Variation on a mountain theme

THIS beautiful album leaf of a mountainside with a temple enclave, above a river with a bridge and boats and some tall trees, was done by Pan Gongshou (1741-94), a Ching painter, ``after'' the famous Ming artist Shen Zhou (1427-1509). In its contrast of dark and light tones, its dotted brushwork, and the freshness and grace that characterize it, it is truly reminiscent of the earlier artist. Pan himself has not much fame, being one of the plethora of 18th-century artists who came late into the field of Chinese painting through no fault of their own.

The great periods for the artists of China, the magnificence of the T'ang, the Sung, the Yuan, were long past. Now the Manchus held the country, and their emperor Qianlong (1711-99), who would reign for 60 years, was determined to be not only the absolute ruler of the vast country, but also its arbiter, leader, and patron in the arts. (He abdicated in 1796, out of respect for his grandfather Kangxi, who had sat on the Dragon Throne for six decades -- to have prolonged his own reign would have seemed disrespectful.)

The Manchu, or Ching Dynasty (1644-1911), was conservative and traditional, and the artists desired to please their emperor -- to emulate the style of artists who had been admired for centuries was safe. It was true also that the copyist was respected in old China as a man who helped to preserve and make better known the fragile scrolls, which, painted on silk or paper, were so vulnerable to time. Furthermore a good artist did not slavishly reproduce a picture, but rather made a variation of it, adding his own interpretation and inspiration.

When Pan Gongshou was working, all the accepted themes had been done so often that originality (acceptable originality) was hard to come by. Gertrude Stein stresses the same problem when she says it was much easier in antiquity to praise the rose than it is now -- the best she could do was ``Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,'' which does in its strange way convey a great deal.

Pan Gongshou spent much of his time in the rich little city of Yangzhou, a center for artists because of the patronage of the prosperous merchants who lived there. Yangzhou, well placed at one end of the Grand Canal, on which cargoes went northward to the capital Peking, had become a home for rich and successful businessmen whose chief source of income was the trade in salt.

They built themselves great houses (that is, mansions spread out with many courts over wide areas of land) and laid out specially commissioned gardens sometimes designed by famous men like Tao Ji (the monk Shidao, of royal descent).

The city was a haven for artists in the 18th century, some of whom, the ``Eight Eccentrics,'' for example, have left memorable names.

Pan was not of this coterie, being a conservative, traditional artist, after the ``w^en r^en,'' or scholar-painter type. He used to collaborate with an excellent calligrapher, Wang Wenzhi (1730-1802), who so often provided the characters on Pan's scrolls that, if this did not occur, people were aware of it.

This particular picture is from an album that once contained 12 leaves, though now only 8, and is of ink and light color on paper, dated 1783. It is a masterly little work that grows on the viewer, as it reveals its perfections slowly.

Shen Zhou, whose painting was the basis of this album leaf, was one of the greatest of the Ming painters -- and he was considered the beau ideal of the literary artists. Coming from a well-off family of scholars and painters, he was able to live and work independently, though he is always associated with the Wu school of landscapists, which flourished in and around Suzhou in the Yangtze Valley. It was not a school in any rigid sense, but contained in a loose sort of way artists of similar and classical ideas.

The previous dynasty had been a sad time for the Chinese, under the Mongol yoke, and those artists who could had gone into the country to work in solitude. This pleased them so well that under the Ming, the native house, the tradition continued, and Shen Zhou followed it. His work is called perfect in its smallest detail and is praised for its purity, strength, and warmth. These qualities Pan strove to incorporate in this example, and with marked success, expressing the charm such landscapes can present.

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