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CLP 28: 1998 “Later Chinese Painting: Innovation After Progress Ends.” Lecture, Guggenheim Museum, NYC

(Introductory congratulations, espec. to "hired guns," Sherman Lee, Howard Rogers, Jane Debevoise.)


In putting together this lecture, I had the slightly uncomfortable sense that it was more or less fated to fall between two stools. Those in the audience who know a good bit about Chinese painting are likely to respond by thinking: this is all familiar; why is he giving us this old stuff again? And those to whom the subject is unfamiliar will think: how can he expect us to accept these large claims while presenting so little evidence? If you can imagine being faced with trying to back up some large and controversial proposals about the whole of European painting with only the slides and arguments that will fit into a 50-minute space, you can imagine my predicament. Nevertheless, since I did make some large and controversial claims in my catalog essay, and since there are sure to be readers of it who would like to see some attempt at substantiating these, however hopeless it may be, I'm determined to try. Most of what I will say can be found, greatly filled out, in my own writings and those of others. If I refer a number of times to my own writings, then, it's not purely conceit (altho that too); I want to take responsibility for the views I'll express, and indicate when I've made the arguments more fully elsewhere.

My argument, to state it baldly, is that the succession of large stylistic shifts that make up a kind of developmental or quasi-evolutionary pattern within a tradition of pictorial art, based in part in a cumulative mastery of representational techniques that make the picture seem more and more lifelike, or true to nature--a developmental pattern, with the idea of progress more or less implicit in it, of the kind that the older historians of European art constructed as a succession of style-periods, from medieval (Romanesque to Gothic) to early and late Renaissance to Mannerist to Baroque to Modern (with whichever others you want to insert--Rococo, Romantic, whatever)--that the equivalent to this kind of developmental succession of style-periods can be seen to have happened in Chinese painting quite a bit earlier, ending around the 10th-11th-12th centuries. And that Chinese artists after that were not, on the whole, primarily concerned with augmenting or refining their techniques of representation, but turned instead in a very conscious way to kinds of painting that were more expressive than descriptive, and that recalled and manipulated the past in creative ways. I'm perfectly aware of all the traps presented by stating the matter that way, and I'm perfectly willing to be seen as falling into all of them, as being hopelessly mired in outmoded ways of thought about representation, and so forth. No help for that.

(Insert: In recently pub. book by colleague, bought this morning, the above argument summarized in Preface, called "one strand of the received wisdom" about Chinese painting--if he received it from anyone other than myself, I'd like to know about it--one can always use an ally in such a situation. He goes on to separate himself from this argument, on grounds that he doesn't want to "position art in China as somehow 'really' winning the race to be 'modern' with that of Europe. . ." I don't think that's the point of my argument, now or before; it's rather to counter the belief current among non-specialists in Chinese art that Chinese painting passed into state of stagnation after Sung, while European ptg went on to great achievements we all know. Seems worth doing, espec. if no one else will--not to be put down so easily.)[1]

S,S.
Early in my career, in the 1950s, I went about giving lectures with titles like "The Contemporary Relevance of Later Chinese Painting"--I did that one here in New York, and there may even be oldsters in the audience who heard it. I was reading a lot of Harold Rosenberg and other critics of the time, and was excited over the ways in which some later Chinese paintings seemed to anticipate Abstract Expressionism, both in style and in theory: the idea that the brushstroke, as a record of movement, answered to the painter's nature and feeling, in ways that had little to do with the subject portrayed. (Sec 'n of handscroll representing grape vines by 16c master Hsü Wei--not in exhib., wish it were. He's one of the two so-called "mad artists" in Chinese painting--we'll see the other later.)

Then as now, there were people who saw this as an empty exercise, since Chinese painting--or Asian art more generally-- was for them rooted in basically different premises, cultural assumptions, ways of seeing and picturing. That disagreement still confronts us, and bedevils us, and won't easily be resolved. As tonight's lecture will reveal, I continue to believe that certain patterns and concepts and practices in art can properly be seen as recurring, loosely, across temporal and cultural boundaries, allowing us to observe them comparatively in different contexts.

S,S. I don't believe, for instance, that pioneer scholars such as Ludwig Bachhofer, Alfred Salmony, Max Loehr, and Alexander Soper were altogether wrong in trying to apply classical art-historical concepts of the morphology of style, and stylistic sequences that exhibit an internal logic--derived as these are, to be sure, from constructions of European art history--to the Chinese materials. They saw their task to be, in the words of Hans Belting (writing about 19th century western art historians), "that of ordering the works of art . . . into a sequence which appeared to be governed by a lawful development of form." It was easy enough then to charge these pioneer Chinese art historians with attempting to impose the principles of Wölfflin and Winckelmann onto Chinese art (clever undergraduates did this in term papers), just as it's easy enough now to bring the much-overworked charges of Orientalism and Eurocentrism against their writings (as today's clever undergraduates do, and some of their elders.) But none of these facile put-downs reduce the value of what they accomplished in laying the foundations for our later studies, which would be foolishly adrift without the underpinnings they provided. Although art historians today are disinclined to attempt any such projects, there are few of them, I hope, who would wish that it hadn't been done by their predecessors.

