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Masterpieces of Song and Yuan PaintingsFrom American Collections
by administrator,
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - 17:41


THE SHANGHAI MUSEUM celebrates its 60th anniversary this year with a monumental exhibition, Masterpieces of Song and Yuan Paintings from American Collections. Sixty outstanding works from the four most important collections of Chinese art in the United States have travelled to Shanghai: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is sending 29; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 13; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, 10; and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, nine. These works hold a critical place in the history of Chinese painting. They were selected by the Shanghai Museum’s Director, Chen Xiejun and Chief Curator of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, Shan Guolin, a leading authority in the field, when they visited the American museums.


‘The exhibition demonstrates the Shanghai Museum’s bold leadership in the field of Chinese painting and calligraphy,’ says Alfreda Murck, Consultant of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy at The Palace Museum, Beijing. ‘This is an historical exhibition that will not be easily repeated. Virtually all of these works are returning to China for the first time since they left the country – at the end of the Qing (1644-1911), in the Republican period (1911-1949) or later.’ The Shanghai Museum is committed to acquainting its home audience with important collections of Chinese art from outside of China, and has the most extensive international loan programme of any Chinese museum. ‘To reciprocate its generosity over the years, the American museums could hardly turn down loan requests,’ says Dr Murck. ‘The exhibition represents a unique opportunity. Even if one could travel to the US, to the four cities in four different states, it is unlikely that all these masterpieces could be seen – they would never be on display at the same time and would not be in adjacent galleries.’


Scholarship of early Chinese painting is limited by its low survival rate. The Northern Song (960-1127) is the earliest historical period in which only a handful of works attributed to recognised masters has survived. The exceptional masterpieces gathered tell us about the artists and provide contextual information about the circumstances that led to their making. Painting had emerged an important medium of expression during this time, due to the eighth and last emperor, Huizong’s (1082-1135) direct imperial patronage. The Xuanhe Huapu, ‘Illustrated Catalogue of the Imperial Painting Collection’ (1120) compiled at his behest, had classified 6,397 paintings into 10 picture-categories, whose stylistic conventions form the basis of the entire Chinese painting tradition. They are reflected in the show, whose highlights represent actual pictorial achievements of that time.


Shansui, ‘landscape’ ranked sixth, was held in high esteem and assumed unrivalled power as a subject in itself. The imposing landscape around the Northern Song capital, Kaifeng encouraged vertical constructions of enormous complexity. A shifting perspective of multiple viewpoints was used to project the high mountain where the evocation of mass, space and depth were major concerns. Li Cheng (919-967), an exponent of this early landscape tradition, was declared its foremost master. ‘One of the first Chinese painters to fully master realistic landscape painting, Li Cheng was famed for his ‘piled up mountains’, the miniaturist detail of his architecture and human figures, and his dynamic ‘crab-claw branches’,’ says Colin Mackenzie, Senior Curator of Early Chinese Art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. ‘These features are all superbly represented in A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks, one of only two or three works in existence, plausibly attributed to the revolutionary master.’


In Jiangnan, South of the Yangzi River,  a softer, but no less monumental landscape of undulating country with wide expanses and rounded contours flourished. Dong Yuan (fl.930s-960s), its chief representative in Nanjing, worked on topographically accurate landscape studies such as the majestic Riverbank. His follower, Juran ( painted fluidly textured river landscapes and gentle boulder-strewn mountains. Buddhist Retreat by Stream and Mountain attributed to Juran is a fine example of Song monumental landscape that shows the mist-shrouded mountains and verdant woods of southern China,’ says Anita Chung, Curator of Chinese Art at The Cleveland Museum of Art. ‘Combining the stylistic characteristics of both the Li Cheng and Dong Yuan schools, it sheds light on the southern landscape painter’s adaptation to the mainstream Li Cheng tradition. Significantly enough, it was the combination of the northern and southern traditions that opened up new possibilities for the future development of Yuan (1279-1368) landscape painting.’


