doing, raises further problems; but I don’t see any way around it. Opens possibility of undermining whole idea of critical judgement by arguing always that each ptg is good of its kind, only different. And there are those who make that kind of argument. I have been engaged for some years in controversy w. one of my respected colleagues, who becomes upset when I argue that accomplishments of one ptr are not equal to those of another, or that some ptr was at his best in early & middle periods, weaker in late period, or that some school of ptg flourished at one time and declined at another. He argued in paper written for recent symposium that all judgements of quality are only expressions of subjective personal preference anyway, and that if one can’t write positively about an artist, shouldn’t write about him at all. Case in point, and focus of argument, is great Individualist master Shih-t’ao, and especially his late works, such as album dtd 1703 in MFA.

S,S. (Two more leaves.) (Etc., 1967 exhibition and symposium at U. Michigan.) More recently, in lectures given in 1979, I argued that Shih-t’ao’s works underwent general decline in late period, brought on by age & illness but also by change in way of working--he produced far more ptgs, works done quickly and somewhat repetitively; some of them can be fresh and attractive, others fall down badly--clumsy compositions, brushwork that is messy and doesn’t work to define form, in ways I suggested earlier, and as Shih-t’ao himself had done magnificently in earlier phases of his career.

S,S. (Better leaves.) And this, again, has upset some of my colleagues, who prefer to argue that these works are just as good as earlier ones, only different. Argument hard to sustain, I think, in the face of the ptgs. (Parallel, of course, w. Picasso). But in Ch. ptg., not only in this case; strong feeling agst. qualitative judgements generally in our field. Hangover, I suspect, from trad. Chinese view that any genuine work by good artist is by definition good ptg. Idea we should rid ourselves of, once and for all, I think. Range of quality within artist’s work, even best artists, very broad in China.

S,S. Related case is that of Shih-t’ao’s contemporary Cha Shih-piao. MFA has one of his finest works, done for rich collector-connoisseur Ta Chung-kuang ca. 16 . Ptg to which he devoted some time and thought; original, interesting composition, excellent brushwork by Chinese standards or ours. In later period of his life Cha Shih-piao, like Shih-t’ao, lived in Yangchou, city where people making fortunes in this period tended to congregate; demand for ptgs by new monied class there seems to have encouraged him, again like Shih-t’ao, to over-produce, lots of quickly-done works;

S. (Hackneyed one) And quality , I think, drops sharply, however one defines quality. (Simply: which work can give you most aesthetic pleasure for longer period? Whatever difficulty we have in defining quality, no question abt which ptg does that.) This practice continues in Yangchou ptg of 18th cent., and on down to modern times, when principal weakness of even major ptrs seems to be practice of ptg too many pictures of same kind, serially, relying on facility developed over the years, riding on popularity. Ch’i Pai-shih that way, others, down to our time.

S,S. To avoid ending my lecture on such a downbeat note, I will conclude with a look at a few Southern Sung ptgs in MFA associated w. Ma Yuan and Hsia Kuei, two great artists active in imperial academy in late 12th-early 13th century. These are two signed works by Ma Yuan, both fan ptgs mounted now as album leaves.

Ptg w. willows, in particular, used to be reproduced often, e.g. in general books on art that wanted to include one Ch. ptg. Very accessible ptg; everybody could see beauty of it. Then, a certain reaction against it occurred among specialists--came up at 1961 symposium in New York, and surprising vehemence of opinion agst it--not questioning authenticity, but finding it too sweet, too contrived--like turn agst. late romantic music (at one time; not so much so now.) Chinese connoisseurs tend to consign ptg of this kind to lower level of taste; some of finest examples preserved in Japan, where admiration for this kind of painting more widespread and continuous. (Chinese weak on judgements of Sung ptg; work used to rep. Ma Yuan in most Chinese publications recently is, I think, a Ming imitation.)

S. Another in collection. Such shifts in taste, and they are common enough, certainly don’t invalidate judgements of quality, nor do they lead to conclusion that one judgement is as good as another; they only make us aware that these judgements are necessarily time-bound and culture-bound, and shouldn’t be thought of as absolute or eternal. No way of escaping from this situation; to ask for judgements of quality that will hold their validity over time is like asking for judgement from God; we aren’t going to get it. Ptgs will hold their quality, of course; Ma Yuan will make a come-back, as Mahler has.

