Wang Hui (1632-1717). 清代大畫家王翬(1632-1717)ㄏㄨㄟ
- A detail of “The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Three: Jinan to Mount Tai” by Wang Hui and assistants. (1698) “Landscapes Clear and Radiant” includes nearly two dozen of Wang's hanging and hand scrolls and almost as many small album leaves that show him learning his discipline by copying the paintings of his predecessors, some of which are on display in the exhibit.
Master of Many Styles, and Many Mentors
With “Landscapes Clear and Radiant: The Art of Wang Hui (1632-1717),” the Metropolitan Museum of Art takes its inaugural solo flight with classic Chinese painting. This dense, gorgeous and revelatory exhibition is the first originated by the Met that concentrates on one Chinese master, in this case the 17th-century landscape virtuoso Wang Hui.
The assembled works soar across the long career of one of history’s most naturally gifted painters, whose achievement lies in his synthesis of the disparate strands of almost a millennium of Chinese painting. Wang’s seemingly effortless perfection brings Mozart to mind. Both were young prodigies who were prolific, at ease in many different styles, with, it seems, never a note or brush stroke out of place.
Unlike Mozart, Wang lived a long life. He was restless, always heading off in a new direction, copying one master after another. He succeeded so well that by the end of this exhibition the perfectionism, the lack of noticeable missteps, can be almost wearing.
Copy is of course a hot-button word in the study of Chinese painting, which Westerners have long tended to see as static and derivative because of the artists’ reverence for the past, their faith in learning by copying and their tributes to long-dead artists and works “in the style of.” That characterization is seriously challenged here.
“Landscapes Clear and Radiant” has been organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, a curator in the Met’s department of Asian art, and is really two exhibitions knitted into one. On the one hand it includes more than two dozen of Wang’s hangings and handscrolls and almost as many small album leaves that show him learning his discipline by copying the paintings of his predecessors. This concentration is made possible by a dozen loans from museums in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, some of which are traveling to the West for the first time.
On the other hand there are also 30 works dating back to the 10th century by, or attributed to, about 16 other artists — Wang’s mentors and his mentors’ mentors — as well as by artists from deeper in the past whom they all knew of, admired and copied. These works review the different stylistic and philosophical approaches in Chinese painting before Wang’s time: mainly a kind of standoff between realism — painting from nature — and more inward, calligraphic rendering in which the individual mark, gesture and sense of the artist’s physical energy trumped description.
Wang was widely revered during his lifetime, the hands-down star of the late-17th-century Chinese art world (and market, which is itself almost as old as Chinese painting). Certainly by the Tang dynasty (618-907) many of the excessively lamented elements so familiar today were firmly in place: competitive private collectors who enabled artists to live without court or religious patronage; artists who veered between painting for themselves and their peers and painting what would sell; and prices driven up by demand.
There was even art criticism, some of it recorded in on-the-spot assessments (including poetry) on pieces of paper, called colophons, attached to the very scrolls they referred to. Several are displayed here, a few with translations, and they create a palpable sense of artists in conversation with one another and the past.
Demand was Wang’s middle name. He refused to sell one of his paintings to Wang Shimin, the artist-collector who discovered him and took him under his wing, counting on a better price from a richer, full-time collector. He also accepted commissions to make precise copies of the old Chinese masters, some of which passed as originals for centuries, and a few of which are grouped in the show’s penultimate gallery.
The show ends with a bang: two scrolls from “The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour,” a 12-scroll work painted with assistants and therefore a bit stiff, but nonetheless rendered irresistible by its fabulous detail and constantly shifting spatial perspectives. It was Wang’s one royal commission, both the culmination of his career and a sort of sellout. The emperor named him the painter of “landscapes clear and radiant,” a designation he accepted with pride.
Each gallery in Mr. Hearn’s installation is nearly discrete in composition, mood and contrasts. The first is devoted to the relatively realistic examples of Song dynasty (960-1127) painting, introducing a fertile — and dazzling — array of techniques: the refined miniaturization of a handscroll attributed to Qu Ding; the cottony clusters of wet-on-wet dots hovering close to abstraction in Mi Youren’s “Cloudy Mountains.” In between, “River Village at Autumn Dawn,” attributed to Zhao Lingrang, describes a serene landscape in shapes of wash as delicate as breath on glass, but crisply edged.
In the second gallery Mr. Hearn shows southern Song realism becoming formulaic. The repeating mountains of “Retreats in the Spring Hills,” by an unidentified late-12th-century artist, might almost be printed fabric.
This makes the third gallery a palpable relief: it is devoted to the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) painters who unhinged realism to depict the world in highly personal, calligraphic terms. In works by Wu Zhen, Ni Zan and Wang Meng, nearly every image breaks into its component strokes, and we sense the artist’s body in each. It is often noted that this idea of kinesis — of art as a conduit of physical energy — would not become full-blown in Western art until the mid-20th century and the advent of Abstract Expressionism and Tachism.
The next gallery includes one work by Wang Shimin (1592-1680) but is dominated by the redoubtable Dong Qichang (1555-1636), the artist-theorist who argued for calligraphy as a means of rejuvenating painting. His hanging scroll “River and Mountains on a Clear Autumn Day” is especially striking and brims with adamant kinesis. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the show.
Wang Hui, too refined and independent to follow Dong exclusively, takes over in the show’s fifth gallery to staggering effect: the 22 album leaves, 4 of his handscrolls and 10 hanging scrolls show him at work in the 1660s and early 1670s on what his contemporaries called his “great synthesis.” The album leaves show him riffling through the past with completely loose joints, at top speed, constantly shifting the calibration of calligraphy and description. One, after an obscure painter named Gao Kegong, might almost be a Milton Avery.
Then the fluency of album pages graduates to the commanding scale of the hanging scrolls, which are as amazing for their stylistic variety as for their individual consistency. They are often paired with photographs of works earlier in the show that Wang copied — reaching back to masters who were themselves reaching back. In “Clearing After Rain Over Streams and Mountains,” we see the washy dots of Mi Youren stretched apart to intimate a barely-there mountain; in “Autumn Mountains, Red Trees” Wang opens up the tapestrylike denseness of Wang Meng’s “Simple Retreat,” seen two galleries earlier. Even in those works that hew closely to the originals, there is a tightening and sharpening of compositional or spatial tensions.
This show leaves notions of original, copy and originality in a jumble that invites much sifting. It highlights the way artists always strive to equal the greatness of the past, but also to improve upon it, and their faith, as the postmodernist Richard Prince has implied, that making it again makes it new. It also suggests that the desire for newness is something inherent in all people, not just citizens of the West.