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Looking Close at the Fragile Beauty of Chinese Painting

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It always feels like early autumn in the Chinese painting galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lighting is warm but low; the décor, wheat-beige and nut-brown. Despite sparks of color, the ink-and-brush paintings are visually subdued; their images can be hard to read from even a short distance away.

And although the galleries hold the museum’s permanent collection of Chinese paintings, no picture stays for long. Compared with Western-style oil painting — a hardy, meat-and-potatoes, survivalist medium — Classical Chinese painting is fragile. Often done in ink on silk, it has two natural enemies: time and light. The danger is less that they will fade the ink than that they will darken the silk. Paintings depicting daylight scenes can end up looking twilight-dim.

Most of the 60 paintings in the museum’s current reinstallation, “Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art,” were never meant to have prolonged exposure. Some were conceived as album pages and kept between closed covers. Many in the form of scrolls were stored rolled up and brought out for occasional one-on-one viewing or as conversation starters at parties. (For reasons of conservation, the paintings on view now, which range from the 11th to the 21st century, will stay out until early January, and then be replaced by others.)

And if reality of time, and time passing, is physically built into these objects, it is also a theme addressed by the art itself. Most of the paintings in “Companions in Solitude” are of landscapes, and many are identified not by place-name — mount such-and-such, lake so-and-so — but by season, as if changing weather were the real subject.

In paintings like “Winter Landscape,” attributed to the 16th-century artist Jiang Song, or “Autumn Colors Among Streams and Mountains” by the great Ming dynasty master Shen Zhou, nature seems less to be depicted than hallucinated. It’s in motion, in a state of molecular dispersal. Mountains dissolve into clouds, earth into water as you look.

Yet while many of these landscapes suggest the operation of transiency, they also embody a very specific cultural ideal: the possibility of escape from a crowded, relentlessly urbanized world to reclusion in the psychologically gentler, spiritually more spacious realm of Nature.

Reclusion had a long religious history in China, with Buddhist and Daoist monks and priests establishing hermitages, houses of contemplation, in remote sites. But in many of the landscapes at the Met, the longing for retreat also had a secular, class-based source. It was generated largely by an educated urban elite attached to the court or government, and eager to escape the crush of professional pressures and unpredictable politics.

In some paintings, such as “Winter Landscape with Fisherman” by Shi Zhong, who lived during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the idea of reclusion feels theoretical. Images of fishermen and woodcutters going about their tasks correspond to those of shepherds in the pastoral tradition of European art. These fantasies of the carefree, nature-bound lives of the rural poor offer examples to be admired, but from a distance.

In other paintings, by contrast, the vision of immersion in nature feels immediate and personal. In a handscroll called “Summer Retreat in the Eastern Grove” by Wen Zhengming, one of the great Ming painter-calligraphers, the human protagonist, the seeker of retreat, is a mere speck in a panorama of hills, forests and lakes. And in “Solitary Traveler in the Mountains” by the 20th-century painter Fu Baoshi, you have to hunt hard to find the pilgrim-traveler. He’s little more than a knot of ink and paint half-absorbed into a spectacle of nature-as-energy.

Some artists were, indeed, wanderers — monks and mystics. Many, though, were city dwellers, and for them and the clients who acquired their works, living the reclusive life wasn’t a matter of just hitting the road with an all-weather hat and backpack. It required making practical arrangements. There was, for example, a long-running vogue for paintings that incorporated images of custom-built rustic retreats. These served as hermitages for certain high-minded urban refugees and as vacation properties for others.

The breezy pavilion complex in Wu Li’s marvelous, God’s-eye-view 1679 scroll called “Whiling Away the Summer at the Ink-Well Thatched Hut,” looks suitable for either purpose, though the artist ended up not staying there. Two years after he finished the painting he had himself baptized as a Christian, then ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. He died doing missionary work in bustling Shanghai.

And reclusion wasn’t necessarily a rural or solitary condition. If you had the desire, and the means, you could bring the country into the city by building your own walled mini-Eden. Wen Zhengming was born in Suzhou, and after taking a stab at making it big in Beijing, and failing, he went back home. Suzhou was famed for its private gardens, and he took one of them, known as the “Garden of the Inept Administrator,” as a subject for series of extraordinary architectural paintings, one of which is on view. That garden still exists in Suzhou, but much changed. It lives on in something like its original form in Wen’s art. (The Met’s Astor Court, around which the painting galleries wind, is based on a section of another garden in that city.)

As for solitude, reclusion didn’t strictly require it. In China, painting, like poetry — the two are closely linked through calligraphy — was an inherently social art, to be shared. Get-togethers of like-minded creatives were common, and some became the stuff of legend. One of the most famous took place in 353 A.D. when the artist-scholar Wang Xizhi threw a party for some 40 professedly loner friends at a retreat called the Orchid Pavilion.

Wine flowed; so did poetry; and so, finally, did autumn-tinged reflections on time passing and mortality. Wang wrote up the event; thanks to copyists, his account went viral, and the Orchid Pavilion Gathering became an evergreen subject for painting, as seen in two quite different examples at the Met, one a tightly executed 1699 album page by Lu Han, the other a many-feet-long handscroll, dated 1560, by Qian Gu.

In general, scholarly confabs like this were all-male affairs, though the Met show, expertly shaped and annotated by Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, the museum’s assistant curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy, clears space for the female image, though almost all the work in this section is by men. A roundabout exception comes in an album dated 1799, titled “Famous Women.” Its painter, Gia Qi, was male, but his images were based on poems by the female scholar Cao Zhenxiu, all dedicated historical female heroes — warriors, artists, poets and calligraphers like herself. The album was, in fact, commissioned by Cao.

And what, in the end, is the takeaway from this show, which is, technically, not a show at all, but a permanent collection rehang? For me, there are several. The most obvious one is the reminder that “Companions in Solitude” gives of how beautiful, varied, and demanding to mind and eye alike the Chinese landscape painting tradition is. So fine-grained are its formal beauties and subtly-stated its themes that it’s an art easy to simply pass by, until you stop, and look and fall in love. “Companions in Solitude” is an opportunity to fall in love with it over again.

It also gives some sense of how rich the Met’s holdings are: 14 pieces in the rehang are being exhibited for the first time, with more surprises promised in the next rotation. And histories of familiar works have been reconsidered and updated. The attribution of the monumental handscroll “Dwellings Among Mountains and Clouds,” once thought to be by Gong Xian, one of the Eight Masters of Nanjing and a late-in-life recluse, is now being reconsidered by scholars. Do their questions make the painting any less forebodingly thunderous? No.

And resonances between past and present are striking. In the aftermath of Covid lockdown, solitude, ideal and real, feels like a more complicated condition than it once was. The same is true of communion, now shaped by new technological interfaces and continuing hesitations. At a time of acute environmental consciousness, the terrestrial vision projected by Chinese landscape painting — of the world, not as a collection of disparate, disposable material parts, but as a single, responsive organism — has immediate pertinence.

So does a principle — call it physics, call it Daoist — that seems to inform almost every image in this show: The only thing that never changes is fact of the change itself, a hard but oddly consoling certainty to carry through fall into winter.

Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art

The current rotation through Jan. 9; second rotation, Jan. 31-Aug. 14, 2022. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.


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