[ Somewhere: we need a careful stylistic account of this early phase of Chinese painting, to bring it up to somewhere approximating the state of studies of European ptg history. Our field stopped short of this, moved off prematurely in other directions. Pioneers, e.g. Loehr, diverted into wrong directions; next generation disinclined to attempt anything so large-scale, took to writing abt indiv. masters etc. Consequence: we can't argue e.g. authenticity issues on sound consensual grounds. Absurdities pass w/o challenge--things that should be as obvious as early Ren. vs. high Ren., or Ren. vs. modern fabrications. Kôtôin "Li T'angs", Met "Riverbank," etc. Shouldn't be so difficult to resolve.]

To be specific: The development of successive systems for creating a sense of space in the pictures, over the early centuries of Chinese pictorial art from the pre-Han period to the 10th century or so--beginning with simple intervallic space between paired, confronting figures, continuing through what the old art historians called space cells, and the joining of these into more extensive openingings of space, culminating in some 10th century works that create elaborate spatial systems, inviting prolonged visual exploration--is not merely a conventional and culturally biased formulation that western art historians imposed on the Chinese works, but is a deep concern of the artists who made those works, and of their audiences, manifested in the pictures themselves, as any sympathetic and perceptive consideration of them over time must recognize. And these successive conquests of spatial rendering enable, in turn, more and more complex narrative and expressive effects. (R is rubbing from Han dyn. tile, 2-3c; L is an early copy of "Han Hsi-tsai's Night Banquet" by Ku Hung-chung. If we had the original, it would make my point much better, I'm sure--by the time this copy was made, probably in the 12th century, artists were no longer much concerned with such matters.)

S,S. Other representational techniques developed over these centuries include ways of making the objects in the picture appear substantial and their plastic forms readable, and differentiating them by texture and color. Surviving Chinese paintings from the 10th-11th century that best testify to such achievements in creating deeply naturalistic portrayals of subjects in nature include the pair of paintings of "Deer in an Autumn Forest," one of which was shown at last year's exhibition at the Met from the Palace Museum in Taipei; these are generally accepted as works of that period, probably by an artist of the Liao dynasty. These and a few other paintings of bird and animal and plant subjects from this period come as close to an effect of totally objective portrayal, without human intervention or commentary, as Chinese painting was ever to accomplish.

S.-- Another is the "Bamboo, Old Trees, and Rocks" ascribed to the 10th century master Hsü Hsi, but really an anonymous masterwork of that period or a bit later. In these, all conspicuous traits of brushwork and style are suppressed as the artist's hand and vision seem to be totally absorbed into the imagery of his painting. Techniques of modeling with light and shadow are employed more strikingly and effectively than they ever will be again, until the 17th century when interest in these devices is revived under the impact of a sudden exposure to European pictorial art.

S,S. Two details. That the artist appears to be somehow dispensing with conventions and portraying his subject in a way unmediated by style is of course only another effect, but it's a powerful one. In this it's like some 17th century Dutch paintings about which my colleague Svetlana Alpers writes: "It is as if visual phenomena are captured and made present without the intervention of a human maker." And she writes of the "selflessness or anonymity that is characteristic of Dutch painting"-- and equally characteristic, we can note, of these Chinese works. The complex overlappings of leaves and twigs is representationally effective but technically bewildering: how was it done? Remember that when one works in ink on silk, nothing can be corrected or painted over, as it can in oil ptg. To say that the artist used some kind of resist technique may be true, but doesn't carry us far in accounting for the picture. The unassuming technical mastery goes with the effect of visual exactitude--quoting Alpers once more, "To appear lifelike, a picture has to be carefully made."[2] No pictures in China will ever be more carefully made--as pictures, that is--than these.

S,S. Landscape painting of the 11th century, although it's closely associated with a few great masters whose trenchant observation and capturing of natural phenomena are praised in the texts, seems similarly directed outward at the world rather then inward at the artist's interior life. It is in works such as this, the great handscroll in Kansas City ascribed to Hsü Tao-ning, that the long development of landscape representation in China reaches its apogee. Techniques of diminution in scale, atmospheric perspective, spatial interrelating of parts, deep distance, are all handled consummately. And, given the proclivity of Chinese culture to turn away from any pursuit just at the point of complete mastery of it, it's not surprising that landscape painting begins around this time to take divergent directions. I cannot, obviously, discuss them all here, but will mention only one that is well represented in the exhibition.

S,S. "Misty River and Layered Hills" by Wang Shen--this is the ending section of the scroll, and a detail of it--is a fine example of a mode of courtly archaism that arises in the late 11th century. By that time, this manner of painting with decoratively repeated outlines and flat washes of mineral green and blue color belonged to the distant past, or to pictures of the visionary scenery of paradise, and was no longer used in up-to-date pictures of the real world.

