The overlooked side of Chinese art history

"Painting in China since the Opium Wars," on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts through Aug. 17, offers an overview of the past 140 years of Chinese painting, a period in that culture's venerable artistic tradition not widely represented in major American collections and exhibitions. All too frequently, we tend to think of Chinese painting as an ancient but fragile perennial, one that expired suddenly when China's doors were forcibly opened in 1842. Contrary to that notion, however, painting in China flourished, as certain flowers will, in disturbed soil. In fact, exposure to Western conceptions of space, color, and line would engender fresh and inventive approaches to old themes, and would invigorate what had become a static and academic discipline.

While this striking selection confines itself to calligraphy and representational painting, it nevertheless reveals bold advances in conception and style. Some of these innovations may well surprise those accustomed to seeing Chinese painting exclusively in the serene, mist-laden light of the Sung and Ming masters.

Mr. Wu Tung, who supervised the exhibition's installation and wrote the catalog, explained that a defensively conservative, even reactionary, attitude shackled the visual arts in China during its long centuries of isolation. The refined, literati school of painting, for example, one that sought to integrate images, calligraphy, and peotry into a harmonious whole, traced its origins to Wang Wei, born in A.D. 701. The landscape album of Tang I-Fen (1778-1853), a full mellenium removed from Wan Wei, serves to give us some idea of the tenacious endurance of ancestral authority in Chinese esthetics. T'ang I-Fen still achieves the illusion of depth by elevating distant objects on a vertical plane, rather than through perspective; he shades stylized mountains without regard for the actual interplay of light and shadow, and color remains monochromatic, favoring the rich tonalities that were thought to best compliment calligraphy. Partisans of bright color, Mr. Wu explained, were compared to peasant girls who wore immodest amounts of makeup on their infrequent jaunts into town.

Yet all this would change shortly. By 1883 in Ch'ien and Hui-an's "Taoist Family," The faces of the three figures are clearly three- dimensional. Furthermore, their rendering suggests the artist wished to draw attention to his newly acquired technique.

Jen-I's "Flowers and Birds," painted in muted washes on four folding fans in 1874, experiments with unorthodox compositions. The artist introduces foreshortened views of his avian subjects, and evinces a meticulous, almost scientific concern for floral detail.

Yet it is with the efflorescence of color, of brilliant red and verdant hues, and the advent of expansive brushwork in works like Wang Chen's "Fruit of Longevity," that we see indisputable evidence of a departure from tradition. This search for newer, more energetic forms of expression reaches an epitome with the superlative scrolls of Ch'i Huang. Born into a poor peasant family in Hunan in 1863, Ch'i Huang studied the old masters, yet chose to develop his own individual style based upon close scrutiny and a direct, flamboyant response to his subjects. In four spectacular tableaux devoted respectively to a pine, a garden rank with chrysanthemums, a towering hibiscus, and a bountiful tangle of gourds, he states the irrevocable arrival of a new and aggressive sensibility in Chinese painting. In contrast to older, more ethereal works by traditional artists, Ch'i Huang's images of fecundity seem to burst the very confines of their tall borders.

Subsequent generations traveled to Japan, and later Europe, in quest of inspiration, which would result in a unique fusion of Oriental and Occidental images. Kao Weng's magnificent equestrian painting "After a Long Journey" depicts a time-honored theme with the addition of a distinctly Western emphasis upon mass and weight. While this careful modeling conveys the animal's weariness, the gentle swish of the horse's tail puts the painting in the company of traditional works that capture similar, ineffable gestures in bent bamboo, or windswept pine branches.

Fan Tchun-Pi, who works with equal facility in Eastern and Western modes, painted the austere "Frosty Morning in Peking" in 1972 upon a visit to that city. The work indicates that in spite of European influence and training, an older way of perceiving and organizing a work is still viable for those artists who wish to make use of it. One should note here that the occasion of this formidable exhibition is the acquisition of nearly 90 works from Fan Tchun-Pi' personal collection, works which will greatly strengthen the museum's holdings in modern Chinese painting.

It is perhaps significant that over the exhibition's entrance hangs a lacquer plaque with calligraphy by Wu Chun-ch'ing, which was presented to the museum in 1913 in recognition of the quality of its Asiatic collections. "Respect for antiquity," translates Mr.Wu, "brings us together." The epigram seems especially appropriate when one keeps in mind that the past is born only by virtue of our careful attention to what is accomplished in the present.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.