Notebook, 1993-


A New Frontier for Chinese Art

Art Review | 'Journeys'
Mountains of the Mind in Chinese Art
By Holland Cotter
Published: The New York Times - April 13, 2007

Outward bound and inward bound are the yin and yang of Chinese landscape painting. Movement is the modus operandi in an art that takes us hiking up mountains and cruising down streams, but always in a spirit of rumination. This is action painting as thinking.

"Journeys: Mapping the Earth and Mind in Chinese Art" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) is about movement on many levels, one utterly practical. Every six months or so all the paintings in the Met's Chinese galleries are taken off display and returned to storage, and others are moved in to replace them. Prolonged exposure to light would cause the inks used in this fundamentally calligraphic work to fade over time.

The museum could easily rotate a handful of familiar masterpieces, and we'd be happy to see them. But Maxwell K. Hearn, the curator who oversees the galleries, does something different. He pushes our knowledge of Chinese art forward by envisioning each reinstallation as a stand-alone thematic show, made up of Met material and outside loans.

Fully a third of the pieces in the current show are borrowed from private collections. More important, several are of contemporary art, which Mr. Hearn has mixed in with classical material. The result is the equivalent of hanging John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage with Van Dyck and Rubens and as equals no less.

Revolutionary is an apt word for the image that opens the show: a big color photograph, taken in 2005 by the Beijing artist Hai Bo, of a Chinese peasant riding a bicycle toward us down a long country road. He's the Maoist hero of yesterday pedaling out of a nostalgia-shrouded past into a confusingly unheroic present. These elements line the way through the galleries beyond.

The first gallery, under the heading "Parting and Return," deals with nostalgia straight on. In a 12th-century hanging scroll we see the aged Tang emperor Xuanzong fleeing his beleaguered kingdom after having consented to a beloved consort's execution for treason. He looks regretfully back at a parting that will allow no return.

Other goodbyes are more mundane. An 11th-century scholar-artist watches a flock of autumn geese rise from a river, their necks as long and thin as the reeds below. He envies their freedom to fly away, but also knows they will be back in another season.

In a hanging scroll the 14th-century painter Zhao Yuan depicts two friends saying goodbye on the banks of a stream as one boards a boat, perhaps to go to the city and begin a career. Scroll paintings were often given as parting gifts; possibly this one was. As for Zhao, he eventually made the same trip and became a court painter, until the Ming emperor took a disliking to him and had him killed.

The marvelous 17th-century artist-poet Shitao, who has an album of small paintings in the show, was luckier. He too made the journey to town, hoping for advancement in the Buddhist church. But after years of striving and failing, he gave up and headed home to take sylvan walks, think Daoist thoughts and peddle his paintings for what they would bring. Failure gave him some peace.

Like European Romantic poets, Chinese artists adored nature, and constantly explored it in person and in their art. The show has a whole room full of images of travelers battling through snowstorms or drifting through hazy spring days. And the nature they encounter is, in that Romantic way, more mood or ethical condition than physical state.

As often as not the mood is regret. If only we could have the old ways back. Or, I miss my distant friends so much. Or, all things die, and so must I. But there's anger, virtuous indignation and bitter determination. In the 12th-century painting "Travelers in a Wintry Forest" a huddled scholar and his groom pass under an age-battered pine tree. The tree is an emblem of a moral fortitude that no storm that is, no political turbulence can break. The scholar has presumably exiled himself from a corrupt court and is seeking refuge in a country retreat.

So reliant did the Chinese become on being able to escape into nature that they built miniature versions of it in the form of micromanaged gardens. Several such retreats from the Ming dynasty are celebrated in paintings in the show. A contemporary Taiwanese painter, Yu Peng, depicts one too in a 1996 scroll but adds a drop of post-modern acid by emphasizing the garden's artificiality and clutter.

But they have time-traveled in ways they never suspected. Generations have passed in their absence. The world they knew is gone. Nor can they find their way back to paradise. The sense of regret in this picture is stabbingly sharp, reflecting the mood of an outcast artist who was a Song loyalist in Mongol times.

Not that everything in Chinese landscape painting is doom and gloom. Leave it to the 21st century to find some hilarity: The contemporary artist Hong Hao, in "Spring Festival Along the River," inserts cutout photographs of picnickers and a special appearance by Bruce Lee into a digital copy of a famous 12th-century scroll that is the Song version of "La Grande Jatte."

In certain cases landscape means geography, figuring out what's where. Seventeenth-century Ming culture turned out endless printed travel books, Club Med-style guides for pilgrims and sightseers, listing Buddhist shrines and mineral spas.

The Qing dynasty commissioned enormous scrolls to document imperial inspection tours. Jesuit missionaries, hired as cartographers, tried to introduce the European methods for indicating distance by scale. But for the Chinese this held no appeal. They wanted maps to be pictures.

A spectacular late-17th- or early-18th-century Chinese-designed map done in jade green and imperial gold titled "Ten Thousand Miles Along the Yellow River," a recent Met acquisition, scrupulously indicates every last tourist spot along the river's great length but gives no sense of how far one spot is from another. You may know where you want to go, but how to get there, and how long it will take, is anybody's guess.

This could be said of China itself today. As it goes the distance for international dominance, how carefully is it measuring the cultural distance between its antique past and its modern present, or the widening rifts between its classes, rifts that are leaving the rural peasant population, not so long ago a celebrated source of strength, a disenfranchised majority again?

Mr. Hearn's show concludes with a set of seven Hai Bo photographs of peasants on bicycles; in this case all the men are heading away from us down the long road country. Toward obsolescence or toward a future of strength-in-numbers power? Either way they provide the perfect open-ended conclusion for an expeditionary think-piece of a show.

NYTimes April 13, 2007



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