In some quarters, the purpose of painting was being questioned. Scholar-gentry led by the great statesman and poet, Su Shi (1037-1101) argued that painting might go beyond representation. He is credited with literati art, since he inaugurated shiren hua, ‘scholar’s painting’ – dependent on mastery of the brush – as a means of self-expression. A pioneer of this radical trend was Qiao Zhongchang (fl.late 11th-early 12th centuries), who is associated with a seminal work in the history of Chinese painting. ‘Perhaps most remarkable of all the Nelson-Atkins paintings is Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff, attributed to Qiao Zhongchang,’ says Colin Mackenzie. ‘This long handscroll, some 24 feet in length, is one of the earliest Chinese literati paintings in existence and is remarkable for its powerful brushwork and the psychological intensity of its imagery. Some scholars have justifiably deemed it the world’s first expressionist painting, since it does not merely illustrate the Red Cliff poem, but rather penetrates to the very core of the artistic vision of the poem’s author, the literary genius, Su Shi.’


When the court fled south, the lush environment around the Southern Song (1127-1279) capital, Hangzhou encouraged new approaches, and new forms of landscape painting. Many of these were lost, but surviving numbers have enabled the field of Southern Song art to be defined. The influential Ma-Xia school of Ma Yuan (fl.1189-after 1225) and Xia Gui (ca.1180-1230) frequently used a diagonal composition called bianjiaojing, ‘one corner painting’ where landscape elements were confined to a lower corner against a large receding space. It circulated on small-scale formats such as album leaves and fan paintings. Panoramas in the handscroll format, given to extended narrative when unfurled from right to left, are not often associated with the school. Taking Northern Song literati innovations further is Composing Poetry on a Spring Outing, one of three rare handscrolls extant attributed to Ma Yuan. ‘It is one of the earliest and finest depictions of literary gatherings in a garden setting and is outstanding for its exquisite brushwork, both of the scenery and of the figures,’ says Dr Mackenzie. Probably commissioned by the wealthy Zhang Zi (1153-after 1211), scholar-official, amateur painter and poet, the scene takes place in his Hangzhou garden. Of the 38 figures depicted, four at the edges of the literary gathering are poets from the past, drawn to the event by Zhang’s poetry, suggesting this elegant work is a visual rendition of the idea of shenjiao, ‘communing with spirits’.


Around this time, brush-strokes acquired names as further emphasis was given to brush technique. Ma Yuan’s contemporary, Xia Gui identified with the axe-cut brush-stroke and asymmetrical composition, also veered towards abstraction. ‘His handscroll, Twelve Views of Landscape, is among the most minimalist landscape paintings ever created,’
Dr Mackenzie tells us. ‘Rarely has an artist been able to conjure such a compelling vision with such an economy of means – the majority of the surface of the painting is left largely untouched by the brush. Yet still manages to excite the viewer to imagine what lies beyond the misty space.’This vision was reduced still further by Chan Buddhist monk artists in monasteries surrounding the West Lake. They understood the power of abstraction and using monochrome ink on paper, worked spontaneously on the bare essentials. Prominent among them was Liang Kai (fl.first half of 13th century), formerly a daizhao, ‘painter in attendance’ at the Hangzhou court from 1201 to 1204. His Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank is a play on the ‘one corner’ composition. Much of the space is occupied by a massive mist-shrouded, diagonal cliff, shifting the focus to details beneath it.


Far removed from these Zen attributes, was the academic court painting. Figure painting, both religious and secular, was part of the repertory of Tang (618-906) mural, tomb and handscroll painting. It came under the aegis of Song Huizong’s painting academy in the 12th century, and was classified by the Xuanhe Huapu under renwu, ‘human affairs’, category two. Court Ladies preparing Newly Woven Silk with three scenes of ladies beating, sewing and ironing new silk in vivid colour, attests to academic taste and a preoccupation with spatial arrangement. ‘One of the great masterpieces of Chinese figure painting, it is attributed to Huizong, himself an accomplished artist,’ says Jane Portal, Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ‘The engagement of aristocratic ladies in domestic labour reflects the traditional springtime event when the empress would lead them through the ancient ritual of producing silk.’


