Friday, 01 September 2017

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ taste in Chinese art

Beautiful and intensely personal paintings by Chinese scholar-artists are now on view for all to enjoy

Written by Sandra Smith
The deceptively evocative paintings – depth lying within detail, colour represented via nuances of shading – produced by Chinese scholar-artists in the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t intended for public consumption. To these high officials, creating images for financial gain was unthinkable. Openly exhibit a painting regarded as intensely personal, a reflection of the soul? Surely the only achievement of such heresy would be to relegate traditional ink scenes to unspeakable personal and artistic depths. Sandra-Smith-colour-176

The current accessibility, not to mention diversity, of art renders past distaste at sharing images unimaginable. Eastern historical mentality aside, the Ashmolean’s free exhibition, reveals skills, values and individuality within paintings as traditional in their composition as they are intriguing in their behind-the-scenes approach.

Literati painting, its last golden age drawing to a close by the early 20th century, was an ideal form for the scholar-painters, for whom knowledge, learning and culture surpassed superficial beauty. In a multisensory approach, artists interconnected calligraphy, poetry and painting. Personal feelings were the driving force behind the compositions.

The themes represented revolve around nature, notably mountainous landscapes. Yet within this core subject are some intriguingly contrasting styles. Chen Hengke’s Buildings Amidst Streams and Mountains, for instance, is a showcase of assertive brushstrokes and soft edges. Bold and loose, it cascades with passion, the dominating background a protective influence over the small dwellings at the fore. The adjacent work, Landscape, embodies a more traditional approach. Elegant and precise, Zhao Xi epitomises a familiarity that resonates throughout the exhibition, including the nine monumental wall hangings on the gallery’s lower level, with a display of items regularly used by scholar-painters.

These objects may be functional, but the care and detail with which they were crafted make them valuable in their own right. Ceramic brush washers covered with crackled glaze are simultaneously attractive and practical; similarly, jade water droppers and a bamboo (signifying endurance, dignity, righteousness and flexibility) wrist rest carved in relief. These were all common in the studios of artists who valued study alongside art, and testament to the importance and sincerity with which they valued their work.

The literati governed China for more than ten centuries, investing admirable commitment to their paintings, which, once limited to friends and colleagues, are now on view for everyone to appreciate.

Until 22 October at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: 01865-278002, 

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