A giant of Chinese landscape art comes into view

November 26, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

New York As banners outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art proclaim big, new retrospectives of some of Western art's lesser giants, a groundbreaking exhibition in a back wing is giving the first comprehensive view of one of history's towering geniuses: the 17th-century Chinese landscape artist, calligrapher and theoretician, Tung Ch'i-Ch'ang.

Dubbed "China's Picasso," Tung succeeded in moving the emphasis of Chinese art away from representing objective reality and toward abstraction. Nearly 300 years before the Western abstract expressionists, Tung radically reinterpreted traditional painting by subordinating everything in the composition -- including perspective and proportion -- to the needs of the composition and brushwork.

"You're moving toward a new understanding of the surface itself. Everything has been abstracted; it twists reality," said associate curator Maxwell Hearn, who helped organize the exhibition.

While Tung's position has been undisputed in Chinese art history -- he is seen as the key art figure of the past 400 years, and his works command record prices in Asia -- recent Chinese history and a certain amount of Western ethnocentrism have combined to make this path-breaking exhibition, "The Century of Tung Ch'i-Ch'ang, 1555-1636," his first retrospective.

Despite its tardiness and considerable difficulties in obtaining loaned works from four Chinese states and numerous collectors, the show is impressive. It consists of 171 works from the Beijing Palace Museum and the Shanghai Museum in China, and from private collectors in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, as well as from Japanese and Western private and public collections.

Its sheer bulk, and the unfortunate lack of exhibition area, have compelled that the exhibition be broken up into two shows. The first concentrates on Tung and runs until Nov. 29, while the second focuses on his successors, who dominated 17th-century Chinese art, and runs from Dec. 1 to Jan. 10, 1993.

These works show an artist in whom personal and artistic contradictions abounded: an ambitious politician, but a retiring painter; an advocate of studying past masters. but a radical who swept the cobwebs out of an artistically conservative era.

Given his background, it's not surprising that he had divided career loyalties. Born into a middle-class family, Tung was a brilliant student and passed numerous examination, catapulting himself into the top echelons of the civil service. He indulged in court intrigue and was an astute political survivor, adeptly retiring from political service when his opponent grew strong.

At the same time, however, he was devoted to the arts and was top calligrapher of his time. Because Chinese calligraphy and traditional landscape painting both use the same tools -- ink on paper or silk -- Tung easily moved into painting, too.

Although all Chinese painters are influenced by calligraphy, Tung radically incorporated its emphasis on brush technique and an abstract rendering of its subject. Rather than showing an idealized form of nature as favored by eighth- and ninth-century painters, or an accurate impressionistic rendering as championed by the masters of the Sung dynasty in the 10th-12th centuries, Tung put the emphasis on the composition, the brush and the surface.

Everything -- the artistic references, the poem that he inscribed in the scrolls' corner and especially how objects in the painting looked in relation to each other -- became tools for creating an expressionistic composition.

The degree that the styles in Chinese painting of this period predated Western art can best be illustrated by one of Tung's 17th-century successors, who seemed to anticipate Jackson Pollock by simply titling one landscape, "Ten Thousand Ugly Ink Dots." In such paintings, all pretense of trying to represent nature has been chucked out the window and replaced by an awareness that painting can also be nothing more than an ink-and-paper expression of an artist's emotions.

This meant that everything was fair game to Tung and his followers. If a tree should be smaller because it was in the distance but the composition required a bigger tree, it was OK to make the tree bigger.

One classic example is the painting "Ch'i Hsia Monastery." As James Cahill, a professor of art history from the University of California at Berkeley, made clear in a recent lecture at the museum, the actual monastery and mountain look entirely different from Tung's rendering.

Two things make Tung's break with the past remarkable. One was that he constantly urged imitation of the past masters. But again, what he apparently had in mind was a spiritual understanding of what they tried to accomplish as well as mastery of their techniques.

Second, he wrote down his ideas in theoretical treatises on paintings that not only show his awareness of his pivotal role in Chinese art but immeasurably spread his influence to successive generations.

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