S --. We see it, for instance, in a handscroll ascribed to the 7th-century master Chan Tzu-ch'ien. The flat, curling clouds in Wang Shen's picture similarly allude to the archaic style, and are a rejection of all the advances in atmospheric rendering that had been made since then. A mid-11th century scholar writes dismissively of the effects of height and distance in landscape painting, calling them the tricks of the professional masters, and nothing with which a true connoisseur need be concerned. Wang Shen, as an aristocrat-artist--he was son-in-law of one of the Sung emperors--had access to old paintings, and a cultivated taste for them, which he assumed also in his specialized audience.

S.S. The handscroll "In the Spirit of Poems by Tu Fu" by the 12th century official Chao K'uei, also in the exhibition, represents another departure from the mainline of landscape painting, this time into a somewhat rarefied poetic mode in which the diversity and drama of the pictorial materials in typical Sung landscape painting are suppressed, almost to the point of risking monotony, from which the picture is saved by a subtle narrative program, along with in-and-out movements between foreground and middle distance, and nuances of spacing and ink tonality.

S.S. The whole of Southern Sung academy painting, on which I've written quite a lot recently, will have to be skipped over here, so that we can get on to our main topic, painting of the later periods. If we were to single out the most consequential representational advance made in the period, it would be the shift to a more optical mode in which a grove of trees, for instance, is presented as the eye perceives it, fused into a single image, instead of as an assemblage of discrete objects--exactly the change that Leonardo is credited with introducing to European painting three centuries later.[3] Equally momentous is the development and refinement of expressive means for arousing in the viewer highly focused poetic sensations, through rigorous selection and combining of pictorial materials. Hsia Kuei is the great master of the first, both he and Ma Yuan of the second,

-- S. along with Ma's son Ma Lin, in whose hands this poetic mode is brought to the edge of preciousness. I have always been fond of musical analogies, and have sometimes used, in talking of this aspect of late Sung painting, that moment in late 19th-early 20th century music when the expressive means for evoking certain nostalgic and otherwise pleasurable feelings poignantly in the listener have become so effective and so accessible as to virtually force some artists of the period that follows--Stravinsky for music, Chao Meng-fu for painting--to reject them in favor of conscious moves into harshness and dissonance.

S,S. The early Yuan scholar-artist Chao Meng-fu is crucial in making the break. Two of his major artistic strategems provide models for all later artists. In one, represented by his 1295 "Autumn Colors on the Ch'iao and Hua Mountains," archaistic allusions to old styles are turned to the purpose of a very sophisticated primitivism that denies all the representational advances in landscape painting made during the Sung and confronts us with a deliberately spaceless, awkwardly scaled, graceless scene. The other, represented by his 1302 "Village by the Water," introduces the strategem that we might term stylistic extremism--pushing to an extreme, far beyond what could be sustained in a properly pictorial approach, some feature of style--here, the elimination of color and washes and pictorial variety and solid substance so as to leave only an expanse of dry, crumbly brushwork that only minimally evokes the simple scenery. It would be difficult to find in world art, at so early a period, any comparably radical and complex stylistic moves that are more than sports, or dead-ends--that are followed up, that is, by whole new lines of pursuit that prove to be themselves productive and innovative.

-- S. I don't say "lines of development," and want to emphasize that development, of the kind that exhibits some degree of continuity and a seeming logic, has ended with the end of Sung--nothing comparable to the stylistic sequence we can trace, for instance, from 10th century landscape to Fan K'uan to Li T'ang to Ma-Hsia and Ma Lin will happen again. For later Chinese painting we might call these lines of pursuit, adopting a term from a 1962 book by George Kubler, "linked series" (although his term was meant to include properly developmental sequences along with other kinds.) Following through a few of these linked series, or whatever we call them, will indicate how later Chinese painting might more effectively be seen as a bundle of such vertical strands, each extending over centuries, so that at any given moment, to find the equivalent of a "period style," we would have to make a horizontal cut, exposing something like the cross-cut ends of a multi-strand bundle of wires. Nothing that looks much like a "period style," to say the least.

It's worth noting here that what I've outlined as the developmental or evolutionary phase of Chinese painting, ending with the late Sung, is accompanied (like its counterpart in the west) by a rich art-historical literature, which can be seen as beginning with a few relatively brief critical and theoretical writings in the 5th-6th centuries and reaching an early climax in Chang Yen-yüan's imposing "Record of the Painting of Successive Periods" in the 9th century, a work comparable in scope and sophistication to Vasari's in the mid-16th century, which is hailed as the beginning of western art history. Chang Yen-yuan's work is followed by a succession of substantial texts each aimed at bringing the history of painting up to date for its period; but these continue only to the 12th-13th century, after which no one attempts any such broad account. Without meaning to offer a reductive explanation of the reasons why not, I can quote Hans Belting on the problem of writing about western art after 1800: "An art which is already produced under the welcome or unwelcome awareness of its own history, which it then seeks either to escape or to reapply, is not very well suited to an art history interested in demonstrating stable principles or evolutionary patterns."[4] All entirely applicable to Chinese painting after 1300--nobody attempts a history of it because it doesn't exhibit a history, or historical development.

