Chih Lo Lou– 至樂樓藝術發揚(非牟利)有限公司- CHIH LO LOU ART PROMOTION (NON-
After Conquest, Subtle Emblems of Protest
Published: September 8, 2011
It’s hard to see, when you walk into the Chinese painting galleries at the Met these days, that you’re entering a scene of catastrophe, with lives about to be lost right before your eyes. All seems calm in the show called “The Art of Dissent in 17th-Century China: Masterpieces of Ming Loyalist Art from the Chih Lo Lou Collection.” There are no smoking ruins among the bamboo groves in a 17th-century handscroll painting, no anguished cries emerging from columns of calligraphic script.
Chih Lo Lou Collection, Hong Kong
Chih Lo Lou Collection, Hong Kong
Only one scroll, hanging in the center of the first gallery, hints at disturbance. Unusually long in format — you have to crane your neck to see the top — it has no human figures, just an image of two fantastically tall, thin pine trees standing side by side, with one tree twisting around the other as if on the verge of collapse. To the left, barely visible at the picture’s edge, is the profile of a high rock cliff.
The painter, Huang Daozhou, lived toward the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He was one of countless artists to take state-sponsored scholarly exams, earn an advanced degree and qualify for a career in civil service. His rise was swift; he was soon appointed minister for education. But the times were inauspicious. Non-Chinese forces were poised to invade the country from the north. A rich rural gentry within China had created a power elite to rival the Ming court.
Peasant rebellions were erupting across the land. The imperial response to all this was slack and inept, and Huang, fulfilling his duty as a public intellectual, said so directly to the emperor. Abruptly his government job ended. He found himself shuttled in and out of jail and ended up spending the bulk of his time teaching and writing far from the court.
Such was the situation in 1634 when he painted “Pines and Rock,” slightly undercutting the traditional emblem of steadfastness and endurance with a rueful, go-with-the-flow inscription: “Even if I turned into rock, I wouldn’t be obstinate.”
Yet as it turned out, he was morally obstinate, and that cost him his life.
In 1644 rebel armies finally seized the imperial capital at Beijing, and the Ming emperor took his own life. The northern foreigners, called Manchu, swept over the Great Wall and chased the remnant court southward. Scholar-artists were faced with a mortal choice: They could either join the newcomers or stay loyal to the Ming. For Huang Daozhou, the answer was clear: He stood fast with the old order and died defending it.
Many of his contemporaries, including artists in the show’s first gallery, acted with comparable resolve. One artist, Ni Yuanlu, hanged himself. Another, Wang Siren, starved himself to death in an extreme gesture of passive resistance. The painter of the bamboo handscroll, Gui Changshi, gave himself over to inconsolable regret at his early diffidence toward imperial service, and he wasted away.
Gui Zhuang, his son, also a painter of bamboo, took up more positive forms of activism, simultaneously organizing a counterinsurgency and excoriating the old regime for having so miserably failed the Chinese people. A 1658 painting by him is the one work in the opening gallery that postdates the Manchu takeover. It introduces the rest of the show and the wide range of responses by loyalist artists — known as yimin, or leftover subjects — who through their art were trying to deal with social and cultural trauma.
Some, like Xiao Yuncong (1591-1669), devised subtle emblems of protest and mourning. His “Ink Plum” depicts a single plum tree, a symbol of ethical purity, as little more than a graceful but insubstantial twig. It floats unplanted in midair, as if it had been chopped off at the bottom or torn away from its roots.
Xiao’s friend Hongren became a Buddhist monk when the dynasty dissolved, a move with practical advantages. As a member of a religious order he was absolved from answering to secular authority, and he neatly avoided submitting to one particularly onerous demand made by China’s new rulers, who called themselves the Qing dynasty. Under their dispensation all men were required to adopt a Manchu hairstyle: a shaved head with a patch of long, braided hair left at the back. But since monks traditionally shaved their heads completely, loyalists like Hongren could avoid declaring political allegiance through appearance.
The monastic life also offered physical retreat, which could be further deepened with a retreat into art. Calling on the revered model of earlier yimin figures like Ni Zan (1306-1374), who had gone into principled seclusion at the time of the Mongol invasion, Hongren traveled the countryside and developed increasingly abstract styles of landscape imagery based on utopian themes.
