Painting out of the world, monks and scholars of the Ming and Qing dynasties - Chih Lo Lou collection

Visit-conference of the exhibition by Mael Bellec, chief curator at the Cernuschi museum.

This exceptional exhibition presents a set of more than one hundred masterpieces of ancient Chinese painting. These paintings and calligraphies, exhibited in Europe for the first time, were born from the brushwork of the greatest masters of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Before being donated to the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2018, these works were patiently collected by collector Ho Iu-kwong (1907-2006) who, according to Chinese tradition, gave them the name Chih Lo Lou , “the pavilion of perfect bliss”.

The Wu School was born at the end of the 15th century in Suzhou (Wumen), a city rich thanks to the cultivation of rice and sericulture. The difficulty of careers in the second half of the Ming dynasty leads to a refusal of certain scholars to enter the administration. In Suzhou, therefore, there is an intellectual elite who will devote their time to research in the field of literature, painting and calligraphy. It should be noted that, traditionally, we tend to consider that literate artists did not market their works. We now know that most of these artists participated, in one way or another, in commercial systems, sometimes disguised. The young Qian reading (1483), by Shen Zhou (1427-1509) is a commissioned work which represents a young child, considered a little prodigy, absorbed in the study of the classics. In this vertical format, the foreground is occupied by a small building and two groves of trees with, behind, an empty space and in the background of the mountainous reliefs. The foreground and the background are connected by the verticals of the trees. This type of composition is very classic at the time of the Yuan (1279-1368) and shows that all these artists of the School of Wu were inspired by their predecessors. The Confucian Preservation Pavilion (1491), also by Shen Zhou, is another commissioned work.

Young Qian Reading (Detail).1483. SHENZhou. Ink and colors on paper. 151,8 x 64,5cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Solitary Contemplation in an Autumn Grove (Detail). 1510. WEN Zhengming. Ink on paper. 66 x 29,2cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

The School of Wu will redefine what literate painting is. This becomes in particular an ideal representation of the life of the scholar. The latter will for example be represented practicing meditation, which becomes an imperative of personal and spiritual culture within the framework of a booming neo-Confucianism. In addition, scholars are cultured people and their painting becomes an art of art historian, which often refers to masters of the past. Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) is one of the most renowned scholars of the School of Wu, as much for his paintings as for his calligraphy or his poetry. He deploys a great diversity of styles and thus demonstrates that he perfectly masters part of the history of painting. Finally, literary painting can also be literary painting, which will be based on a text and illustrate it. Solitary contemplation in an autumn grove (1510), by the same artist, evokes for the informed spectator the figure of the ancient poet Qu Yuan (339-278 BC NE) who committed suicide by throwing himself into a river. Wen Boren (1502-1575), is the nephew of Wen Zhengming, of whom he was a successor, but often in a more picturesque mode, with attention to detail. Instead of representing an isolated fisherman in communion with nature, Wen Boren instead describes the activity of a group of fishermen in Fishermen recluse between river and flowers (1570). Qiu Ying (1494-1552) was a professional painter who enjoyed great success and was appreciated by literate painters. The awakening of the dragon in spring draws on the style of court painting of the Southern Song (1127-1279).

Dong Qichang (1555-1636) is the personality who dominates the artistic scene at the end of the Ming dynasty, not only by his activity as a painter but also as a theoretician. As such, he set up frameworks of thought on what painting should be for the literate, frameworks that remained dominant until the twentieth century. It is he who will separate Chinese painting into two categories: craft painting (the Northern School) and literate painting (the Southern School). Only the painters of the Southern School, whose lineage He traces back to Wang Wei (701-761), become legitimate models. We thus have an art of reference but with a more assertive normative tendency than in the School of Wu. On the three fans depicting landscapes, we can recognize different references. The one representing a pavilion placed on a promontory with a few trees, a second plan occupied by a body of water and a few hills in the background is modeled on compositions by Ni Zan (1301-1374). On another fan, we can find the very wet character of the painting of Dong Yuan (active 945-960) and the very pointillist style of Mi Fu (907-960). These references in no way prevent a share of originality or a specific style.

The Awakening of the Dragon in Spring (Detail). Qiu Ying. Ink and colors on silk. 119,4 x 54,5cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Forested mountains in the mist, in the manner of Mi Fu (Detail). ZHANG Hong. Ink and color on paper. 38,7 x 374,1 cm.

Excerpt from Wang Xianzhi's recovery letter in cursive calligraphy. FU Shan. Ink on silk. 158,6 x 45,8 cm.