Chao Meng-fu's new mode of applying spare, dry-brush drawing to the plainest, most unexciting of scenery is taken up by major Yuan masters such as Huang Kung-wang and Ni Tsan, whose "Six Gentlemen" of 1345 is in the exhibition. We should recognize that what we observe in Yuan painting is the situation in which a succession of highly creative artists are throwing artistic ideas back and forth, so to speak, each grasping quickly what the others have done and making some new and unexpected move outward from that point, in a very complex interaction over time that leaves simpler pictorial concerns far behind. Sometimes the back-and-forth appears to happen in rapid succession, as here; at other times it extends over centuries, with long periods of lull.

S --. Huang Kung-wang, in his masterwork of 1348-50 "Dwelling in the Fu-ch'un Mountains," employs the spare, dry-brush manner in building more complex, volumetric structures, without sacrificing the improvisatory-looking drawing and rich brushwork textures that make his landscape forms still appear natural and un-schematic.

-- S. Ni Tsan, inspired in some part by these structural innovations of Huang Kung-wang, explores ways in which the dry-line drawing can be used in defining readable masses that are put together out of modular units of convex and semi-cubic forms. (A small painting dated 1352, present whereabouts unknown.) Ni Tsan writes modestly of his landscapes as "nothing more than a few random brushstrokes," but some of them, at least, prove to be carefully-made constructions of forms in space, not random at all.

S --. Shen Chou in the late 15th century is perhaps the next to follow this line of pursuit seriously, as in his "Walking with a Staff," ca. 1485 (which is based more, to be sure, on Ni Tsan's standard composition with near and far river shores and trees in the foreground.) But the next truly radical move within this series is made by

S --. Tung Ch'i-ch'ang in the early 17th century, the late Ming, as in this section of his "River Landscape After Huang Kung-wang" in the Cleveland Museum of Art. He credits Huang, in his inscription, as his model, and wishes that the old master could see his painting. Throughout this series, it is as if the system of forms is being progressively stripped of its softening and naturalizing overlays of looser brushwork to reveal the stark underlying structure. And this movement obviously accompanies an ever-increasing tolerance, or even preference, for unnaturalististic, all-but-abstract form.

-- S. Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's radical reworking of the Yuan masters' styles was a principal model for the Anhui school in the early Ch'ing, along with the works of the Yuan masters themselves, as we can see in this 1659 work by the greatest of the Anhui artists, Hung-jen (not the one in the exhib. but similar.) Now even the schematic light-and-dark shading of Tung's style has disappeared, and the sense of substantiality, of three-dimensional mass, depends only on volume-defining devices of drawing possible within the linear manner.

S --. The sequences are of course not really unilinear; the strands interweave, join and separate constantly. Hung-jen, in the mid-1650s, rediscovers the Northern Sung monumental landscape manner, and learns from it how to create effects of space and mass and towering height, as he demonstrates on a sublime level in his great "Sound of Autumn" in the Honolulu Academy of Arts. How crucial aspects of this work derive from Northern Sung landscape I traced in the treatment of Hung-jen in my 1982 Compelling Image book. The achievements of the later Chinese artists can often be described in terms of reconciling seemingly opposed choices, and more specifically, as following up some stylistic direction into the range of extremism without reducing the power of the picture as an image. It is as if Hung-jen were saying: I can stay within the dry linear manner and still create landscapes that have the old qualities of spaciousness and monumentality.

-- S. Some part or aspect of a style can, in turn, generate another radical move by suggesting a hitherto-unthought-of departure. I also suggested, in the Compelling Image section on Hung-jen, that a configuration such as we see in this detail of the "Sound of Autumn," in which a clearly-marked recession along one side of a mass is denied by a sheer drop on the other side, might inspire the artist to attempt a whole composition based on that unsettling but stimulating formal contradiction.

S --. And so we arrive, I think, at such a painting as this--another that is now whereabouts-unknown--Hung-jen's "Landscape of the Nine Bends Gorge." (Show.) A single painting exhibiting such a configuration might be dismissed as simply a product of the artist's miscalculation or clumsiness. But a group of them reveals that it's a calculated effect, with which different painters experiment. This may be its most extreme form, among surviving paintings.

This single series--and we could trace any number of others--may suggest why I respond with exasperation when another western art critic puts down post-Sung Chinese painting for its failure to develop. Yes, it fails to develop, in much the same way that European painting from the mid-19th century on fails to develop, in the old and traditional sense. If that's taken to be sufficient grounds for dismissing the one, it's also grounds for dismissing the other. As I don't think we are about to do. Chinese painting of the centuries corresponding to Giotto-to-Gauguin in Europe didn't somehow miss the chance to make comparable representational advances; it was no longer concerned with making them. As the artists themselves might have put it: Been there, done that.

