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Review: Chinese paintings from the Weng Collection at the Huntington
Source: Author: Updated Date:06 May 2009

In the history of European painting, the element of time was a tough nut to crack. Usually painters used symbols: an hourglass, say, or a flicker of light that could represent the experience of a fleeting moment. Not until a century ago, when Cubist painters introduced the use of multiple perspectives simultaneously, as if the object (or the viewer) was moving in space, did time begin to be embodied in the way a painting looked.

Chinese painting, on the other hand, looks the way it does because time has been a fundamental feature of  its conception for hundreds of years. Among much else, a gorgeous new exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens shows how. “Treasures Through Six Generations: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy From the Weng Collection” brings together 41 works made between the 12th century and 2003. From first to last, time is of the essence - and not always in ways one might expect it to be.

One tour de force is a scroll by Wang Hui (1632-1717) that shows life along the Yangtze River. A main transportation and trading thoroughfare, as well as a source of irrigation for farming, the Yangtze is Asia's longest river - China's Mississippi or Nile. It stretches 3,915 miles from its source in the Tibetan highlands to the East China Sea at Shanghai.

Wang Collection2

In 1699, Wang chose the river as a subject for one of his most ambitious paintings. The scroll, unfurled from one side of the Huntington's Boone Gallery to the other, stretches some 53 feet. Beginning at the right and working left, the river meanders through the landscape, changing the turbulence of its flow depending on the geography, hosting pleasure boats and working ships, leading into placid inlets and up against dramatic rocky cliffs and slipping beneath bridges that connect the opposing shores.

In the highlands, waterfalls cascade into mist-enshrouded gorges, while fog rolls in to embrace the peaks, obscuring the land and lending an aura of ethereal mystery. At the end, an inscription in five vertical rows of traditional characters falls like gentle rain through the clouds. It tells of Wang's more than seven-month struggle to create a painting that would allow a viewer “to vicariously travel through the landscape.”

Ordinarily, of course, the scroll would not be unfurled for display, as is necessary for a museum exhibition. Instead, a helpful video demonstrates how a single viewer should hold the two rolled ends flat on top of a table, sliding scenes into and out of view in contemplative visual sections. (The scroll is about 15 inches high.) Chinese hand-scrolls are sometimes likened to movies; while the comparison is inexact, it does reflect the movement through time and space that a painting like this conveys.

But, there's more. Wang's journey starts at the sea, where the river empties out, and traces a luxurious and eventful pathway back to the source in China's heartland. Metaphorically, the painting is a journey back in time to an esoteric place of ancestral origin.

These physical and pictorial references to time's passage are further enhanced by stylistic cues, which a scholar of Chinese painting would instantly recognize. In the inscription, Wang explains that the inspiration for his work was the sight of a magnificent scroll on the same subject by Yan Wengui (967-1044) -- "the best painting in the world,” he exclaims - and one that haunted his memory for 30 years before he dipped brush in ink and laid it to this paper. When he felt he was ready he began his own scroll, executing portions of the work in styles that emulated the 14th century painter Shuming and the 10th century painter Juran - artists he admired. Chinese art's history is elegantly entangled with nature's, and both unfurl in the act of visually traveling through the time and space of Wang's own work.

Weng Tonghe calligraphy Nearby, a 52-inch-high hanging scroll by Weng Tonghe (1830-1904) is dominated by a single, dramatically executed Chinese character. Made 200 years after Wang's journey down the Yangtze, it is different in innumerable obvious ways. But like its predecessor, “Calligraphy of the Character Hu (Tiger)” is its own extraordinary journey through time and space, and it takes a viewer on the trip as surely as the landscape scroll does.

Written in 1890, the character corresponds to the year of the tiger. Its aggressive visual verve, muscularity and gracefulness are evocative of the animal. Using a fat brush loaded with black ink, Weng made three gestures to render the cursive script.

A viewer's observant and contemplative eye registers the sequence of strokes, the relative pressure of the brush pushing against paper and lifting off of it, the range of horizontal motion - here blunt, there explosive - the speed of the execution and more. The character is not an inert, two-dimensional sign resting flat on a surface but a vibrant trace of action visually experienced through a consciousness of time and three-dimensional space.

A third work incorporates elements of both the landscape painting and the calligraphy. Made by Lan Ying (1585-circa 1664), it predates both of them.

"Orchids, Bamboo and Rock” is a 22-foot hand-scroll in black ink on six sheets of white paper. It sets the enduring strength of heavy stone against the linear suppleness of bamboo, with the lush and temporal beauty of flowers as a kind of syncopated mediation between the two. Lan brings you in close to the imagery, as if skimming along the ground, while the negative space of the unpainted paper alternately reads as solid and atmospheric.

Unlike Wang's Yangtze, this work was executed in a burst of enthusiastic energy, not unlike Weng's calligraphy. The spontaneity of the brushwork drives your eye, pulling and pushing it through intimate scrutiny of the episodic scenes of nature.

There's much more. Huntington curator June Li based the show on an earlier presentation at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. It complements the Huntington's new classical Chinese garden adjacent to the Boone Gallery, which embodies many of the same Confucian principles as the exhibition's paintings, poems and calligraphy.

Shen Zhou mountain Private collections don't often work as museum exhibitions, since they tend to deflect attention away from art and toward acquisitiveness. The Weng Collection, begun in the 19th century by Weng Tonghe, a tutor to two emperors (and the tiger calligrapher) and passed down and expanded through subsequent generations of family, is an exception. The nature of the art is reflected in the activity of its familial study, which includes the execution of paintings, poetry and calligraphy through generations of the collectors. 

Now housed in New Hampshire, the collection is an expression of taste through time. It derives from the Chinese literati tradition of scholar-officials, for whom precision in thought and analysis was essential to the management of a sprawling, constantly evolving empire. At its most extreme, the literati tradition spawned something close to the Western notion of a “painter's painter,” disconnected from mundane government life and in close pursuit of artistic mastery.

Among the most famous literati painters is Shen Zhou (1427-1509), whose career corresponds in time to the emergence of the Renaissance in the West. He is represented in the show by a lovely album of poems and landscapes, as well as an exceptional hanging scroll.

In mineral blues and greens highlighted by silvery passages, the scroll shows a cultivated scholar surrounded by a group of elegant ladies at the base of an imposing mountain. They are led by a delicate white deer, who stands at the start of a pathway that wends its way up and around to the extraordinary promontory. It unfolds as a wholly imaginative journey, one that entices and consoles through the seductions of consummate skill.

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