Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Artful Recluse

The 9th anniversary of the day on which He-Whom-I'm-Trailing re-located to Shanghai... One day disappearing into the next until we are surprised to find ourselves beginning our tenth year in China, at least seven more years than we ever expected...

Lately though, I've been far away from Chinese Curiosities, a month in the States, then two weeks back again in Shanghai, daunted, as I often am, by re-entry. For starters, it's hard to face the intractability of the internet connections here after a month of instant gratification back home. So I've been hiding in the tiny room that passes for my studio these days, steeping myself in color to mitigate the greys that surround me here...but that post's still in the future...

In New York, there was the huge pleasure of seeing The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th Century China at the Asia Society. The paintings in the show are all by the figures in Chinese history that most appeal to my imagination, the wenren, 文人, the civil servants/scholars, who, abandoning their political posts in protest over dynastic changes at the end of the 17th century, turned themselves over to poetry, painting, drinking games and gardening. Their reclusion from society became both a political and an artistic stance.

The show ends on June 2 but the catalogue nearly makes up for it if you don't get to see it in person. (Hardcover only, & therefore, more expensive then a year's membership in the museum, which is also well worth having...) Especially satisfying are the extensive notes translating every single line of text on the paintings. That whole section of calligraphy on the painting that's usually described by the museum's wall text as "commentary"? You can actually read it! (From the painting above, a voice to accompany mine: "I found this sheaf of paper in a total of six lengths, made it into a long scroll, and began to apply brush and ink. From Wu [Suzhou] I set sail and slowly wound my way to Songjiang. In a month's time I [still] had completed less than a foot of the painting...") All those beautiful & mysterious red chops identified! Puns & allusions & homophones all illuminated! It's such a treat: I'll be reading it a good long while.

But just as wonderful are the paintings themselves, for the sheer beauty and variety of the ink marks, the carving out of the white space of the page into landscape, form & air. A detail below from one of my favorite's, Yang Wencong's Water Village (1644). I can hardly bear the sadness of those bare, tender trees, the silent houses, the landscape full of renunciation and loss.

In the famous 19ct. Chinese handbook, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, there are lists enumerating the marks "used for modeling...brushstrokes like spread-out hemp sesame cloud heads or lumps of skull the wrinkles on a devil's horses' teeth..."

The artist, the handbook advises, must "first learn to still his heart, thus to clarify his understanding and increase his wisdom." He "must never let the influences of evil demons gain control of the brush point." And finally, perhaps my favorite direction, there's "avoiding the banal":
In painting, it is better to be inexperienced (young in qi*) than stupid. It is better to be audacious than commonplace. 
*qi = "the painter's spiritual resources"