-- S. Let's return to the Yuan period and start another of our non-developmental sequences. The landscape paintings by Ni Tsan's friend and contemporary Wang Meng, who was a grandson of Chao Meng-fu, stand at an opposite pole from Ni Tsan's in a number of ways, as this one exemplifies: "Forest Grottos at Chü-ch'ü" (which was in last year's Met exhibition)--fully packed instead of empty, highly unstable instead of stable, textures rich to the point of oppressiveness, incoherence instead of clarity, heavy color, active figures (at least seven of them in this picture)--and so forth. How the subjects and styles of Wang's landscapes seem to correlate with his political stance, as Ni Tsan's do with his, is a problem beyond this lecture. I introduce this late work by Wang Meng only as preface to

-- S. his masterwork of 1366, "Dwelling in the Ch'ing-pien Mountains," which, to our great good fortune, is in the Guggenheim show. It's not a large or imposing picture; one can pass it by without stopping and becoming absorbed in it. Anyone who does so, and later comes to realize the greatness of the picture through studying it longer in the numerous reproductions and reading the accounts of it by Richard Vinograd and others, will be very sorry to have missed the opportunity--it would be like passing negligently by Giorgone's "Tempesta" and then reading books about it and spending years afterwards kicking oneself.

S --. Very briefly: Wang embodies in it his deeply disturbed responses to the turmoil accompanying the Yuan-Ming dynastic change by representing his family retreat at Mt. Ch'ing-pien (in a region that was just then engulfed in warfare), employing a compositional formula that normally expressed a sense of security and escape from the outside world, but powerfully subverting the established implications of such a composition. The picture follows classical models in early landscape--Tung Yüan, Kuo Hsi, others--that had presented intelligible, accessible worlds. But Wang Meng's picture, while echoing the formulae that encouraged that kind of reading, does not permit the viewer to move easily through it, to find one's way into and out of the retreat; it's full of spatial and formal ambiguities, blocked passages, unnatural and disorienting shifts of light and dark.

S --. In the upper part (one reads such a landscape upward), the animated earth masses and warped, constricted spaces between them do strange and powerful things to one's vision as one attempts to understand the picture in the old, naturalistic way. Whether any such sophisticated and radical violation of established expectations can be found so early in western art is for others to say; I don't know of any.

S --. Skipping over the early and middle Ming imitations of Wang Meng's style by Shen Chou and others, I'll jump to Tung Ch'i-ch'ang, whose own huge 1617 painting of the Ch'ing-pien Mountains, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, betrays a familiarity with Wang Meng's work, and probably one by Chao Meng-fu of the same subject, now lost. The points of correspondence will be obvious, as well as the great differences; Wang Meng's "Ch'ing-pien" and others like it are the genesis (along with their own predecessors) for a whole series of tall, crowded compositions in which the earth masses are made to generate more turbulence than the frame seems able to contain.

-- S. How the tensions of Tung's painting are achieved, once more with self-contradicting configurations of form and space, I have written about more than once, and won't do it again. (Sighs of relief from some in the audience.) Similarly with the question of how Tung's work fits the historical circumstances of its time, as Wang Meng's does for its time--a line of argument totally absent from tonight's lecture.

-- S. Tung, however, does not mention Wang Meng's or Chao Meng-fu's pictures in his inscription on the work (he does this in another, recorded inscription); instead, he claims as his point of departure the style of the 10th century landscapist Tung Yuan (a name one utters with some unease just now, in this neighborhood--assassins may come out of the wings.) This is a copy of a painting Tung believed to be (as his inscription on it states) a genuine work of Tung Yuan, and of "divine quality." It is clear that Tung Ch'i-ch'ang grasped, and situated himself in, the linked series from Tung Yuan to Chao Meng-fu to Wang Meng to himself, with each earlier stage containing in more moderate form the features that the later ones would manipulate more radically. And each artist in the series must have felt that he was pushing the implications of the style & imagery out to the furthest point possible--as indeed he was, for his time. What could possibly be done within this sequence beyond Tung's painting was in 1617 unimaginable; what in the event was done, we will see. (I mean, of course, one of the realizations of what were in effect an infinite range of possibilities--no kind of determinism is implied.)

S,S. Matching up Tung's paintings with works of the kind that underlie them is an instructive exercise that needs to be done more than it has been; the juxtapositions illuminate, I believe, the nature of Tung's achievement in a way that is missed if one limits one's consideration to the individual work in itself. Wang Meng's "Forest Grottos at Chü-ch'ü," shown before, stands in that kind of relationship to this 1623 leaf in Tung's album now in Kansas City. And again, Tung recognizes certain formal possibilities in the earlier painting that he can exploit to powerful effect in his own.

S,S. For others of his paintings, the underpinnings are harder to discern. In the case of this harshly powerful work of 1597, I've suggested that they lie partly in debased Ming imitations of early painting, especially the largely imaginative late attempts to re-create the style of the 8th century poet-painter Wang Wei. My esteemed colleague Dick Barnhart, in an article to appear soon, argues convincingly that Tung's exposure in Nanking, shortly before this, to European engravings brought by the Jesuits was also a major factor. The likelihood of European pictures having had such an impact on Tung's early style I have myself suggested several times, but without developing the idea as thoroughly as Dick has done.

