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: Two Chinese Paintings


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute has recently acquired, through the John R. Van Derlip Fund, two Chinese paintings which will give members an opportunity of observing the serene and contemplative quality that is so deeply rooted in the Chinese character and so perfectly reflected in Chinese paintings of nature. And although painting is perhaps the most difficult of all Chinese arts for the foreigner to understand, because of preconceived beliefs concerning painting, prolonged association with it affords a delight to be experienced in few other ways. Anyone who has felt himself fleetingly and piercingly aware of the eternal grandeur of nature—who had watched the full moon majestically riding a cloudy sky, or observed a spray of reed grass bending in the wind, or heard dried leaves scurrying along the streets with a conspiratorial whisper—has in him the capacity to derive pleasure from Chinese painting. Beyond any other art it exercises the profound appeal of nature, wherein the Chinese find their greatest inspiration, as western artists have found theirs in contemplation of man and his works. It is an appeal of which the Chinese are always aware but to which the westerner, caught up in a mechanistic society, is often deaf.The Institute’s paintings date from the Ming period and belong to that subdivision of the “Flower and Bird” class in which the artist turns his whole genius to the representation of a single plant or flower. The earlier of the two is a painting of White Prunus by Wang Ch’ien, who died at the close of the fifteenth century. It is a hanging scroll done in delicate color and ink on paper. The painting is complemented by a poem in which the artist acknowledges the gift of a distinguished relative who had retired from his position at the imperial court. “There never was found such a flower in the Northland,” the artist writes, “With the wave of a brush, a slanting branch, (one) expresses an image of thought pure, clean, exalted, natural—surpassing all common plants.”In his poem the artist presents in words the ideal that has been embodied in his painting of a branch of white plum. The blossoming plum, symbolical of purity, was a favorite subject of Chinese artists, whose aim, in painting nature, was to express the essential character rather then the exact appearance of the subject before them. Many artists were famous for their paintings of certain flowers or plants, and Wang Ch’ien was one who was noted for his rendering of blossoming plum. In his painting he does not bring the branch to the spectator; he gives him a glimpse of the flower-laden spray of a plum tree which may be growing by itself in the corner of a wall or be one of a line of delicate black forms, made ethereal by their white blossoms, silhouetted against a dark sky in a snowy landscape. It is a branch, which might have brushed one’s face in passing, filling him with joy in the contemplation of nature.The sturdiness of the tree that flowers while snow still lies upon the ground is suggested in the powerful brush stroke that forms the branch from which the blossoms spring, while the fragility of the flowers themselves, so enchantingly incongruous in the winter landscape they adorn in China, is expressed with the same delicacy that appears in the characters of the accompanying poem. In China, calligraphy and painting are closely associated. The most important thing about a painter is the quality of his brush stroke, which must be capable of expressing every nuance of his thought. If his painting depicts a lofty mountain scene the brush stroke must suggest loftiness; if it depicts a serener subject it must suggest serenity, but always it must be articulate and full of rhythm. Chinese painting is an art of line, and Chinese artists have made line one of the most eloquent of all vehicles of expression.Wang Ch’ien’s painting bears six seals: four of the artist and two of the scholar and collector P’ang Yüan-chi from whose collection the painting came. In China it was not unusual for connoisseurs, over a period of years, to put their seals and opinions on paintings which they esteemed highly. Very old paintings sometimes carry the seals of collectors and connoisseurs separated by many years in time.The later of the Institute’s two pictures is a monochrome painting of Bamboo by Shao Mi, who lived in the late Ming period. It, too, is accompanied by a poem, and again it should be noted how perfectly the calligraphy of the poem complements the spirit of the painting. Both are characterized by strength and freedom, and the wind-tossed branches of the bamboo are reflected in the rhythmic lines of the poem, which sets forth the belief that “The brush must be free and unhindered to portray and achieve its highest aim.” In this instance the artist has achieved such freedom of spirit and subtlety of tone that he contrives to suggest, in this rather awkward branch, all that the bamboo stands for to the Chinese.In China the bamboo is all things to all people. There is hardly a cottage so small or a stretch of country so large that the bamboo is not the one constant in the scene. Bamboo is used for household utensils and musical instruments. It serves as the scaffolding for buildings and as roofing for edifices of many kinds. It is used for raincoats and hats and food, and it is the symbol of endurance, constancy, and flexibility. To us, today, it might well be symbolical of China itself; of its courage, its strength, its adaptability. The slender grace of its leaves and the suppleness of its stem, together with its symbolical meaning, have made it one of the most popular of all subjects with Chinese artists, many of whom devoted their lives to painting it.To the westerner, always on the alert for new scenes to paint, this endless repetition of the same subject would seem monotonous beyond endurance. But nature has a thousand faces and many moods. The Chinese artist was secure in the knowledge that not only he but his audience experienced eternal pleasure in contemplation of those moods and faces. When it was impossible to communicate directly with nature, the Chinese found an incomparable substitute in paintings of nature, which, at their best, recaptured the very essence of mountains and streams and flowers.Shao Mi’s painting is a hanging scroll bearing three seals: two of the artist and one of P’ang Yüan-chi, to whom this painting also belonged. P’ang Yüan-chi, more generally known by his personal name Lai-ch’en, is a modern scholar and authority who is noted for his large collection of painting sand ceramics. As one of the great connoisseurs of Chinese painting, his seal of approval on these two scrolls gives an indication of their quality. Despite the fact that they are not the work of very great artist of their period, they reflect the spirit and maintain the tradition of Chinese painting. Even after the fifteenth century, which marks the real decline of the art, isolated artists resisted the strangling conventions of the Mings and produced works that are admirable from every point of view. Among them were artists noted for their painting of the bamboo, of whom Shao Mi was one. He still worked in the monochrome style that reached its height during the Sung period, and if his painting has not the lofty grandeur of some of the bamboo of that time it reflects in its own eloquent way the place occupied by this tree in the hearts of the Chinese.In looking at these paintings it is suggested that members rid their minds of the idea of western painting and approach them as a new experience. They will not respond to a hurried glance but they will work magic, given time.Referenced Works of Art
  1. White Prunus by Wang Ch’ien
  2. Bamboo by Shao Mi
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Source: "Two Chinese Paintings," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 32, no. 29 (November, 1943): 101-105.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009