Monday, April 27, 2009

Art Review: The Gentlemen of Suzhou

The glory of The Ming Dynasty (Western years 1368-1644), is best represented in the art of Suzhou (also Soo-chow,Suchou, or Su-chou), a city which was the economic and arts hub of Chiang-nan in southeast China. New directions in a new way of apprehending objective reality, subjective expression, reaction to orthodoxy, and an approach to nature that was honest and personal are hallmarks of the art which a new class of men, the literati artists, created in Souzhou.

An ongoing exhibit entitled The Gentlemen of Suzhou continues through July 12, 2009 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is a humble show like the humble men who created the art of The Wu School(Wu is Souzhou's ancient name.) Only 17 works adorn two pint-sized galleries. If you are planning the trip from Hartford expecting a major show on Ming art, let your engine sleep. It is just a tiny show. If, however, you find yourself at the MFA making the rounds, by all means stop in for ten or fifteen minutes.

In this city on the Yangtze, a stop on the Grand Canal, whose gardens and canals and favorable climate made it a favorite of painters, art was the industry of choice. As the curator states in the wall text, personal expression was favored over painterly skill, and most of the literati artists, as they are known, did not concern themselves with accurate depictions of nature. Choosing the literati life over public service, these gentile thinkers and innovators took inspiration from local scenery and lived in harmony with the natural and urban worlds.

Never intending to cause social or political upheaval, the gentlemen artists of Suzhou nevertheless held, in quietude, a radical skepticism toward orthodoxy and standard-bearing, according to Wen C. Fong in Possessing the Past (co-authored by James C.Y. Watt). In contrast to the restrictions imposed on artists in Peking, the imperial capital, Suzhou and other southern cities attracted scholar-artists who could live in seclusion (or not) and enjoy the freedom to work on the four arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy.

The turbulent founding of the Ming Dynasty was seen by two of the early Suzhou painters, Ni Tsan and Wang Meng (not featured in show.) As Maxwell K. Hearn has shown in Possessing the Past, Ni Tsan never recognized the legitimacy of the new dynasty. His friend, Wang Meng, was deeply affected by the disintegrating conditions around him(Hearn, pgs 328-9). Immediately after the founding of the Ming, authorities tried to restore the court tradition in painting. In the 1370's and '80's Nanking was transformed as the capital of that time. Thousands of wealthy families from Souzhou, Hangchow, and other southern cities were relocated to populate Nanking.

As Hearn shows, as if in reaction to this imposed style-making of the court, Wang Meng lived in reclusion except when he participated in literary gatherings with friends. In the late 1350's and '60's these men would gather in their private homes to view painting, listen to music, compose poetry, and paint. This withdrawal was a way to maintain sanity and as "self-cultivation"(Hearn). Wang and his circle of friends was usually in Nanking. Under the purges of the first Ming emperor, Buddhist monks, artists, and officials were persecuted. Wang himself was under suspicion for his association of Hu Wei-yung, who was accused of plotting to kill the emperor. Wang died in prison in 1385.

From all of this, the seeds of a new art effloresced.
In time, by the rise of Chin-ching, emperor from 1522-66, life for artists in court in Peking (having replaced Nanking as the capital) was burdensome, according to Richard M. Barnhart in Possessing the Past, section "Return of the Academy". Suzhou, Nanking, K'ai-Fung, Feng-hua, Canton and others were foils to the restrictions of court (Barnhart).

Even scholars like Wen found life at court
unbearable by this time and so returned to their hometowns, such as
Soochow, to bring to maturity an art that was in essence far from
the by-then mock heroics of the imperial aristocracy (Barnhart, pg

Court style remained even in Suzhou, but the Wu School was stronger.

As to the position of artists in society, Wen C. Fong says,

To begin with, the traditional social distinction
between the artisan-professional and the scholar-amateur started
to break down. (Possessing the Past, section "The Literati Artists of the Ming Dynasty.")
Under the Sung Dynasty scholars passed civil service exams and became government officials...scholar-officials. During the Mongol conquest, when doors were barred from careers, they became artists or professional men of letters. The civil exams were restored in the Ming Dynasty, but they were highly competitive. Those who failed could not become officials, so they became sholars or literati artists, creating a new professional class. The fact that they were, degree-less, commoners, may have contributed to the alternative style they created (Fong)

Now to the art. Shen Chou (1427-1509), known as the father of the Wu School proper, reflected current Neo-Confucian philosopher Ch'en Hsien-Chang, a leader in the Ming School of the Mind, as Wen Fong has shown. Fong says,

he taught that knowledge was received through intuition, or self-possessed
insight (tzu-te)... Ch'en embraced the Taoist and Ch'an belief in the mysticism
of nature and advocated quiet sitting (ching-tso) as a method of
self-cultivation on the path to enlightenment.

