Hybrid Art, a Mash-Up of Reality and Fantasy
If you can look past the mushrooming 21st-century industrial blocks, you’ll find that Suzhou in southeast China is still, at least a little, what it anciently was: a city of humped bridges, walled gardens and winding dark-water canals. It was the cultural capital of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in the 15th and 16th centuries, which is when most of the gardens were built by scholar-officials, some of whom were artists.
One of the smallest and most intricate of the surviving gardens — it’s like a walk-in clockwork of pavilions, freakish rocks and mini-trees — inspired the design of the Astor Court at the center of the Chinese painting galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And these days Suzhou is everywhere inside those galleries, in the exhibition “Arts of the Ming Dynasty: China’s Age of Brilliance.”
Like most dynasties, the Ming — the name means bright or brilliant — was built on the ruins of an earlier ruling line, in this case the Mongol Yuan dynasty. And again like most conquerors, the Ming sifted those ruins, extracting what was of cultural value or interest and adding new elements, including influences from a deeper Chinese past.
This mix of salvage and innovation produced, among other things, a hybrid art. The Ming inherited two different, parallel traditions of painting: courtly professional and scholar-amateur. They developed their own versions, which eventually bled into each other. The first, sometimes referred to as the Zhe school because of roots in Zhejiang province around the city of Hangzhou, involved a decorative, highly detailed and polished naturalism. It took as its model the academic art of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) and was favored as very “Chinese” by the Ming rulers in Nanjing and Beijing.
The second tradition, which was concentrated in Suzhou and known as the Wu school, continued and elaborated on the self-expressive, improvisatory art practiced by Yuan scholars, and its artists followed the lead of their predecessors in keeping their distance from the centers of imperial power.
But in the Ming period the division between the modes was far from absolute. The court never established an academy, so professional art had no regulation look. And scholar-artists, far from being reclusive, often worked for the government. You can see all kinds of impulses — formal perfectionism, autobiographical storytelling, political commentary, soul-searching — playing out simultaneously in the Met show, which has been organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, a curator in the department of Asian art, entirely from the museum’s collection.
The large hand scroll “Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden” falls somewhere in the realm of Zhe realism. It documents a specific occasion, a reception given by a scholar-official for eight of his high-ranking friends in Beijing on April 6, 1437. The picture’s details are as precise as its date: the portraitlike faces, the minutely observed array of status objects — paintings, ceramics, brush holders, even a pet crane — arranged for maximum visibility here and there.
But this is realism of suffocating artificiality. The scholar-officials are substantial in form and dressed in colored robes, but they seem to exist in a depthless, monochromatic world. Are they sitting in a garden or on the front of an ink-painted mural of a garden? Or are they on a stage set with cut-out flats of rocks and trees for props? The painting is intensely naturalistic but detached from nature, realistic but unconnected to life.
By contrast, the scholar-artists of Suzhou conjure fantastic, half-abstract dreamscapes that feel oddly, inhabitably real. A hanging scroll titled “Anchorage on a Rainy Night,” painted by Shen Zhou, the founder of the Wu school, is almost as much an occasional piece as the Beijing party picture is. We know from an inscription that Shen painted it in 1477, less than two months after the death of his father. He seems to have intended it as a thank-you gift for a friend, Zhou Weide, who kept him company at the time as he drifted around, grief-stricken, in a boat.
The landscape features are both plain and strange: a tiny harbor at the bottom right, a few trees and a rounded mountain. The trees are composed of ink stippling — dot, dot, dot — and thin spines of line. They look shivery and molecular, as if seen through water. And the mountain doesn’t look like a mountain, but like a big, solid, hunkered-down beast with a wrinkled pelt. Everything about it is soft, invites touch, radiates comfort, like a pillow. You could curl up beside it, the way a child curls up with a pet dog, and sleep.
As it happens, the show has a painting of someone sleeping, an album-page image of a scholar dozing on his bamboo studio couch. With its Zhe-style photographic detail, the picture could have been taken from life, except for one feature: the room’s walls are covered with patterns of rippling lines that suggest projections of a mellowed-out sleeper’s brain waves.
The point is that as Ming painting develops, naturalism and fantasy, what is and what could be or should be, flow together. In 1543 the Suzhou artist Wen Zhengming painted a picture, “Living Aloft: Master Liu’s Retreat,” depicting a rooftop pavilion within a walled garden with a wide-open gate. He made the picture for an old friend, Liu Lin, who at 69 was finally able to leave his government job but, whether for lack of time or funds, had neglected to provide himself with a retirement getaway. Now that he was ready to power down, he had no place quiet to go.
So Wen built one for him in the painting. It’s a sweet place, set amid treetops at the base of a hill near a stream — great feng shui — and simply but elegantly furnished. We can see that Liu has already moved in: there he sits, with stacks of books on a shelf behind him. And he has a visitor: Wen himself, who has dropped by for a chat and some tea. In real life Liu never did manage to build a real retreat; he settled for a comfortable chair somewhere, and that was that. But he had one in art, where the seasons never change, the talk is always good and tea is always at hand. Fantasy was realer than real.
By the late Ming the reality-fantasy mash-up was getting pretty wild. Politically and socially things were in rough shape, with absentee emperors, armies of venal officials and the sound of angry underdogs growling in the air. Ordinary people were growing scared and superstitious. Religious revivalism was on the rise. Imperial support for art had long since stopped, leaving former court painters to scrounge commissions from a rich bourgeoisie. With government jobs hard to find, scholar-artists were vying for the same clientele. Almost everyone was reduced to doing whatever would sell.
One thing that sold was a new kind of religious Pop Art. In a hanging scroll by Chen Hongshou, dated 1620, a Buddhist goddess radiates the picaresque glamour seen in illustrations of theater stars of the time. A hand scroll by Zheng Zhong, “Searching the Mountains for Demons,” brings lurid realism and comic-book fantasy together in illustrations of supernatural tales dating back to the Song.
Then the Ming imploded and another dynasty, the Qin, began to sift its ruins for salvage. Fortunately, one of the things that appealed to them was the idea of the scholars’ garden, which is one reason so many have survived in Suzhou. They are curious, contradictory creations: exquisitely calculated artificial containers for the organic energies of nature. The Astor Court at the Met only hints at this dynamic. Even in modern Suzhou it can be hard to see, but it is there.
One of the city’s most popular gardens, the Garden of the Humble Administrator, has been altered so often over the centuries that it is basically a fantasy version of what it probably once was. Yet at least one Ming feature remains unchanged: a wisteria said to have been planted by Wen Zhengming still grows here, its trunk as dark and fantastically twisted as history, its branches flowering every spring.
“Arts of the Ming Dynasty: China’s Age of Brilliance” continues through Sept. 13 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.
"Bird on a Branch" by Chen Hongshou, from "Figures, Flowers, and Landscapes," an album of 11 paintings.
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art