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Stable, bizarre, and very much himself

By Enid Saunders Candlin / March 1, 1982



This astonishing, dramatic landscape, unique in the whole field of Chinese painting, was done sometime between 1665 and 1670 by the Nanking master Kung Hsien. Both the picture and the man remain enigmatical.

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Kung Hsien was an eccentric figure, always at odds with his times, independent, proud and poor, whose work is generally of a somber, pessimistic vein though his ideas are expressive of grandeur, universality and beauty. In ''A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines'' the intensity of the picture, with its elongated lines and strange cadences, suggests El Greco to the Westerner. The two men seem to have shared, quite unknowingly, some strange affinity in their vividness of imagery and forcefulness, elements that awaken answering echoes in us all.

Kung Hsien (1618-89), calligrapher, painter, poet and teacher, was entirely devoted to these arts. When he was still a young man the Manchus swept down over China and established the Ch'ing Dynasty, a catastrophic event for the country, and one with which the artist was never able to come to terms. Their occupation was unendurable to a man of his spirit and afterwards, for half his life, he spent his days ''in the company of old friends of the defeated dynasty when not practising painting and poetry.''

The desolation, even hostility, we see in some of his strange works (in his poetry as well as his pictures) clearly mirror these feelings. Though the Ming had not been a very successful dynasty, and though its closing years were disastrous, yet in the minds of men like Kung Hsien its faults were as nothing compared with this conquest from the north. Many artists of the period escaped from the outer world by becoming hermits or monks, living in hill temples and painting in seclusion, but Kung Hsien, bitter though he was, never became a recluse, though he remained aloof from his surroundings, engrossed in his work.

Kung Hsien, always experimenting, sometimes used a quite novel technique with his rich dark ink, supplying it in a multiplicity of small even strokes, as in this picture. He even made his ink into a type of glaze, producing a strong, rather repellent effect, which emphasized his penchant for darkness and his interest in contrast. Fascinated with heavy clouds, he wanted to show their effect on a landscape.

It has been thought that possibly he came under the influence of Western ideas in painting, and knew of chiaroscuro. The Chinese artists had not dealt with the question of light and shade, but in the 16th century a few learned Jesuit missionaries managed to enter the country, bringing with them not only their religious fervor but also many ideas hitherto unknown there. This may have included painting. For instance we know that the great Matteo Ricci, who came ostensibly only as a scholar, taught mathematics, astronomy and geography.

Kung Hsien was not interested in portraying people - there are scarcely any human figures to be found in his landscapes, and even the houses seem deserted. He wanted to reveal strength and density, and, with his bold brush, ''dived into the strong and penetrated the thick.''

The impact made by ''A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines'' is due in part to the powerful contrasts it brings into play: the brilliant whiteness of the light against the jet black rocks and somber lowering clouds; the jagged geometrical lines opposing and crossing each other in a medley of diagonals; the awesome precipices beneath which stand the few graceful, slight trees, the crags down which cascade the slender waterfalls, the small black rocks in the midst of foaming white waters; and in the heart of this lonely, stark and forbidding wilderness, the light, empty, elegant pavilion.

'' 'Hills and Ravines,' '' Kung Hsien wrote, ''is a general term for composition. It is fitting that a composition be stable; but it ought to be both excitingly bizarre and stable, for if it is not excitingly bizarre there is no particular value in stability (alone). If stable and not excitingly bizarre, then it is stupidly inept. If excitingly bizarre, but not stable, then it is awkwardly inexperienced. The more excitingly bizarre, the more stable; this is the zenith of painting. It comes from natural endowment and long practice.''

He said of himself, ''There has been no one before me and will be no one after me.'' Gertrude Stein felt that way about herself too. One does see, in a way, what they meant.