Lan Ying (1585-1604) drew much inspiration from the School of Wu but, as a commercial painter, adapted his style to the taste of his clientele as can be seen in the series of twelve scrolls of landscapes on a golden background. Each roll has an inscription that mentions the name of the work but also the reference to a painter. In particular, a landscape with a group of pavilions in the foreground and a much more airy composition than on the others is inspired by Ni Zan. This clever game of references allows the artist to demonstrate his knowledge and education in the field of painting but will also satisfy the sponsors who will be able to look in the work for reference to such and such a master. In Forested mountains in the mist, Mi Fu style, Zhang Hong (1577-1652) paints a misty panorama to illustrate a calligraphy by Dong Qichang. He explains in the text that “Dong Qichang particularly likes Mi Fu's style, which he copied many times. In his works the clouds surround the mountains and the mists rise from the woods: he creates a vast and distant imaginary space... Mr. Bai asked me to paint a scroll on which was a poem by Dong (Qichang) in the wonderful style of Jin and Wei… So I handled the brush like Mi Fu».

A traditional idea in China is that we see the virtue of the artist through his work and this is even more true for calligraphers. Ho Iu-kwong collected calligraphy from artists he considered virtuous. It should be remembered that the transition between the Ming dynasty and the Qing dynasty created questions for a certain number of scholars who had to choose between withdrawing or collaborating with the new dynasty. Our collector instead chose those he considered virtuous, ie those who opposed the new power.

There are many ways to appreciate calligraphy. We can make a stylistic analysis of calligraphy. That of Fu Shan (1607-1684) is a good example. Fu Shan, a great intellectual from a family of scholars, refuses to serve the new rulers. He lives from the practice of medicine as well as the sale of his paintings and calligraphy. Excerpt from Wang Xianzhi's recovery letter in cursive calligraphy, is an example of his art. While in his youth he admired and copied the works of Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), after the fall of the Ming, he turned away from this master who had collaborated with the Mongol invader and henceforth referred to Yan Zhenqing (708-785) paragon of loyalty. We see some echoes of this in the thickness of the lines used by Fu Shan. Another way to apprehend a calligraphy is to look at it as a plastic composition, practically abstract. Poem in cursive calligraphy by Kuang Lu (1604-1650), another loyalist, allows us to appreciate the composition thought out by the artist before starting to paint: the central character, more marked, serves as a pivot, while a character starting on the right is balanced, a little lower, by another that goes to the left. Finally, if you are a calligrapher yourself, you can follow the movements of the brush, the accelerations, the breaths of the performer and relive the realization of the work, which allows you to perceive the personality of the artist. Poem in semi-cursive calligraphy of Huang Daozhou (1585-1646), loyalist who will be executed, shows a powerful and flexible calligraphy, executed by means of precise but vigorous movements which testify to his strong personality. Pines and rocks, by the same artist, attest to both the pictorial originality of the composition and the almost calligraphic treatment of the trees. A certain form of eccentricity was highly prized in the late Ming period and this period is considered a time of great originality in Chinese painting.

The troubles caused by the dynastic transition upset the lives of many painters. Huang Xiangjian (1607-1673), having lost contact with his family residing in Yunnan, following the fall of the Ming, undertakes a long journey to find them. Throughout his trip, he will take notes, make sketches that will allow him to make the album Travel looking for my parents. In his annotations, he insists on the difficulties and the dangers of this trip and highlights the exceptional filial piety he showed. This album is very original because painted from elements taken on the spot and its compositions of landscapes are quite unusual. Another approach to landscape can be literary. This is the case of the album by Gao Jian (1635-1713) which is entirely based on poems by Tao Qian (365-427). The first two sheets refer to the history of The source of peach blossoms, symbol of a perfect society according to the ideal of scholars. The first places us at the edge of a stream lined with peach trees with a cave evoked in the background. The second shows an idyllic landscape of thatched cottages and fertile fields. The artist dispenses with the narration, contenting himself with evoking the story with a few simple motifs, because all the spectators of his time know the story of this man, who enters a cave, discovers an "earthly paradise" but, once out, never find it again.

Travel in search of my parents. HUANG Xiangjian. Ink on paper. 26 x 31,5cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Landscape in the manner of Huang Gongwang. Wang Shimin. Ink on paper. 103,7 x 52cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Landscape in the manner of Huang Gongwang. 1657. WANG Jian. Ink on gold paper. 108,9 x 53,5cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

The four Wangs are artists who make the link between the world of the Ming and that of the Qing. Wang Shimin (1592-1680), the most renowned of the four Wangs, will work to perpetuate the heritage of the Southern School by presenting himself as the legitimate heir of Dong Qichang. He particularly appreciates the painting of Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), one of the four great Yuan masters. the Landscape in the manner of Huang Gongwang is a good example: the composition with the triangular shapes of the reliefs, the uninterrupted succession of superimposed mountains and the small summit plateaus evoke this predecessor. However Wang Shimin reinterprets the texture of the rocks in the pointillist manner of Mi Fu. In Landscape in the manner of Huang Gongwang, Wang Jian (1609-1677) reinterprets a characteristic composition by Huang Gongwang. We find there the conical shapes of the mountains and the rocky plateaus but the texture of the rocks is totally different and Wang Jian treats the different spaces separately, using different elements that he reassembles. Landscape in the manner of Huang Gongwang by Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715) proposes a denser composition and its construction passes from the foreground to the last in a sort of continuum. Wang Yuanqi, grandson of Wang Shimin, having successfully passed the exams, became a painter extremely appreciated by the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722). This imperial support will transform the style of the four Wangs into an almost official style of literate painting. The last of the four Wangs, Wang Hui (1632-1717), was also greatly inspired by all the old masters, but without distinction of school, and achieved a synthesis which became a new model of court painting.

Bada Shanren (1626-1705) and Shitao (1642-1707), being from the imperial Ming clan, took refuge in Buddhist temples to escape purification during the conquest by the Qing. Bada Shanren is going to be a monk chan for much of his life. He asserts a personal style in paintings of fish, plants, birds and, at the end of his life, landscapes. The scroll depicting a fish could be a reference to Ming loyalism and the ambiguity lies in whether it is a fish in water or a dead fish. Shitao tries to find his place in the new society. In this context, he went to Beijing and received two orders from a high Manchurian dignitary, including Orchids and bamboos. This painting was made in collaboration with Wang Hui (1632-1717) who is in charge of painting the rocks. The discreet signature of the latter suggests that the collaboration was not without difficulty. This attempt to bring Shitao into official circles will not be crowned with success. The four fruit and vegetable album sheets are, however, executed on paper from the imperial factories. They mix the "boneless" painting technique with that using contours. A great friend of Shitao, Huang Yanlü (1661-1725) undertakes a long journey and, on his return, the artist will compose an album illustrating his poems. The paintings represent real places but Shitao executes them from the texts and sometimes never went there. The works present a wide variety of styles, shine by their use of color as well as by the play on the arrangement of the texts.

Fish. Bada Shanren. Ink on paper. 26x51cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Countryside. After 1684. Bada Shanren. Ink on paper. 116,3 x 49cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Shitao also creates from memory a painting entitled The Huang Mountains for a friend who wishes to visit this site. During the Ming period, the Huang Mountains, a place of hiking, spiritual practice or refuge for those who retired from political life, became a symbol in the eyes of scholars and loyalists. Many artists executed paintings referring to the Huang Mountains such as Hongren (1610-1664), or Mei Qing (1624-1697).

Xiao Yuncong (1596-1669) is an artist who stayed in Nanjing. The album sheets shown are influenced by Wen Zhengming but the compositions and sharp outlines are probably related to his practice of printmaking. Gazing at the trees in the distance by Zha Shibiao (1615-1697) refers to Ni Zan by the presence of reliefs and trees in the foreground but refers to Hongren for the peaks in the background. Gong Xian (1619-1689), originally from Nanjing, had to go into exile for twenty years after the sack of the city by the Qing army. When he returns, he opens a school and lives poorly from his painting and his lessons but will refuse until the end to serve the empire. Young rushes and slender willows (1671) shows a very dense composition where the multiple passages of ink keys give an impression of volume and light, which could evoke a Western inspiration. It is known that Nanjing was a rear base of the Jesuits and the spread of their prints influenced a number of Nanjing artists. Cheng Sui (1607-1692), refusing to serve the new power, retired to Nanjing where he lived as a hermit in a mountain. Reading under a tree in autumn is very representative of his style. The dots and small lines spaced out by white are spread over the entire work, crumbling the landscape. This very original effect is probably due to his mastery of engraving seals.

Paintings after poems by Huang Yanlü (Detail). 1701-1702. SHITAO. Ink and colors on paper. 20,5 x 34cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Landscape (Detail). 1645. XIAO Yuncong. Ink and colors on paper. 22,8 x 15,7cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Young rushes and slender willows. 1671. GONG Xian. Ink on paper. 143 x 70cm. ©Hong Kong Museum of Art.

the 17rd century was a moment of great originality in Chinese painting, which greatly contributed to nourishing the research of modern Chinese artists.

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