Exhibition dates: 21 Mar to 22 Oct 2017
Gallery 11 | Admission Free
Collecting the Past, Scholars’ taste in Chinese Art, on view at the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology, Gallery 11, March 21st through October 22nd, 2017, explores literati aesthetic taste and the tradition of collecting the past in Chinese art.
The literati aesthetic, integrating poetry, calligraphy and painting into a single work of art, has governed Chinese art for over a thousand years. No later than the 10th century, Chinese painting developed two different traditions: the longstanding tradition of the professional, and the literati tradition. The professional painters, who had been summoned to serve the court in the past, often selected subject matter and adopted styles and techniques to satisfy their royal patrons, while the literati painters, who were amateurs, painted as a means of self-expression, in much the same way as they wrote poetry. The literati tradition of Chinese painting reached its maturity in the Song period (960-1279), and major breakthroughs followed in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), literati painting became increasingly popular and was promoted by the influential scholar artists Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who refined the expressionistic brush-oriented manner of the Yuan dynasty masters. Literati painting, a major genre of Chinese painting, enjoyed its last golden age from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century.
This exhibition features a variety of paintings created by scholar-artists who were also calligraphers, poets and seal-carvers. The paintings all (dated to the 19th–20th centuries) from the Ashmolean Collection, represent lyrical themes: wandering in nature, strolling in mountains, visiting friends and writing poems. Some prominent scholar-artists were also art connoisseurs and collectors who looked for inspiration from the ancient. Also included in this display are objects of refinement and antiquarian taste used in scholar’s studios where the literati enjoyed art, literature and music.
Scholar – painters in the 20th century
The display begins with the painting The scholar artist in his studio by the renowned scholar painter and art historian Fu Baoshi (1904 – 1965). Fu was not born into a scholarly or artistic family , but he painted in literati style. He was trained in the College of Education in Nanchang. Later on he went to Tokyo to study Western and Japanese art between 1933 and 1935 where he developed his own style based on a fusion of Western realism and traditional brushwork. This figure painting can be interpreted as a self-portrait of Fu Baoshi. Fu Baoshi inscribed the painting with a poem by the Ming Dynasty author Wu Meicun (1609-1671), writing about his friend, Shao Mi (c.1592- after 1642), the ‘eccentric painter’. Fu adds at the end of the inscription the comment ‘Meicun has portrayed me.’ As is typical for Chinese literati painters, Fu Baoshi’s works express his personal taste for subjects drawn from Chinese poets of the past. In his landscape painting, depicting a group of scholars ascending a mountain ridge to view the waterfall, also on display, he freely applied light washes for an impressionistic treatment.
Literati painters would generally not paint for commercial purposes but as a personal form of enjoyment. Scholar artists often exchanged paintings and poems among themselves as gifts, as acknowledgement of appreciation–symbols of their friendships. They would also share the result of their efforts with a group of friends and connoisseurs. One of the recurrent themes in Chinese art and literature is the moment of farewell between friends. Saying Farewell by the Shanghai School master Ren Yi (1840 – 1895) is an example of this subject executed in his later, freer style influenced by the works of Xu Wei (1521-1593) and Zhu Da (1626-1705). Especially striking is the liveliness of the horse.
Lyrical landscapes by scholar artists
Between 1932 and 1934, scholar-artist Huang Binhong (1865-1955), widely regarded as one of the greatest Chinese landscape painters of the 20th century, travelled to Sichuan where he painted Waiting for the Ferry in the Shade of Pine Trees. This landscape is mainly depicted in layers of dots produced with the brush tip and calligraphic brushstrokes. Distant mountains, half wrapped in the mist, appear tranquil. Like many of his contemporaries born in the late 19th century Huang received a traditional education in art and literature. The learning engendered creative expression in the form of painting, calligraphy and seal carving and scholarly expression in the form of art historical research and collecting.
His earlier work also on display includes six album leaves representing the rich, dense landscape of the lower Yangzi delta region in China. In these paintings, Huang Binhong used traditional brushwork in defining the forms, as well as quite fluid washes. To model the mountains, Huang Binhong used long hemp-fibre texture strokes and thick texture dots. Huang came from a well-educated scholar-gentry family, who had assembled an important collection of books and paintings. The family collection included paintings by prominent artists, such as Dong Yuan (900-962), Wang Meng (1308-1385) and Shitao (1642-1707). The exposure to these artists’ works has influenced Huang’s manner to paint. In his old age, from the age of 75 to his death, his landscapes became even darker, denser and fuller.
Delightful examples such as Chen Hengke’s (1876 – 1923) Buildings amidst streams and mountains or Zhao Xi’s (1867-1948) Landscape are included in the display. The style of these two paintings is however extremely different as Chen, who studied in Japan, uses assertive brushstrokes influenced by the Ming and Qing masters such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Shitao (1642-1707), while the high-ranking official Zhao Xi focuses on creating an elegant composition bringing the “three perfections” — poetry, calligraphy, and paintings — subtly together. Zhao Xi’s painting expresses a longing for an ideal place of retreat for a scholar-recluse. The auspicious Daoist imagery of the crane and the archaic simplicity of the figures evoke a dreamlike vision of paradise.
Other landscape paintings on view include seven album leaves by the scholar-official Weng Tonghe (1830-1904), a distinguished statesman, and a discerning collector of painting and calligraphy. He had a successful political career, and became the tutor of Qing dynasty emperors Tongzhi (r. 1861-1875) and Guangxu (r. 1875-1908). Weng was also known as one of the leading reformers of late 19th century China, who brought together the radical reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927) with emperor Guangxu. In 1898 he was forced to retire from court life and seek refuge in Yushan (Mount Yu), a village northwest of Changshu, Jiangsu province.
The beautiful scenery and peaceful surroundings inspired this album depicting Mount Yu in different seasons. The lyrical landscape expresses the painter’s contentment in the life of a recluse. These seven leaves are rare examples of Weng’s landscape painting as he was best known for his calligraphy. Weng Tonghe carefully modulated his brushstroke and used the calligraphic effects of dry and wet ink to render landscapes in the styles of earlier masters such as Wang Hui (1632 -1717). The Weng family collection was passed down through six generations, beginning with his father Weng Xincun (1791-1862), finally coming to his great-great-grandson, Wan-go H.C. Weng (b.1918), who brought it to the United States in 1948.
Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.