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Two Scrolls At The Asian Art Museum

September 10, 2008

When most people think of China's Ming Dynasty, priceless vases come to mind. There are certainly plenty of gorgeous ceramics on display at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum right now. But it wasn't the display cases full of beautifully preserved, very old china that caught my eye when I visited the museum's Power & Glory: Court Arts of China's Ming Dynasty exhibition last week. I was most knocked out by a couple of hanging scrolls.

What I loved most about these two works of art is the relationship between the image and the story behind each one. The first image, "Boating on a Snowy Night," was created by court artist Zhong Qinli (active 1465 -1505) using ink on silk and comes to San Francisco from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Upon first glance to an eye untutored in Chinese art and fable like my own, the image depicted on the silk, though delicately crafted and full of lovely textures, doesn't give much away. We simply see a boat making its way up a river. But the picture suddenly communicates a rich and wonderful inner life when viewed again after reading the back story in the exhibition catalogue.

Zhong took a 4th century story as his source for the scroll. The scroll depicts the thinker Wang Huizhi (died 386) traveling up river to visit his mentor, the renowned scholar-artist Dai Kui (died 395).

As the story goes, Wang, suddenly struck by a desire to venture into the inclement winter weather to see Dai, boated along the river to his mentor's house. But just before reaching his destination, Wang decided to return home. Why? Because the impulse that had sparked the visit had passed.

What a strange and wonderful story not to mention subject for a painting. When viewed with the narrative in mind, Wang's journey takes on a new meaning. The air looks chilly, the traveler frigid, and the boat tiny in comparison to the rocks and trees and water around it. Nature seems to engulf Wang's winningly random act. "Wang's subsequent saying,'going impromptu and returning at heart's content' is regarded as a romantic metaphor of high virtue," the catalogue tells us. "His boating on a snowy night has remained a popular subject in art for over a thousand years."

The second scroll that resonated particularly strongly with me depicts "A Monk Enjoying a Moon Painting." The ink on silk scroll was created by the Ming period artist Wu Wei (1459 -1508) and also comes to the exhibition from the Palace Museum in Beijing.

What I love best about this painting is the monk's carefree, almost lunatic expression. He seems so happy in his world. And there's something so surreal about him bumbling about in the hills looking at a picture of the moon on paper rather than up at the real thing in the sky. Rene Magritte would have loved this picture I think.

The catalogue includes a vivid description of the artist which I'd like to include by way of conclusion as the image in the scroll kind of conveys something of the spirit of the man who created it:

"The image certainly reflects [Wu's] itinerant lifestyle. Traveling from one town to another in pursuit of freedom, wine, and entertainment, Wu chose to base himself in Nanjing most of the time. He was honored by two emperors with prestigious titles, including "Number One Painter," and was twice appointed to paint for the imperial court. Nevertheless, the position could not keep him in Beijing nor subdue his dissolute temperament, which he indulged by drinking with geishas. When drunk, his vigorous brushstrokes and bold splashes were far removed from the highly controlled techniques of many of his associates. Just as Wu himself dep arted from the main current, so did his art, which according to his contemporaries, expressed "insolence" or a "fighting spirit like the soldiers." "

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