Book Reviews

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In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony

Paintings and Calligraphy

Bada Shanren; Joseph Chang, Bai Qianshen & Stephen D. Allee

222 pp., 113 colour and 16 b&w plates, illustrations of 36 seals and 12 signatures of the artist, chronology, glossary, bibliography of Asian and Western sources, index.

ISBN-10: 974-524-030-3 $60.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-030-8

Persimmon ( : Book Review, Winter 2003


In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony: Paintings and Calligraphy by Bada Shanren (1626-1705) from the Estate of Wang Fangyu and Sum Wai provides illustrations of all thirty-three works that were recently acquired by the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., as gifts or purchases from the estate of Wang Fangyu (1913-97) and his wife, Sum Wai (1918-96). Wang was one of the foremost scholars of Bada Shanren’s art, and his lifelong enthusiasm led him to assemble the largest and best-authenticated Bada Shanren collection outside of China. The work of three co-authors, the catalogue was conceived with the challenging goal of making Bada Shanren’s art accessible to an audience beyond Chinese art historians or connoisseurs of Chinese painting.
   The artist we know as Bada Shanren was born in the last years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) into a literary and artistic family that was one branch of the Ming imperial clan. Bada Shanren took refuge from advancing Qing armies in a Chan (Zen) Buddhist monastery. Intelligent, talented, and highly educated, he soon attained the rank of abbot and continued to live as a Buddhist monk for more than thirty years. His decision to leave the monastery coincided approximately with an episode of madness—whether real or feigned cannot be determined—followed by a brief, unhappy marriage, and, finally, a gradual adjustment to the demands of earning a living as an artist. Throughout his life—for his own safety—he concealed his identity as a Ming prince, but the construction of new identities was a recurrent strategy for Bada Shanren, and he frequently gave himself new pseudonyms that hinted at his shifting self-images.
   The artist’s enigmatic pictures of fish, birds, plants, and landscapes are rendered in seemingly blunt but wonderfully subtle strokes of ink. Forms seem to break apart, cut off by the edge of album pages, leaving the center of the paper disconcertingly blank. Bug-eyed animals stare up at mossy rocks that appear to hover in midair. Habitually employing veiled language, Bada Shanren’s inscriptions and highly allusive poems often add to the mystification. His art is famously difficult, and all his creations defy easy analysis.
   The present catalogue is in many ways a complement to Wang Fangyu and Richard M. Barnhart’s Yale University Art Gallery 1991 exhibition “Master of the Lotus Garden: The Life and Art of Bada Shanren.” The installation, and the attendant symposium and catalogue, represented the best Bada Shanren scholarship of the time, and the catalogue is frequently cited in the present publication. In the Freer Gallery catalogue, Joseph Chang’s biographical essay, which is a model of concision, sketches the outlines of Bada Shanren’s life, concentrating on a career of which relatively little solid information is known.    Qianshen Bai’s essay places Bada Shanren’s work as a calligrapher and seal-carver in the context of late-seventeenth-century scholar-artist production. Recognizing the extent to which Bada Shanren participated in the cultural life of the day only adds to our appreciation of his profoundly unconventional achievements. Both Chang and Bai carefully avoid overindulgence in speculation on the many possible interpretations that Bada Shanren’s life and writings open up.
   Stephen D. Allee’s thirty-three entries are a clear departure from conventional exhibition catalogue practice. They contain the basic information (medium, format, and so forth) on each of the works, identify the artist’s and collectors’ seals, and translate in full the labels, inscriptions, and colophons as well as the texts of almost all the examples of calligraphy. Many of the thirty-three works are multi-page albums, and each leaf is reproduced. There are, however, no short entry texts that detail subject, formal qualities, artistic context, and the like. For this kind of information—and much more—the reader has to turn to Allee’s copious notes, which fill twenty-three dense pages of small type at the back of the book. Here, then, is the dilemma of producing a popular catalogue of the work of a difficult artist. How can the publishers present the work in a way that will invite the reasonably well-informed reader’s attention without overloading the page with an academic apparatus that strains one’s eyesight and tests the limits of short-term memory?
   One entry from the catalogue can be used to illustrate the editorial choices. Entry 12, the “Album after Dong Qichang’s ‘Copies of Ancient Landscape Paintings,’” contains six leaves of Bada Shanren’s careful renderings of paintings by Dong Qichang (1555-1636) that are themselves copies of paintings attributed to the masters of Dong’s so-called Southern School of literati landscape painters. Leaf 6 is the copy of Dong Qichang’s version of a landscape by the Yuan master Ni Zan (1306-74). Bada Shanren faithfully reproduces Dong’s inscription, which states that Dong had imitated a painting he believed to be a typical and authentic Ni Zan. Bada Shanren’s “Ni Zan” also has an attached inscription by the famous modern painter and dealer Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) in which Zhang cites Bada Shanren’s study of Dong’s lineage of scholar-painters, but claims that no other connoisseur had previously recognized this critical point. The translations of Dong Qichang’s inscription and Zhang Daqian’s unchallenged claim appear on the same catalogue page as the color plate, but any further discussion of Bada Shanren’s unexpected commitment to the tradition of learning by copying is found elsewhere, either in the two independent essays at the front of the catalogue or in the copious notes, which subsequently point the reader—however legitimately —toward other texts and sources.
   The editors and designers of In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony appear, unconsciously perhaps, to rely on Bada Shanren’s seemingly modern image as a uniquely creative and even bizarre artist to be one of the main attractions of the catalogue. Thus the book replicates some of the experience of an exhibition, where the viewer spends (one hopes) more time looking at the art than reading the gallery wall texts, exhibition labels, or take-away brochures. Given the difficulties of Bada Shanren’s art, one has to ask if the general reader’s best interest is well served by separating the explanations—no matter how abstruse or incomplete—from the reproductions. Perhaps concentrating on the reproductions of paintings and calligraphy might eventually reveal some of the strangeness and intensity of expression that hide within Bada Shanren’s deceptively plain images.    Although there is a remarkable amount of scholarly research in these pages, abandoning some of the conventions of the exhibition catalogue format may in the end have rendered the book less informative for the always difficult-to-define “general” reader. Having said this, In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony is a wonderful contribution to the body of publications on Chinese art and a spur to those with sufficient interest to ponder the complexities of Bada Shanren.

John R. Finlay is the Elizabeth B. McGraw Curator of Chinese Art at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida. He recently authored The Chinese Collection: Selected Works from the Norton Museum of Art, which includes essays by Colin Mackenzie and Jenny F. So.

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