Portrait of pleasures, out of chaos

Ch'en Hung-shou painted this picture in the winter of 1649, five years after the Manchus, defeating the Ming, had seized China. It was a bad time for the country, once again under a foreign yoke, but the Ming had reduced the land to the misery of a police state, rife with suspicion and alarm - the dynasty had proved a great disappointment. In 1368 the Chinese had welcomed it with vast enthusiasm when it had driven out the Mongols who had ruled them for a century, but alas, the native rulers, tyrannical and backward-looking, governed poorly and were not able to protect China from external aggression.

The artists of the late Ming shared in the general malaise. Art was severely controlled and subject to censorship; to offend the throne, however unwittingly, was to court death. The painters, horrified by the very idea of foreign rule, were yet wary of the disastrous past, and in these circumstances found their attitude to their art fundamentally altered. The wonders of the past, the treasury of magnificent scrolls, seemed now entirely out of context with the present developments. Chinese artists answered this crisis by producing an avant-garde - individuals who felt impelled to express themselves in their own unique way regardless of tradition. When the Chinese came to assess their work, they called them Eccentrics and Fantastics. Some attained fame, among these Ch'en Hung-shou.

Ch'en was a child prodigy with the brush. It is told of him that Lan Ying, a renowned Ming artist, gave up painting after seeing the prowess of the boy. He had need of his talent, for when he was nine his father died, and his education as a scholar and artist became very difficult. He found it impossible to pursue the career of an official, and when the Manchus took Peking in 1644 he withdrew to a Buddhist monastery and became a priest, receiving the tonsure. Many of his artist friends committed suicide rather than submit to the rule of the invaders, and Ch'en always blamed himself for not doing so as well. After a period he returned to secular life and became a professional artist.

In the series of Nan Sheng-lu's Four Pleasures (versifying, listening to music, meditation, and the like) the artist was painting a dear friend with admiration and affection. The handscroll, on silk with ink and light colors, is explained by the painter at the end of the work. He reminds us that Li Kung-lin (1049-1106), the peerless Northern Sung artist, had made a similar painting devoted to Po Chu-i, the T'ang poet and a beloved national figure. It was a high compliment to Nan Sheng-lu to imply that his nature was akin to that of Po. Ch'en tells us that both men had a ''refinement and simplicity'' and an understanding of Taoism and Buddhism - because of this erudition he made the portrait in the style of Li Kung-lin.

This too was high praise, as Li was the master whom Ch'en admired above all others and whom he had studied with great thoroughness, copying his works, transforming them to suit his own genius.

In the section, called ''The Knowledgeable Old Crone,'' he has placed his subject on the ground before a stone table on which are arranged the traditional writing materials. Nan is listening to the Old Crone, who is evidently making him very happy, to judge from his beaming face. The brushstrokes are crisp and fine, and long swirling lines portray the elegant classic T'ang robes. A glance is enough to tell us that this picture comes from Ch'en's brush, for the work's urbanity, sophistication, humor, and satire make this unmistakable. Nan's face is exaggeratedly large, which was characteristic of all this artist's figures, and the ambiance of the scene, in spite of its antiquity, has a ''modern'' flair about it: it is ironic.

Ch'en Hung-shou was a meticulous painter, of impeccable taste, his drawing beyond criticism, even though in all his work there is an element of distortion, of the bizarre, the caricature, which is entirely individual and distinctive. It carries with it a sense of the twisted times, of cynicism and melancholy pushed to the point of sadness. He is wry and sardonic, even in his strange landscapes, and there is always with him a note of tragedy and restlessness. He brings before us the turbulence of his era. We share his disillusion, so that he remains one of the most interesting of China's painters.

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