S. His contemporary Hsia Kuei has fared better, in both Chinese and foreign critical opinion; artist of greater range and depth, usually escapes from sense of artifice that one feels too often in Ma Yuan’s works. This fan ptg in MFA was discovered, some thirty years ago, to bear his signature (beneath limb of tree at right.) Belongs w. ptgs I showed earlier in which a degree of looseness in execution serves to characterize subject: wind-blown trees and house on shore in rainstorm, boat driven before wind, crests of hills above. Ma Yuan ptg seems a bit static beside it; but dif. theme, still moment in evening, returning farmer. (Hsia Kuei ptg has considerable damage, badly repaired; if mine, I’d send it off quickly to good Japanese mounter; would come back looking far better.)

S. Another ptg in MFA attrib. to him, neglected; deserves more attention. Exists in several versions; this best. LS w. returning fisherman; has moored boat, spread nets to dry; making his way twd thatched house among trees.

S,S. Album leaf (pl. 104), catalogued in old Portfolio of Ch. Ptgs as “Anon. 15th cent.” But this dating too late; good late Sung ptg, I think. Acc. to catalog, has old seals on it reading “Hsia Kuei.” In style, resembles more the works of Ma Yuan’s son Ma Lin (cf. ptg. in Cleveland Museum--less good): kind of attenuated, almost precious versions of man-contemplating-nature theme that Ma Yuan had brought to classical point of perfection--these a bit over the edge. But no reason why Hsia Kuei couldn’t have done such a ptg., perhaps late in his career, caught up in same ending-a-tradition atmosphere as Ma Lin, moving into highly abbreviated manner, reducing ptg to a few telling elements, for poignant, highly rarefied effect.

S,S. Saying that allows me to end with this ptg, album leaf, one of my favorites in MFA collection. Cat. as Anon. Sung (? pl. 142). Autumn scene, with leafy trees on shore blown in wind, leaves flying in air and floating on water; man and boatman approach shore in boat, will moor in inlet; man will make his way along path in middle ground, into foggy depths beyond. This implied passage, and way path disappears into dark, massed foliage of trees, creates remarkable sense of moodiness and nostalgia; recalls deeply-felt, slightly unsettling experiences. Parallels in method & effect with romantic poetry and ptg in West not irrelevant; Wordsworth would have appreciated it, if he could have got past initial feeling of alien imagery.

S. Detail, which conveys some of moodiness and mystery of the ptg. No sig., only a collector’s seal. Because I am so devoted to this small work, would like to be able to attrib. it to greatest artist of time, Hsia Kuei; and not just facetious suggestion; a fairly strong argument can in fact be made for that attribution, I think. Virtually every element of composition can be matched in works of Hsia Kuei.

S. Foreground bank, w. heavy contours and “nail-head” strokes on earth surfaces, sinuous outlining of trees, way of drawing roots, all paralleled in his works, e.g. this signed winter landscape fan-painting in Japanese collection.

S. Crest of hill with bushes, treatment of fog-filled middle-ground, ptg. of leafy tree, three-stage recession along shore, all elements of his style, agree with e.g. this signed ptg. in Palace Mus., Taipei.

And so on, even to such tiny details as use of split-tipped brush to paint flying autumn leaves. Can’t make the case at length here. But supposing I were to make the case convincingly; have I altered our assessment of the ptg? Yes, by placing it w/in oeuvre of major master, making us see it in relat. to his other works; creating proper context for it. And, most of all, by making people look at it, take it seriously, agree or disagree with my attribution: by forcing a reconsideration.

There is a sense in which art historians, if doing their jobs properly, create excellence, by recognizing it, defining it, persuading or even obliging others to recognize it as well, supplying proper context and clues for them to do so. Works will usually survive poorly-done or otherwise bad critical judgements unchanged--suffering only, perhaps, temporary neglect; but they will benefit from good ones, whether they modify previous assessments upwards or downwards. Or, if we can’t properly say that works of art themselves benefit, other than figuratively, we can recognize that people’s experience of them benefits. If we consider quality an aspect of experience of work of art, that is, we can affect how people experience it, thus affect its quality. And since I don’t think we can get beyond that situation anyway, in judgements of quality in works of art, we might as well accept it, even see it as justifying whole project of connoisseurship and criticism. I hope I’ve convinced some of you, at least, of that today.

Thank you.

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