Sunday, September 14, 2008

Wang Hui at the Met

This exhibition is the first time the Met focuses on a single Chinese painter, here, the virtuosic 17th century landscape painter, Wang Hui (1632-1717). It is a great opportunity to study the artistic evolution of a significant Chinese painter. The first three galleries display the Tang, Song and Yuan styles of painting that inspired Wang Hui. The rest of the galleries are devoted to his works, gathered here from the Taipei and Beijing Palace Museums, the Shanghai Museum, North American collections, as well as the Met's permanent collection.

Roberta Smith, in The New York Times, reviews the exhibition in glowing, if somewhat uncritical, terms. Along the way she takes swipes at excessive laments about the harmful effects of the art market, and at rigid distinctions between creating a personal style, and copying the Old Masters. The art market is not a modern, let alone contemporary, phenomenon. Wang Hui, by synthesizing the styles of mentors and Old Masters, does create an individual vision of his own. His mentor's mentor, Dong Qichang, advocates a spiritual communion with the classical painters through copying them, and not a mechanical reproduction of their techniques.

The works Wang Hui produced in his thirties already showed his compositional skills. In the hanging scrolls, mountain crags lead the eye up a line--described as a "dragon vein"--to the imposing peak at the top, often slightly off center. The "hemp-rope" brushstrokes on the mountains give his painting terrific kinetic energy, imitating the qi that suffuses the universe. He broadened his repertoire of techniques later by adding ink washes and dots in his mature period. His paintings have an archaic charm, and a contemporary knowingness.

"I must use the brush and ink of the Yüan to move the peaks and valleys of the Sung, and infuse them with the breath-resonance of the T'ang. I shall then have a work of the Great Synthesis" (Wang Hui, quoted in Images of the Mind by Wen C. Fong). The long handrolls display best, it seems to me, his Great Synthesis of Northern and South styles, of Tang and Song pictorial elements, and Yuan calligraphic forms. In that format, the variety of styles diverts and pleases as the eye travels along the unrolling landscape; difference becomes not a clash, but a modulation. A thousand peaks and myriad ravines, as one title of a painting has it.

The exhibition climaxes with Wang Hui's one royal commission, a pictorial record of the Kangxi Emperor's second inspection tour of southern China in 1698. Two of the twelve handscrolls are on display, one depicting the royal journey through the mountainous region of Shandong to Mount Tai, where the Emperor performed religious rites to Heaven, the other following the Grand Canal from the city of Wuxi to the great metropolis of Suzhou. Those paintings, evidence of Wang Hui's public success, are rich in human, architectural and natural detail. However, they move me less than some of the earlier, more private works.

No comments: