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Cantor Arts Center's new show, "Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future,' highlights four master Chinese ink-brush painters
by Michael S. Gant on Mar 03, 2010
FIVE YEARS AGO, the Cantor Arts Center mounted a show of modern Chinese artists aptly called “On the Edge.” It featured such aggressive gestures as Zhang Huan’s full-body raw-meat suit and lots of manipulated, even mocking, images of Chairman Mao. A little less aggressively, Zhong Hongtu contributed scroll paintings that combined traditional Chinese methods and imagery with Western painting styles derived from the Impressionists.
The marvelous new show at the Cantor, “Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future,” echoes in subtler fashion the themes that were bursting out all over in “On the Edge.” The show pulls together about 100 works by four major masters of ink painting whose lives spanned the late 19th century and much of the 20th century. All four played significant parts in China’s complex reaction to modern Western art; three lived into the Communist era; and their works, even at their most seemingly serene and timeless, evince signs of the upheavals that roiled China in the transitions from the fall of the Qing Dynasty to the rise and fall of the Republic of China to the triumph of Mao.
The four artists are Wu Changshuo (1844–1927), Qi Bashi (1864–1957), Huang Binhong (1865–1955) and Pan Tianshou (1897–1971). Such long careers make it hard to confine them to a single narrative, but one common thread is paramount. In the face of the increasing influence of Western art in China in the early 1900s, these four chose to respond not by abandoning but by revitalizing the centuries-old tradition of brush painting in ink on silk scrolls, combined with the arts of calligraphy, poetry and seal carving.
This emphasis on a carefully proscribed heritage was not a retrenchment, however; Wu, Qi, Huang and Pan all adopted visual strategies that quietly altered the look and emotional pulse of ink painting. Some of the works on display are startling in their modernity—Huang’s densely patterned landscapes occasionally slip into a mode that looks like pure abstract expressionism.
Wu Changshuo specialized in domesticated nature scenes, with a concentration on flowers and trees, although one of his most striking works is a portrait of a heavy-bodied tiger marching away from the viewer, its thick tail raised rather defiantly. His scroll Plum Blossoms and Cattail Grass starts with a lightly rendered pot containing a small, gnarled specimen of plum dotted with light red blooms. The thick oval mat of cattail grass in a separate vessel is squeezed from below by an amorphous mass of darkly inked rock. The whole composition is framed on two sides by poetry inscriptions in both running script and the more stylized seal script.
The remarkable Tripod Cauldrons combines ink rubbings of two ancient bronze urns, including their engraved inscriptions, with a bouquet of bright chrysanthemums in one vessel; some more austere uncolored plum boughs provide a vertical contrast jutting from the other. The studied use of historical materials makes the painting something like an illustrated lecture.
As he grew older and more confident in his technique, Wu showed great freedom in his approach to familiar subjects. Pair of Peaches presents two red-blush fruits rendered in very runny, thin ink surrounded by a handful of leaves. The inscription, an ode to fruity goodness (“One bite can add centuries to your life”), is done in swirly characters trailing off in long sketchy strokes. The hanging veggies of Gourds feature ink washes so saturated that they seem almost poured onto the page. The yellow globes stand out amid a cascade of dark-leaved vines suggested with tangled strokes of brown and dashes of blue gray. Unlike most of Wu’s work, the calligraphic component is squeezed into a corner, overwhelmed by the fecundity of nature.
Qi Bashi favored animal portraits, and his paintings done in delicate gradations of thin gray ink are quite charming. Taking full advantage of his very tall, narrow scroll format, Qi sketches two bickering squirrels as dark blobs perched at the top of a tree trunk, balanced by a delicate tracery of pine needles at the bottom of the painting. Reversing the dynamic, The Two Ducks Under Red Knotweed float across the very bottom of a scroll presided over by fuzzy red dangling flowers.
Th three Mice Romping in a Mountain Dwelling are almost too adorable, like something out of Beatrix Potter. Much better is the austere Crabs, in which the crustaceans tumble through the narrow empty space of the scroll, growing a bit darker and closer together as they reach the bottom. The last crab is jet black, and its body uncannily resembles the silhouetted head of Mickey Mouse.
His human portraits are less affecting. The Bodhidharma posed on a bed of leaves under a tree looks conventional; and his 1897 portrait of Iron-Crutch Li, a Daoist Immortal, seems ungainly, poised between veneration and caricature. Much better is a later (1947) rendition of Iron Crutch Li, peering warily into a hollow gourd and wondering, “Sir, what medicine do you have in your gourd?” The old man is asking, very circumspectly considering the political upheavals at hand, if things will ever really change.
Of the four, Huang Binhong references most tellingly the deep history of Chinese landscape painting, with rising vistas of towering bare rocks and thrusting forests overwhelming rustic huts. Sitting in the Rain in Qingcheng is dominated by a looming mass of misty clouds dwarfing some lightly outlined village structures that appear quite ephemeral in the vastness of nature. The traces of human activity are almost invisible in Mountain Landscape With a Waterwheel, with only a tiny seated figure in the foreground to witness the immensity of the rocky landscape. These paintings recall, to a Western viewer, the 19th-century landscapes of the Hudson River School in which minute figures admire in awe the expansive vistas before them. Very late in his life, Huang produced some extraordinary landscapes full of dense vigorous brush strokes that look almost staccato, even pointillist, in their application. Burnt Ink Landscape (1950) and Peach Blossom Spring (1953) in particular have the roiling immediacy of a Jackson Pollock.
Pan Tianshou is the most self-consciously modern of the quartet. A couple of his landscapes feature gun towers on promontories that seem a bit sinister among so much natural beauty, and he sometimes worked at a muralist’s scale for pieces meant to be seen in public places. The immense Water Buffalo in a Summer Pond matches the humped back of the stolid beast against a rock outcropping on the shore—two symbols of permanency in an impermanent world. Changing proportions, Dominant Overlook is a vertical shocker with a spire of widening stone jutting from an impossibly narrow base—two baleful vultures take advantage of this secure redoubt.
Even a small slice of nature can look like an epic in Pan’s hands. The most amazing entry in the “Tracing the Past” is Mountain Flowers of Mount Yandang, a large horizontal scroll that depicts a solid wedge of rock surrounded by a profusion of flora rendered in a variety of styles, ranging from precise botanical illustration to suggestive blobs of ink. Two chubby frogs, perhaps under the false illusion that they are the kings of all they survey, rest at the rock’s point, subsumed only in the moment. The dangerous eddies of history caught up with Pan, who was persecuted by the Cultural Revolution as a spy. It’s hard not to think that Pastoral Amusement on a Wild Pond, his simple painting of a very anxious-looking kingfisher on a branch, is a self-portrait of the artist, warily eying critics with real clout.
TRACING THE PAST, DRAWING THE FUTURE: MASTER INK PAINTERS IN 20TH-CENTURY CHINA runs through July 4 at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University. (650.723.4177)
by Michael S. Gant on Mar 03, 2010
BLOOMING EPIC: Pan Tianshou’s ‘Mountain Flowers of Mount Yandang’ (detail) gives a monumental feel to humble flora and fauna.