The real item

The intensity of this dramatic picture, with its strong diagonals and vivid ink play, is so striking that one is taken aback to learn that Lu Wen-ying, the artist, did not achieve much fame in his own country. Only three of his paintings (so far as is known) survive, and in the long roster of Ming painters he is often overlooked.

He worked during the middle part of the Ming, being active till 1507. That dynasty was greatly given to classifying and documenting China's past. Encyclopedias were drawn up and every effort made to reinstate the old glories of the country, still smarting from its humiliating century of Mongol rule. This penchant - to preserve - legitimate enough in itself, is apt to lead to rigidity and overt definition if not restrained. In the case of men like Lu Wen-ying it was partly responsible for a disparagement of their talents.

This was because he was a professional painter, earning his living by his brush. The world of Chinese painting, like the world of the encyclopedias, was then dominated by the wen-jen, the men with classical degrees, usually wealthy officials. Expert calligraphers themselves, they loved to stress that their art was superior, even if akin, to painting. This preference was quite usual in China, as the beautiful ideographs commanded such admiration but the literati-painters' obsession with it came from mixed motives.

Egotistical and possessive in artistic matters, they tended to push the professionals to the wall. The wen-jen artist was no new phenomenon in the land, but in the past he had not had such influence, nor had he reinforced his stance with such palpable snobbery and the sense of belonging to an ''in-group,'' whose union card was the possession of a degree. Most of the professionals had not been able to afford the years of study that this demanded, and they had to make money to live. In the eyes of the gentry this usually implied that they were hacks, inferior in inspiration and motive - and of course execution - to the true artist who had a degree.

Lu Wen-ying may not have minded this very much. He was associated with the Che School (Che derives from the lovely province of Chekiang where he lived and worked). This was not a school in the ordinary sense of the word but a loose association of painters who harked back to the traditions of the great masters of the Southern Sung, geniuses who had also worked in Chekiang. The Che, inspired by the beauty of these earlier works, had among its ranks some of the very best of the Ming painters, but most of them were always poor.

Lu Wen-ying is sometimes paired with another artist who bore the same surname (though they were not related), one Lu Chi, famous for his beautiful bird and flower paintings. The ''Two Lus'' worked in the Hung-chih era (1488-1506), pleasing the emperor so much that he sometimes commanded them to paint in his presence so that they might have the honor of sensing his ''pure and radiant'' nature. Far from being overawed on these occasions, they used to seize the opportunity to offer their sovereign moral advice. There is no record of his having accepted their counsel; although, in the light of Ming history, perhaps things might have gone better if he had.

''River Village in a Rainstorm'' is a long hanging scroll on silk with a few touches of color. It is a romantic, even a splendid, work. The picture conveys a sense of immediacy; we are in the very presence of a sudden storm. In the West, until Japanese prints came to be known, few artists thought of painting rain. The East, however, has long seen the pictorial nature of showers, and the way they affect a landscape. Here the use of wet ink, sometimes very pale, sometimes deep black, gives a series of vivid contrasts. Both the mountain and the village are important, nor are the tiny figures of the boatmen neglected.

''The fishermen, laughing,/Takes off like a light seagull,/Into a misty river of wind and rain./ (Su Shih)

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