S,S. However one understands the process by which Tung arrived at the point of doing such paintings as these (here, a handscroll of ca. 1605), a problem that is of the same order of complexity and interest as tracing "the roots of Cubism", it can only have been through brilliant and sometimes violent manipulation of materials and "stylistic ideas" from earlier painting, in which layers of conventionalization, overlaid onto what was once imagery from nature--for instance, patches of fog against a mountainside--are transmuted into forms that are self-consciously bizarre and highly unnatural, but expressively powerful. The periodic attempts by some writers to "rescue" Tung from the stigma of being estranged from nature, on the grounds that great painters in China can only learn directly from their experience of real scenery (a cultural stereotype), represents, I continue to believe, a profound misunderstanding of what he is up to.

S,S. In a lecture given at the Met a few years back, after the great international symposium on him in Kansas City, I attempted this kind of multi-layered analysis of Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's "Poetic Feeling at the Ch'i-hsia Temple" of 1626, which is the work I chose to represent Tung in the Guggenheim exhibition. Again, I cannot repeat the exercise here, and will only say again that much of the richness of such a painting lies in the multiple readings it allows--one of which, to be sure, sets it in a relationship, however tenuous, to the actual place it purports to represent, a mountain near Nanking on which a famous Buddhist monastery is located.

S --. More to the point, however, are Tung's attempts to recapture the styles of early masters, particularly Wang Wei--or, more properly, to demonstrate in highly schematic or diagrammatic form his understanding of them. That his understanding was based largely on other, earlier attempts to re-create these styles, by artists who knew no more about the real Wang Wei than he himself did, doesn't in any way reduce Tung's achievement. Linked series need not include only good or genuine paintings; they frequently offer examples--and the history of art is full of them--of how good or even great art can be based on bad. This is Tung's landscape in the manner of Wang Wei, painted five years earlier, in 1621 (collection of C.C.Wang.).

I've spent a lot of time tonight on Tung Ch'i-ch'ang, and hope I've left those of you for whom he is a new name with some sense of how he stands as a towering figure not just in Chinese art, but in world art--if we try to imagine how he would fit into any late 16th-early 17th century context in European painting, we will arrive, I think, at another useful perspective on the purported backwardness and derivativeness of later Chinese painting.

S.S. Linked series of other kinds can be recognized for other subjects, such as birds and animals and fish and plants. A paper of my own in press attempts to do this for a number of these subjects, tracing them from the 13th-14th century ink painting of the kind done by Ch'an or Zen Buddhist monks, among others, to the 17th century, when the great Individualist master Pa-ta Shan-jen takes them up and turns them to his own very special purposes. Whether or not Pa-ta suffered real madness at some points in his life (still a matter of controversy), it is clear that he acted mad, in both his life and his paintings. (How paintings can "act mad" is the theme of an older article of mine.) Some of his album leaves from the 1680s--these two, the crabs from a 1683 album, the cat from another around the same time--push the devices of calligraphic abstraction and expressionist distortion beyond anything seen earlier in Chinese painting--and are scarcely to be matched elsewhere until the 20th century.

S,S. The motif of paired mynah birds, used for purposes already somewhat enigmatic and a touch sinister by the 13th century Ch'an monk artist Mu-ch'i (as preserved in an early copy, a section of a handscroll, which should have been at right--couldn't find the slide!) becomes a favorite of Pa-ta Shan-jen, whose pursuit of a cryptic kind of expressiveness they suited perfectly.

-- S. The ambivalence that this compound image carries, in the way the birds seem individually self-absorbed while at the same time engaged in some undefinable interaction, induces us to try to read it as a commentary on the possibilities of communication between individuals. (Leaf from 1694 album in Shanghai Museum.)

S --. This painting by Pa-ta, done in 1696, is the work of his in the Shanghai Museum that I tried to have included in the exhibition. They sent another, a picture of lotus and ducks, also fine but perhaps less strikingly sardonic. In this one, Pa-ta's depiction of the rock and the tree, repeating each other confusingly both in their outlines and in the splotchy treatment of their surfaces, as well as the oddness of their point of tangency, are meant to confound them (and the viewer) visually; the birds' seemingly off-balance poses and the failure of their intent looks to connect with each other are also unsettling, and upset any simple reading of the picture as just another image of birds-in-a tree.

17th century Chinese painting offers numerous other examples of what can properly be called expressionist warpings and distortions of received imagery. But I want to return to my linked-series argument.

S,S. One might assume that Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's style, which became the basis for the development of the Orthodox school of landscape, would be uncongenial to an artist like Pa-ta Shan-jen, but in fact he seems to have been attracted to it, and imitates it in many albums and hanging scrolls. In this leaf from the great 1694 album in the Sumitomo Collection he takes up Tung's oddly posturing foreground trees, and the way the movement they generate is continued in the further shore and hills.

