CLP 168: 1989 "Gong Xian's Early Styles." Paper for Nanjing symposium, Incomplete.

Gong Xian's Early Styles

(Paper for Nanjing symposium, September 1989)

Nearly twenty years ago I published an article on "The Early Styles of Kung Hsien" (Oriental Art, Spring 1970) in which I attempted to trace the development of his style from the earliest period to his maturity in the early 1670s. I want to recapitulate in outline the conclusions of that article before introducing some additional material.

According to Wang Shiqing's research, Gong Xian was born in 1619. He began to study painting early in his life, and knew such artists as Dong Qichang , Yang Wencong , Yun Xiang , and Zou Zhilin . He must have been active already as a painter, then, well before the fall of Nanjing to the Manchus in 1645. But no dated painting is known to me earlier than 1655, a full decade later. We know where he was living during these years--in Hai-an in Jiangsu for about four years from 1647; in Yangzhou from 1651 to the mid-1660s, or slightly later, when he returned to Nanjing. Wang Shiqing also argues, from the evidence in Gong Xian's poetry collection, that he was active more as a poet than as a painter in these years. He began to paint more after he returned to Nanjing, and from that time on we have enough dated works to understand his stylistic development in some detail. The most difficult period to reconstruct is the years before 1655; and even for that we have some clues, paintings that can be roughly dated by context.

S. The earliest of these may be a leaf by Gong Xian in a collective album of "Ten Scenes of the Nanjing Region," done by nine different artists. The album is undated, but other painters represented in it were active in the late Ming--dated works by Zhang Chong and Zou Dian (the father of Zou Zhe) are from the 1630s and 1640s--so the whole album can be dated around the last years of the Ming. Gong Xian's leaf depicts the Qing-liang Tai , the hill in Nanjing where his family estate was located and where he was to live in his later life. His painting is undistinguished, with only hints of his later style in the composition and in a few characteristic motifs--the bridge, the trees, the buildings. It is easily understandable as the work of a young artist who had met and been influenced by Dong Qichang. The ink is brushed lightly onto the landscape forms for an effect of shading.

S. A leaf from another collective album (which I know only from a reproduction) can be dated around 1648-49, again by context, since other leaves in the album are dated to those years. The other artists represented include Hu Shikun , Zou Zhe , and Fan Qi , all Nanjing painters; Gong Xian, who was living in Hai-an at this time, may have participated in the album on a trip to Nanjing. We see Gong Xian here moving into a bolder, less cautious style, using thick contour drawing, simplified forms, and large, prominent dotting.

S. This leaf allows us to date roughly to the same period, by style, an undated album of six leaves, and to recognize in this style, which uses blunt, thick linear drawing for simplified masses with only slight shading and no cunfa or texture strokes, as Gong Xian's style in the early years after the Manchu conquest, the late 1640s. Closely related styles were being used in this same period or slightly earlier by a number of older artists active in the Nanjing region and also in Southern Anhui; and these are the artists whom Gong Xian knew and admired. They include:

S. Yang Wencong, seen here in a landscape album leaf dated 1640;

S. Yun Xiang, seen here in a leaf from an undated landscape album;

S. Zou Zhilin, seen here

S. And Zhang Feng , seen here in a leaf from an album dated 1647.

S. Another leaf from Gong Xian's album, in which the relationship to Zhang Feng is especially clear. Gong Xian's association with these artists in his early years, and his admiration for them, can be substantiated from his own writings, but it would use too much time to do that here. We can note also his acquaintance with artists of the southern Anhui region, some of whom were working in related styles around this time: thick linear drawing, without washes for shading or texture-strokes for defining tactile surfaces.

S. Gong Xian's recognition of the Anhui school as a distinct current in painting of his time is shown by a section of an undated handscroll, probably from the 1660s, now in the Fogg Museum, in which he lists masters associated with the school, calling it the Tiandu-pai. The artist whom he names as founder is Cheng Jiasui . The accompanying picture is a good approximation of the Anhui school manner, but is also close to Gong Xian's own early style, and again reveals Gong Xian's affinity in his early period with these other artists.

We might speculate on why this style was so popular in the lower Yangtze and southern Anhui region: like the sparse, expressively thin style of Ni Zan in the late Yuan period, it signified disengagement from the harsh realities of the time, a desire for a purer, simpler world that did not force itself oppressively on the viewer's senses. Its popularity lasted only a few decades; as the Kangxi Emperor's policies brought stability to the country and Manchu rule was increasingly accepted, landscape painting as a whole changes in ways that seem to reflect this stability, becoming more substantial, sometimes more mundane, gradually losing some of the tension and strangeness that characterize so much painting of the Ming-Qing transition. Gong Xian's moves in that direction can be traced through dated works of the 1650s and 1660s. We can observe him "fleshing out," giving more tactile substance to, the forms that are rendered only in line in his early work. But instead of becoming more mundane and ordinary, his landscapes become stranger and stranger. Later he was to argue that qi or strangeness is the quality he most pursued in painting; in tracing his early development we can observe how he mastered the artistic means for producing this effect.

S. In a hanging scroll dated 1655 we see him attempting the monumental landscape mode in imitation of Northern Song masters, as other Nanjing-school artists were doing at this time. The painting is not a complete success, because the archaistic manner used for the landscape forms, with repeated parallel folds and schematic shading from one fold to the next, flattens the forms, depriving them of any sense of real mass.

S. A detail reveals the nature of this shading; it is done in small, indistinct, overlapping flecks of ink.

S. A detail from a similar painting of around the same time. The ink appears to have been brushed on rather dry, in such a way that individual brushstrokes are not distinguishable. This is a departure from the Chinese tradition of distinct brushwork, which had generally been followed (with a few exceptions) by artists up to this time. In the early Qing period, numbers of artists were experimenting with ways of painting that somehow eliminated the visible traces of brush movement. landscape forms for an effect of shading.

S. Another leaf (which I know only from a reproduction) can

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