Wen C. Fong argues in Possessing the Past, section entitled "The Literati Artists," that Shen Chou radically departed from the Sung period's realism, based on the "objective investigation of things as advocated by earlier philosophers concerned with the Principle of the universe... his...intuitive response called for a new way of apprehending objective reality (Fong). He used an unaggressive and abstract calligraphic brushstroke. Shen Chou followed Ch'en Hsien-chang's concept of te, which is "insight" and 'to possess.' "Because the mind, understood as both intent and meaning, is not separate from sensory data, the way such data are of primary importance. By remaining quiescent, open, and responsive, the mind possesses understanding...kan ying is the state of being simultaneously stimulated by and responsive to the external world" (Fong) For Shen Chou subjectivity was a purposeful construct of the self. "It was intent, fortified by self-possessed insight, that gave the scholar-artist the psychic energy to create...Shen Chou's philosophy of quiescence as a dynamic principle, a condition of both receptivity and action...demonstrate his belief in an intuitive response to nature and the validity of self-possessed artistic knowledge." (Fong)

In the first gallery are Shen Zhou's "Four Leaves from an Album of Eight Landscapes and eight Matching Poems. The leaves on the trees are coarsely painted. Little dots, made by the tip of a brush, represent trees and bushes. They are abstract. One cannot mistake this for any real landscape under the Sung or philosophy of the Principle of the universe. You must take it as a flat surface, and from there make the leap to thinking of nature - all intuition-based. The gold and silver flakes, not snow or rain, and not realistic, are part of the calligraphy but also in the sky of the painting. Reality gives way to a tzu-tze approach to seeing nature.

The mountains in one leaf of the four have coarse, willowy marks to indicate ridges. There are tiny breaks at the edges of the background mountains. Some distant mountains appear to float over the nearer mountains due to white gaps between. Catch the scholar painted without feet.
It is the curator's belief that Shen Zhou blazed the trail in painting local scenery, although Weng Mang earlier affirmed the sense of identity these men shared with earlier scholars over a specific place and personified individuals through landscapes (Hearn, Possessing the Past, section "The Artist as Hero"). In Zhang Hong's "Wind in the Pines of Mount Gouqu the retirement home of the Eight century T'ang poet-painter Wang Wei is linked to the home of a contemporary. It shows the connection to the past and that the literati's lives and thoughts were fused with a specific place.

The research of Yang Xin in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, section,"The Ming Dynasty," relates that Qiu Ying, another artist featured, would not have risen above his humble birth were it not for his technical skill at copying previous masters. He could paint in bright color or monochrome with equal adroitness. He practiced the literati methods of simplicity and subtleness against vulgarity and superficiality (Xin).

In "Landscape with Scholar and Monk in Conversation" there is a refinement, especially in the luminous blue and green ink. See the remarkable way the mountains shade from green to empty paper through the use of streaking. The color runs out. Contrast this to Zhang Hong's subtle gradations in his washes. The trees in the background, and the lower leaves behind the closer ones in the foreground fade out. It is intuitive and impressionistic. The depicition of the foreground tree and the scholar, monk and tiny tea-bearer are elegant; the remainder is subjective. The split and fusion of the two is successful.

In his "Landscape with a Lady Overlooking a Lake" the viewers mind is busied by identifying all the many leaves on the foreground trees and the details of the house. Then the mind is in rest when contemplating the distant landscape. The intricate is objective, like southern Sung paintings, but the background is intuitive and subjective. Te and kan-ying are at work.
In "Red Leaves on Autumn Mountains" Wen Jia (1501-1583) has a loose brushstroke as well. On the hillside, house and temple rooves are devoid of underlying structures. It is all somewhat cartoonish. Three finials want to form written characters. The stippling for leaves goes from tightly-worked to abstract. Leaves have a frenetic energy that charges the painting with movement. The stream coming down the mountains does likewise. You get a sense of the journey ahead for the three men on donkeys, a journey marked by the sequential landmarks of bridges and fences here and there. The progression is ever upward and has a fable-like appeal. Incidentally, you should know the elongated form of paintings in the Wu School was often employed in K'o-ssu tapestry. K'o-ssu was often used as mountings for paintings. Suzhou was a textile center as well as a painting center.

In the second gallery the lighting is dim to protect the precious paper. Wen Zheng-Ming, the leading Suzhou scholar after Sen Chou, and his son, Wen Jia (see above) are represented in calligraphy. The Colophon of the father - colophons were commentaries on paintings- and the son's homage to a literary hero follow the direct and natural approach to calligraphy of Chu Yun-ming, who reacted against the florid and precise court style. Chu revived the classical Chung-Wang tradition of round brushwork and square character formation. It reflects the loose open form of Chung Yu's ancient style of the later Han Dynasty. The lack of precision and flourishes of the chancellery style of Shen Ts'an in favor of a revolutionary calligraphy favoring ancient precedent has a corellate in the Wu painting style.

In "Views of Tiger Hill" Xie Shichen uses Sen Zhou's abstract dots as leaves. Tree branches and rock patterns break certain areas into reticulated patterns of abstraction. People and water buffalo are no more than stick figures. Pagodas and houses are crudely drawn, recalling Wen Jia's cartoonish buildings.

As the curator states, Lu Zhi's "View of Stone Lake" captures the spirit of sixteenth-century Suzhou. It is hardly an objective view, and way out of perspective (see Zhang Hong for Western perspective.) It is a subjective view of the lake, and therefore precious in its particularity of place. It has simplicity, is against delicacy or superficiality, and is certainly not in the orthodox court style. It expresses te and Kan-ying. See how the spit of land is so out of perspective, and how the boats on the right seem to slope down with the "sloping" water. The boats on the upper left seem to float in sky rather than water. you could mistake water for sky in this little world. Some lines are hazier and more dashed and ethereal than others. It is like a mental impression rather than an observation. Like "Views of of Tiger Hill" it is more like a dream than a rendering. Here is something that could not come out of the court. This is a vision created out of individual freedom.

Stuart Kurtz
March 1, 2009 Digg Technorati Delicious StumbleUpon Reddit BlinkList Furl Mixx Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

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