S,S. The most remarkable of Pa-ta's Tung-derived landscapes, by far, is this amazing work in the Akaba Collection (on the left; Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's "Ch'ing-pien Mts." returned at the right.) These two were hanging in adjoining rooms at Asia House Gallery in my 1972 (?) exhibition "Fantastics and Eccentrics in Chinese Painting," and I was able to direct a colleague to them when, at a symposium held there, she professed not to understand how I could write that the Individualists, as well as the Orthodox masters, took up aspects of Tung's style. Of course we can't say that Pa-ta knew this particular painting by Tung, but the corresponces are striking: foreground and further tree groups, the hollows with houses, the way Tung's device of having fog eating flat patches out of the uppermost peak is repeated by Pa-ta in a way even further removed from any observable phenomenon in nature, most of all the division of the picture space into oddly-shaped segments that strain against each other, and the tight packing of these with smaller, active forms. Tung's work, so radical in the context of its own time, now appears rather static and conservative, with its disciplined brushwork and more moderate warpings of space.

-- S. I do not mean to suggest that the relationship with Tung's painting (or, once more, another like it) is the key to understanding Pa-ta's; more central, perhaps, to an adequate account of the later work would be the calculated incoherence of its pseudo-geology, or its execution in brushwork that Gustav Ecke characterized, long ago, as "brush delirium." But in spite of all the current distaste for art-historical approaches that are "diachronic," tracing lineages and drawing relationships over longer or shorter stretches of time, that kind of study continues to be indispensable, I think, to understanding later Chinese painting. One of Harold Rosenberg's lines that I liked best was his saying that one had to pay special attention, in our time, to what the paintings were saying among themselves. The same admonition can be made about later Chinese painting, except that the conversations are sometimes between paintings separated by centuries. And if you don't listen to them, you aren't getting it. or not completely.

So, how can all this end? Or does it ever end--must the aftermath of "the end of the history of art" or "the end of progress" continue more or less indefinitely, in an end-game pattern? No answers to these questions; but it's obvious that what I've been showing and attempting to trace, besides producing a lot of exciting and deeply satisfying paintings, can be seen as a vast, enormously intricate game played by the artists (or, if you will, by the paintings) among themselves, in some ways like Hesse's Glasperlenspiel but far less hermetical, more productive. And it's equally obvious that that game will last, be carried on or played, only so long as the good artists are absorbed in playing it. For China, it could be argued (as I've argued myself in various writings over the years) that it lasts only until around the early 18th century or so, and what comes after is something else, the definition of which is far beyond our topic tonight. And its end is marked--note that I don't say caused--by the appearance of a staggeringly prolific and versatile and creative and potentially revolutionary master, Shih-t'ao.

I might have posed another rhetorical question to introduce him: what happens if, in the middle of this grand program of linked-series, manipulating the past, and so forth, a great and original artist appears who isn't happy occupying the tag-ends of a bundle of linked series, however much room for creativity that condition allows him, and decides to break out of it? And all the knowledgeable people in the audience would think: he's about to spring Shih-t'ao on us. And they would be right.

S,S. Shih-t'ao was another descendant of the Ming imperial family, like Pa-ta Shan-jen, and was similarly open to suspicion of engagement in anti-Manchu activities in the early Ch'ing. He, too, became a Buddhist monk, then returned to secular life in his late years, from just before the turn of the 18th century to his death in 1707. He is represented in the exhibition by two paintings. One (on the right) titled "Clear Autumn in Huaiyang" (that is, Yangchow, where he lived his last years) is a fine, relatively conservative work in the Nanjing Museum, painted late in his life and (according to Jonathan Hay's research) responding to a flood that the city suffered in 1705. It exhibits the remarkable technical facility that permitted Shih-t'ao, when he chose, to produce quasi-topographical works of this kind, compositionally stable and spacious as well as descriptive. The other, "The Clear Sound of Hills and Streams," must have been painted earlier, probably in the 1680s, when Shih-t'ao was living in Nanking and affected by the stylistic practice of artists working there, notably Kung Hsien.

--S. Here he sets up a more intense visual excitement by raising the level of nervous energy in his brushwork, especially the large black splotches scattered as if randomly over the surface (tending to cling along the contours of masses, but also somewhat detached from them--the element of real randomness, crucial to the effect, is indicated by the way one of them landed right over one of the figures--an overlapping and effacement probably not intended by the artist.)

--S. Shih-t'ao's famous handscroll titled "Ten Thousand Ugly Ink Dots," painted in 1685, is a somewhat looser and wilder performance in the same manner. "The Clear Sound of Hills and Streams" is not only more disciplined in its execution, but follows roughly the old compositional scheme for the monumental landscape, with the principal masses vertically centered and recessions opening back at the sides, one deep, the other closed off in middle distance.

