Saturday, March 24, 2007

Journeys: Mapping the Earth and Mind in Chinese Art

I went twice to see the Chinese art exhibition at the Met, so enchanted was I by the artistic explorations of place: imperial inspection tours, scholars' fantastic mountain retreats, landscape as political allegory or lament, laborers' biking daily to work, pleasure gardens, gorges. In the traditional landscape paintings, the subject matter may appear limited, but the wonder is that a mountain can be painted in so many different ways.

Dong Qichang (1555-1636) advocated approaching painting like calligraphy, with an emphasis on abstraction and kinetic brushstrokes. His "Shaded Dwellings Among Streams and Mountains" reminded me of Cezanne's post-impressionist paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, though they are from such different periods.

I can't find that painting on the net, so here's another landscape by him:


Dai Benxiao (1621-1693) seemed to be heavily influenced by Qichang, to my ignorant eyes, when he painted "The Strange Pines of Mount Tiantai." The twisted pines of the title represent a generation of Ming loyalists who had to survive the dynastic change to Qing. Benxiao's own father committed suicide after he was injured fighting the Qing forces.

Another painting by Dai:


Another good story that accompanies a painting is that of Huang Xiangjian (1609-1673). After the fall of Ming Dynasty in 1644, when he heard no news of his parents, the artist set out in 1652 on an arduous journey from Suzhou to travel over 1400 miles to find his parents. He completed the round trip in 558 days. He became one of those ubiquitous stories of super-filial children in Chinese history and literature. The inscription on his painting, "A Journey Through Yunnan and Guizhou," expressed his hope that the painting would "exorcise the nightmares that still haunt him." The long horizontal scroll depicts steep and treacherous mountains and wide bodies of water. A narrow, almost invisible path runs through the scroll, sometimes disappearing behind mountains, sometimes stopped short by lakes. The pathos of the path is very moving.

Huang's "A Thousand Cliffs and Myriad Peaks":

2 comments:

Greg said...

I enjoyed this post Jee Leong - thanks. I appreciate your way of seeing & describing the images.

Jee Leong Koh said...

The exhibition has some interesting contemporary Chinese art too.