San Francisco

“Chinese Paintings”

De Young Museum

In surveying the ancient art works of a remote culture it is sometimes difficult for the uninitiated to “see the trees for the forest.” Individual differences of style and departures from traditional norms are easily obscured by that long historical perspective which tends to emphasize the stylistic and esthetic assumptions which all the artists of a given culture held in common and to minimize differences which, albeit within the common frame of reference, must in their time have seemed radical. The contrasts here might have been brought into sharper focus for us had this selection from the R. W. Finlayson Collection of paintings by Chinese Individualists and eccentrics followed more closely upon the exhibition of works by the great academicians, traditionalists, and court painters of the Sung, Yuan, Ming and Manchu Dynasties which toured the United States in 1962 on loan from the Republic of China.

The current exhibition, however, is significant in that it includes works of great power and appeal by artists whose individuality of viewpoint is appreciable even to those who have only a casual acquaintance with the conventional examples of the Chinese scroll painting that constitute the core of most museum collections. Not only do the artists here represented differ among one another in style, but all of them have clearly disavowed in various ways and degrees, those mannerisms that appealed to the aristocratic tastes of the Imperial court. The tranquility, exquisiteness and refined lyricism usually associated with Chinese scroll painting have in a measure been sacrificed—sometimes for a greater ruggedness, boldness or austerity, and sometimes for a greater freedom of imagination and innovative experiment in the rendering of landscape themes. Secluded Pavilion on a River Bank by Ch’a Shih-Piao (1615–1698), a hanging scroll executed in ink and light colors, is perhaps the most distinctive painting in the exhibition, approaching what in Western terms might be regarded as pure expressionism in its bold economy and masterful structuring of negative space. From this one might turn to A Retreat on Mount Chu-Ch’u, a hanging scroll in ink by Kung Hsien (ca. 1655–1689), which is startling for its command of deep perspective and the abstract pattern that emerges from the dynamically inflected interplay of sharply contrasted heavy shadows and luminous highlight in the delineation of trees and rugged mountains. Another arresting hanging scroll in ink and light colors is Painting of Autumn Thoughts in the Pavilion Amidst Trees by Kao Feng-Han (1683–after 1743). This airy painting of an arboreal landscape is rich in free forms. There is a quality of fantasy and caprice to some of its improbable shapes and perspectives that, in contrast to the more familiar conventions of Chinese landscape painting, might almost invite the designation “surrealistic.” These are but a few of the works that are most immediately discernible, even to superficial observation, as markedly individual and eccentric. There are many other fine scrolls here which require the footnote of the scholar and specialist to clarify for us more subtle departures of nuance and emphasis whereby they are eccentric in terms of the prevailing traditions of their locale and period. Mr. Finlayson and the organizers of this exhibition are to be congratulated on the well-illustrated and informatively annotated catalog which they have made available to those interested in this unique and rewarding area of Asiatic studies.

Palmer D. French

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