The subtle flowering of Shanghai art

Chinese 19th-century art has usually been portrayed in the West as in decline. The Oxford Companion to Art (1970) says sweepingly: "The 19th c produced a number of capable [Chinese] artists but no men of genius with any significant contribution to make." Westerners are often more familiar with Chinese crafts, with porcelain, costumes, and wallpaper, which were popular Western imports in the 1700s. But the sophisticated traditions of Chinese calligraphy and painting continued and flourished in strikingly subtle and vital forms even at the end of the 19th century, particularly in Shanghai.

An exhibition on loan from the Shanghai Museum exclusively to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland, (until May 21) wonderfully sets the record straight.

The paintings on view, by artists who were attracted to the thriving art center of Shanghai, are handscrolls, hanging scrolls, and leaves from albums. Painted in ink and watercolor, they display the Chinese respect for art traditions and, in some cases, the artists' ability to forge new modes without effecting a "cultural revolution" to do so.

Quite a number of the works are surprisingly large. Others, like this page from an album of flowers by Zhao Zhiqian (1829-84) shown here, are small. But size does not make this painting less than strong and bold. This artist, while respecting tradition, is one of the innovators.

These paintings from Shanghai are an interplay of the calligraphic and the painterly. Some forms are outlined with a knowing gesture of the brush. Others, where a less incisive form is called for, are softly airy washes of watercolor without outline.

The exhibition brochure lists this painting as "Red Fungus and Narcissus," but Crinan Alexander of the Edinburgh Botanics, an authority on Chinese flora, says the pink "narcissus" are closer to gladioli.

The painting beautifully celebrates the vigor and variety of plant life, but botanical accuracy is not really its aim.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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