The Song period was imbued with a ‘spirit for investigating things’ and natural, intellectual and philosophical enquiry had led to a fascination with the natural world. Detailed observation of birds, flowers and small creatures gave rise to huaniao, ‘bird and flower’ painting, ranked eighth, a subject in which Huizong excelled. ‘Judging from the distinct style of calligraphy and painting, Five-coloured Parakeet on a Blossoming Apricot Tree is one of the very few surviving works likely to have been painted by the emperor,’ says Ms Portal. Originally part of a large album, it was compiled by Huizong to record rare birds and flowers, exquisite objects and important events.

 The natural world apart, perhaps it is the almighty dragon that epitomises the celestial realm. Longyu, ‘dragon and fish’, category five, is best represented in Chen Rong’s (fl.1st half of 13th century) Nine Dragons. ‘Arguably the greatest of all Chinese dragon paintings, this handscroll almost 36 feet long, treats the dragon as a manifestation of the principles of Daoism,’ she adds. ‘The dragons, hidden and then revealed amid mist, waves and clouds, may symbolise the Great Dao itself.’ 


The portrayal of Daoist and Buddhist subjects took a distinct turn however, during the affluent Southern Song market economy. The commercial possibilities of art in the service of religion were being realised in the port-city of Ningbo, where workshops produced paintings for the market place and for export. Visual images of deities for elite clients came in sets, and include some of impeccable ancestry. ‘Among the most important of 12th-century paintings are the Daitokuji Lohans,’ says Alfreda Murck. ‘Originally painted in Ningbo in the late 1170s, the 500 lohans were sold to Japan in 1246. They were stored in Kamakura and later at Odawara. In 1590, they were appropriated by Hideyoshi and shortly after arrived at the famous Daitokuji temple, Kyoto. In the late 19th century, 10 paintings were acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts and four by the painter, Zhou Jichang (fl.second half of 12th century) are on show. Some scholars suggest not only Ningbo, but also Hangzhou was producing art for the Buddhist market.’


When the Mongols took power, the court moved north to Dadu, present-day Beijing. Despite the lack of a formalised painting academy, Yuan patronage created court art based on established Song conventions. Leading Northern Song figure painter, Li Gonglin (ca.1041-1106) identified with the baimiao, ‘plain line drawing’ technique enjoyed a dominant reputation in the Yuan. His historical themes, Buddhist divinities, horses and landscapes provided a template for Yuan court painters who worked consciously on styles derived from him. When the future emperor, Renzong (r.1312-1320), commissioned court painter, Wang Zhenpeng ( to illustrate the doctrinal debate between layman Vimalakirti and the bodhisattva Manjusri, he used baimiao on his renowned handscroll, Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality dated 1308. ‘The Yuan painter Zhang Wo (fl.1336-1364) was known to have painted several versions of The Nine Songs, also in the baimiao style originated by Li Gonglin,’ says Anita Chung. ‘Three versions survive today, of which the late version from the Cleveland collection, datable to 1361 or earlier, can be compared with the earliest extant scroll of 1346 in the Shanghai Museum.’


The literati ideal explored earlier by Su Shi, was also refined. One protagonist was Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), a distant descendant of the Song imperial family at the Yuan court, who first approached poetry, painting and calligraphy as a unity. ‘Throughout his artistic development, Zhao Mengfu pursued the spirit of antiquity in painting, mastering the brush idioms of the ancients and imbuing his art with lofty and antique conceptions,’ says Dr Chung. ‘His art exemplifies the literati idea that painting and calligraphy share the same origin, both providing the artist with vehicles for self-expression. In Bamboo, Rocks and Lonely Orchids, the bamboo follows the brush methods of the clerical script, the orchids embrace the ‘running’ style and the rocks display the feibai, ‘flying white’ manner of calligraphy. The result is a kind of ink play that brings the literati style to a fresh level.’ When Zhao retired to the south, he painted landscapes linked directly to those of Dong Yuan and Juran. They took the Jiangnan convention full circle, laying the groundwork for later masters of the Yuan.


These masterpieces assembled in Shanghai are of the highest order. They speak of the genius of the Song and are essential for the contemplation and understanding of Chinese painting. It is unlikely that they will come together again.




From 3 November to 3 January 2013, Masterpieces of Song and Yuan Paintings from American Collections is at the Shanghai Museum, 201 Renmin Dadao, Shanghai 200003,



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