A lot of yimin art was consciously escapist. Painting after painting makes reference to the fable of the Peach Blossom Spring, in which two fishermen accidentally wander into a hidden Eden where life is perfect, and the perfection never ends. All is well until they leave to fetch their families, and then return becomes impossible. They can’t find the way back to paradise.
Despite the patriotic emotion generated by its demise, the late Ming dynasty was never paradise by any stretch, as some artists recognized. And in general the further the art gets in time from the initial, violent midcentury crisis, the more complex its messages become. This is clear in the work of the exhibition’s two star figures, both descendants of the Ming royal line, both Buddhist monks, both singular, snappish personalities. Zhu Da (1626-1705), better known as Bada Shanren, took monastic vows to escape persecution. Decades later, after experiencing (or faking) psychotic episodes, he returned to secular life as a professional artist.
Crazy or not, he produced exceptionally inventive art, outsiderish in its oddity but formally sophisticated and ripe with historical allusions. He’s best known for his portraits — which could be taken perhaps for self-portraits — of birds and fish, solitary creatures with eyes fixed in a baleful, mistrustful stare as if alert to trouble approaching.
Less conspicuously eccentric, though, are landscapes that anticipate Cézanne’s in the way they transmute nature into an abstract idea of nature by cutting its forms loose from space and space loose from gravitational logic. If his fish and birds have an uneasy, monomaniacal bite, funny and scary, his landscapes can be delicate beyond belief, mist-muffled detonations of tone and line.
His younger contemporary, Zhu Ruoiji, known as Shitao (1642-1707), was also a Ming prince by descent. But because he was only an infant when the dynasty ended, he may have felt somewhat detached from his imperial identity, free to acknowledge or deny it. His ambitions for advancement within the Buddhist hierarchy brought him into the Qing court. When he failed to find sufficient patronage there, he converted to Daoism and to a life of relative solitude.
In one thing he was consistent: his brilliance. And part of that brilliance lay in his never staying still. The exhibition — which comes from the Hong Kong Museum of Art and was organized in New York by Maxwell K. Hearn, the curator in charge of the Met’s Asian department — gives a sense of Shitao’s restlessness. It moves from a big, emphatic painting, all spritzes, swipes and spiny rays, of a sinewy pine tree and a thundercloud of a rock to a suite of vegetable still lifes (Shitao referred to himself as “a bitter gourd,” only for the discerning palate) to a dozen album paintings illustrating poems by Huang Yanlu, a patron and friend.
The album is a tour-de-force compendium of the graphic possibilities the landscape genre offers and of the qualities that made Shitao so gripping: sensationally outré brushwork, narrative verve, a ready command of art history and a symphonic sensibility, all seen in the way he unites the 12 images (the full album has a total of 22) through the play of empty, unpainted space in each. By the time this album was finished in 1702, the Ming-Qing transition was long over. The Manchu rulers, astute politicians and ardent Sinophiles, had restored a sense of normalcy. The pain of traumatic injury had healed; the end of the world hadn’t happened. The event that changed everything hadn’t changed much.
Certainly it hadn’t changed art, at least not in a permanent way. Ming themes and styles, whatever their dissident implications, smoothly entered the Qing mainstream. An album of paintings by the Suzhou artist Huang Xiangjian (1609-1673) called “Journey in Search of My Parents” is a kind of docudrama account of the artist’s 1,400-mile trek to find his aged mother and father in the chaos that followed the Ming collapse. Huang’s story is a moving one, but his telling of it, with wind-whipped brushwork and cinematic effects of scale, has a grandstanding air.
A pristine set of 12 ornamental hanging scrolls of colored landscapes on gold leaf, at the end of the show, doesn’t pretend to be anything but high-end commercial fodder. Painted by Lan Ying (1585-1664), who worked in Hangzhou, it appears to be an uncommissioned job done for the market and must have gone for a bundle.
The only surprise is its early date: 1650, when the dynastic struggle was still active and raw. So even during an apocalypse there was private money around to buy luxury art, and artists able and willing, unprotestingly, to produce it. Whether this speaks of art’s timeless resilience or of its endless willingness to please for a price, disasters be damned, is a question as pertinent to New York in 2011 as it was to China centuries ago.