Art Review | 'Anatomy of a Masterpiece'
The Art Is in the Detail
From his terrace, the world is blue and green — mountains and trees — or almost green. Spring is on the way; the geese are back. One, then two, alight on the river, with more still invisible but close behind. Pavilion living! The only way. With the city somewhere down there, and nature everywhere up here, he watches mist rise. River meets sky.
The calm watcher is the fourth-century scholar-artist Wang Xizhi, father of classical calligraphy and model for living an active life in retreat. He is depicted by the painter Qian Xuan, another connoisseur of reclusion, in a 13th-century handscroll at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The scroll is in “Anatomy of a Masterpiece: How to Read Chinese Paintings,” a spare, studious show that offers, along with many stimulations, a retreat from worldly tumult — the religious fervor, the courtly pomp, the expressive self-promotion — that fills much of the museum.
This exhibition is also a refuge from the hurly-burly of Asia Week in New York, which is now in session and has mushroomed into three weeks this year. Dealers are in town from abroad with special shows; others arrive next week. Two art fairs are returning. Add a passel of events devoted to contemporary Asian art, along with the auctions, and the situation is clear: a marathon stretch of looking, judging, sorting, tsk-tsking and oh-mying, not to mention wheeling and dealing. Naturally, the urge to get away from it all can be strong.
I mean, isn’t part of the point of our Western passion for Asian art to find a serenity that we can’t seem to cook up on our own, a metabolic slow-down, a less-is-more state of grace? One 15th-century Chinese writer recorded such an ideal in a lifestyle wish list that includes: “A nice cottage. A clean table. A clear sky with a beautiful moon. A vase of flowers. No cares of the world.” He was describing the optimum environment for looking at art, but also for living artfully.
“Anatomy of a Masterpiece” has all the elements on his list, and one more: instruction. The curator, Maxwell K. Hearn of the Met’s Asian art department, has given the museum’s lofty Chinese painting and calligraphy galleries the intimacy of a teaching collection, with a limited number of objects accompanied by short labels and photographic enlargements of details. The labels are thematic and ruminative, approaching paintings through ideas rather than dynasties. The photographs are a revelation.
To many visitors Chinese brush-and-ink painting, with its faint images on time-darkened silk, has a generic look; entire galleries register as a soft brown blur. Close and repeated looking slowly reveals those images and brings them to life in a startling way; partly this is a matter of individual vision evolving, sharpening. But photographs speed the process, cutting through obscuring patinas, clarifying what is otherwise hard to see, and in dramatic ways.
I can easily imagine Mr. Hearn’s photo-supplemented show creating converts to Chinese painting; it is museology as consciousness-raising. (Yale University Press is publishing an accompanying book.)
Mr. Hearn has the immense advantage of working with some of the most famous Chinese paintings in existence, and he opens with one of them, “Night-Shining White,” a picture of a spirited horse by Han Gan, who lived in the ninth century during the Tang dynasty. By that point the criteria for a successful painting had been established, and the first was the ability to convey a subject’s vitality, or life-energy.
Han was a master of this, bringing an animal to life with contour lines and calligraphic strokes that look almost joltingly vibrant. And if that dynamism escapes us, the testimony of generations of connoisseurs is there to confirm it: the horse is hedged in by a halo of seals applied by scholars and artists over the centuries. Each is a stamp of approval; together they are a storm of applause.
During the Tang dynasty, figure painting was the prestige genre, and landscape subsidiary. With time this hierarchy was reversed. Landscape became the big picture, figures mere dots to establish scale. And the scale was tremendous: towering mountains, limitless vistas, sourceless rivers, as befitted an image of nature that was an emblem of creation itself, a vision of matter forever consolidating and evaporating .
The uses of that vision varied. In “Summer Mountains,” attributed to the Southern Song painter Qu Ding, the landscape is descriptive, a pileup of painstakingly rendered details, from minute curved bridges to an elaborate temple tucked in a notch. By contrast, in Guo Xi’s water-soaked “Old Trees, Level Distance,” emotion reigns. The landscape looks as shadowed with regret as a Mahler song. Two old men, tiny figures, meet for a parting meal before one begins a journey. Where is he going? Will he return? Or is this a last goodbye? They men are dwarfed by a landscape seen through tears.
Several generations later, in Zhao Mengfu’s “Twin Pines, Level Distance,” something new appears. No more realism; no more romanticism; in a sense, no more painting. Now the landscape image is an extension of writing, a form of embodied thought, an essence of landscapeness, a text to be read. In the contemporary West we have a term for this: conceptual art.
And my guess is that if certain Chinese artists in the Met show could leap the centuries, they would feel at home in the concept-intensive environment of the current Whitney Biennial, with Carol Bove’s towering driftwood sculpture, or Charles Long’s skeins of river debris, or even the text-based art of Dexter Sinister (Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt) snaking down a computer screen.
Not that Chinese painting ever abandons sheer visual punch. Liang Kai’s “Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank,” with its vision of the natural world gashed open and turned inside out, is a shock to the system no matter how often you see it. So is Zude’s painting of an old man’s face as a fissured topography of rock and earth. And Wu Bin’s depiction of Buddhist saints as a cavalcade of rubber-limbed freaks.
Then there is the peculiar vivacity of calligraphy. If Zhao’s “Twin Pines, Level Distance” is the pictorial equivalent of writing, the show’s great example of his actual script, “Four Anecdotes From the Life of Wang Xizhi,” seems to have an aural dimension, like a dramatic reading. So expressive are the linear twists and turns of the brush, the pressure and weights of ink, the spatial punctuations, that you can practically hear his voice.
No doubt that voice often spoke in isolation. In his later years, Zhao alternated life in the quotidian world, with its markets and politics, with periods of withdrawal. And the passage he copied in calligraphy at the Met is a story from the life of Wang Xizhi, the man with the vista of blue and green, the man who loved geese.
In the story, Wang is visiting a Daoist monk who owns a flock of geese, exceptionally beautiful ones. Sell them to me, Wang begs the monk, who replies that he will not. They argue; they wrangle; they spar. It’s exhausting. At last they swing a deal. The monk says that if Wang, such a famed calligrapher, will copy two chapters of Laozi’s Daoist scripture for him, he will give him the birds. Wang makes the copy, which takes all afternoon. Then the geese are his and he returns home, jubilant.
Home, one assumes, is the high terrace in Qian Xuan’s painting. And there, one likes to imagine, Wang Xizhi set the birds free. The legend is that his calligraphic style, the one that shaped so much later Chinese art, was inspired by watching geese fly, observing the bend of their wings, the curve of their necks as they descended to the river. Such are the benefits of the pavilion life: fresh ideas and a sharpened eye. You can acquire both in the Met’s pacific Chinese painting galleries and carry them to the hubbub that is Asia Week outside.