S.S. ( A section of his handscroll "Gazing at Mountains. in Yü-hang," Shanghai Museum.) By this time, and even more during the following decade or so, Shih-t'ao had mastered an extraordinary range of painting techniques and conventions and local styles. And, again following the favorite Chinese pattern of mastering and then discarding, he decides to cut loose from these comfortable underpinnings and paint as if he were situated at the inception of the art of painting. Or at least to see what the outcome would be of attempting to do so. He begins to take an outspoken stand against the practice of consciously imitating the old masters. He rails against artists who do this, and critics who praise them for doing it, adding "I could spit on them." He makes his famous statement about how the old masters' beards cannot grow on his face, their guts cannot fit into his belly (he's not one to avoid visceral imagery.) Among the stylistic directions in which he experiments are new uses of color, as here,

S.S. (Two leaves from his famous undated album for Old Yü) and the capacity of wet, suffusing brushstrokes to render atmospheric effects--a large step beyond the optical approach of Hsia Kuei and others, noted earlier..

S,S. Two more leaves, almost excessively familiar. While of course he hasn't really cut loose from the past and moved into total independence--an album leaf by Kung Hsien, for instance, underlies the familiar image on the left--the pictures are not consciously placed in relation to any precedents, in such a way that recognizing the precedents, and the positions of the works in some linked series, contributes significantly to one's experience of them. One could without exaggeration see Shih-t'ao as opening up a wholly new mode of painting, or set of modes--and potentially, a whole new age of painting, when the artist could approach the act of creation as if situated somewhere beyond the place where all the linked series had run out, or been cut off.

S,S. It was not, of course, to happen that way. I stirred up a small storm by referring, at the end of my Compelling Image book, to the "magnificent failure" of Shih-t'ao "to bring about single-handedly the emancipation of painting from the weight of the past." A surprising number of people, who apparently have difficulty reading a sentence all the way through, mistook this to mean that I consider Shih-t'ao to have been a failure as an artist. He failed only in his attempt to re-direct the whole course of painting, a feat that no single artist, however prodigiously gifted, could have accomplished. Why it was that Chinese artists after Shih-t'ao went off in quite different directions, without even attempting to realize the possibilities opened up by the finest of his works, is too complex a question to even raise here--I've attempted lengthy but still only partial answers to it in several writings. But I'll conclude by making a single observation, which Shih-t'ao's case can be taken to illustrate. Even while he was undertaking his radical departures from established practice, Shih-t'ao could also produce such a painting as this, his great "Waterfall on Mt. Lu," an homage to the 11th century landscapist Kuo Hsi and an entirely un-art-historical re-creation of the monumental landscape type, with its imposing earth masses, misty hollows opening one beyond the other, strong effects of light and shade, and whole impression of believability. (A great deal could be said about this ptg--an entire session of papers was devoted to it several years ago.)

The earlier pattern of linked series, even while it restricted artists to achievements that were somehow rooted in those of previous players in the series, was a continuing source of strength, guaranteeing each later master a solid base and a context within which his moves would be grasped and appreciated. What Shih-t'ao advocated, and in his late years attempted to practice, relinquished that strength--whether or not to the detriment of his late works is a vexed issue. In any case, it's clear that Shih-t'ao exemplifies a familiar, although to some an unwelcome, truth: that most of those breakers of traditions we most admire do their breaking from a base of mastery of the very traditions they reject. Could any artist after Shih-t'ao have painted this picture? I would argue not, and see that circumstance as underlying the paucity of real masterpieces, paintings that move us deeply and invite prolonged and multi-level appreciation, inspire whole symposia, in the later periods. (Those who have been down to Soho will immediately think of Jen Hsiung's self-portrait, from the mid-19th century. Yes, but try and find another one like that.) Later artists, whose aims and achievements are on the whole much more modest, are in a fundamentally different situation, in that even the most independently-inclined of them are not so much breaking free as floating free, a very different matter.

Nevertheless, I urge everybody to go down to see the excellent representation of 19th-20th century painting that Judy Andrews and others have managed to get together at the Soho Guggenheim--which, largely for reasons of availability, as well as sheer weight of numbers, provides a far fuller and better representation of that late period than the painting galleries in the uptown Guggenheim can possibly do for the early periods. If we could have realized a dream-list for the early centuries to the extent that Judy did for the last two, a lecture like this one would hardly have been needed. As it is, I hope it has filled out some important aspects of later Chinese painting that may not be apparent from the works in the exhibition alone.

Thank you.

References in the text


[1]Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China, Princeton, 1997, p. 10. Part of Clunas's purpose is to deny, rightly, that Chinese painting can be taken as unitary--or, less rightly, to deny the validity of working with the concept of Chinese painting at all. I would be the first to grant that a great deal of the painting done in China after Sung isn't self-referential or expressively oriented etc.--have been writing a lot on that theme myself lately. ("Twd a Remapping of Chinese Ptg" etc.) But, for present purpose---

[2]The Art of Describing, pp. 30, 83, 72.

[3]James Ackerman, "Leonardo da Vinci: Art in Science," Daedalus, Winter 1998, 223-4.

[4]The End of the History of Art?, p. 41.

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