Review (Enhanced Digital Version): Mimi Gardner Gates and Josh Yiu, eds. Chinese Painting & Calligraphy. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2011.

Essays and content

          Of perhaps broader interest to many visitors are the scholarly essays that accompany the objects in Groups 1 and 2, as well as those SAM invites for works in Group 3. Formatted for the sidebar, they appear as long, narrow documents when opened. Footnotes are viewed in a floating window by hovering over the highlighted superscript number, while comparative images are embedded as thumbnails within the text that can be opened in a separate window; unfortunately, when clicked on during preparation of this review, the larger versions of these images returned error messages saying they were unavailable.

          The essays examining the eighteen works in Group 1 are by well-established scholars of Chinese art who take a range of approaches, from the connoisseurial to the sociohistorical. The catalog opens with Gates’s engaging essay on Yang Hui’s delicate depiction of flowering plum, A Branch of the Cold Season (ca. 1440). It serves as an excellent introductory text, as Gates considers the significance of the painting as a gift and effectively interprets the way in which the inscribed poem and image act together to create the meaning of the painting. She concludes her essay with a technical discussion of connoisseurship and dating, working in detail with the many seals that are impressed on the handscroll.

          Similarly, Qianshen Bai takes up a long calligraphic handscroll by Chang Ch’ung-ho Frankel, an important but little-studied female calligrapher and painter of the twentieth century, several of whose works are in SAM’s collection. As is his hallmark, Bai makes calligraphy accessible to the lay reader, clearly describing its forms and techniques as he interweaves biography and style. Of special interest is his insight that there is something “musical” in Frankel’s small, neat “standard script.” Bai’s beautiful development of this idea through his discussion of character form is let down only by the reader’s inability to readily identify the specific characters to which he is referring; one wishes that the same white boxes used to highlight inscriptions and seals might also have been employed to tag the details mentioned in this and other essays.[7]

          Less connoisseurially-based essays are equally satisfying. Michele Alberto Matteini’s study of an eighteenth-century album by the artists Luo Ping and Xiang Jun offers a wonderful meditation on collaboration and the master-pupil relationship in Chinese painting. Heping Liu identifies a short handscroll by Shitao, Farewell Landscape for Mr. Wuweng (1689), as the second of a trio recording the seventeenth-century master’s later-life trip to Beijing, and thus part of a key moment in the painter’s personal journey in a period of political and social tumult. Breathing new life into the familiar subject of painting in the style of old masters, Barnhart explores significations of copying in Zhou’s Solitary Angler on an Autumn River, whose pictorial reflection on the “inkplay” of the Yuan master Wu Zhen served as a vehicle for self-discovery and expression.

          Together, the essays in Groups 1 and 2 present rich, varied perspectives on the collection that are generally well pitched to both specialist researchers and general readers. For the latter, this range has the advantage of demonstrating the different methodologies and approaches engaged by scholars of Chinese painting and calligraphy, including some that are quite specific to East Asian art. At the same time, those with more targeted interests may find this diffuseness distracting, as there is no standard selection of data that all the essays seek to provide; they are in this sense more truly individual essays than scholarly catalog entries. This concern could be symptomatic of a broader issue: the publication as a whole, and several of the essays in particular, would have benefited from more rigorous editing. In some cases, this is reflected in stylistic or structural issues—certain essays need further refinement of argument and expression. In other cases, however, it is simply a matter of copyediting, with persistent errors as basic as repeated sentences, misnumbered footnotes, and inconsistent or missing information. For example, the biographical data surrounding seals, mentioned above, ranges from fairly robust to entirely missing, while something as straightforward as artists’ life dates, which oddly are omitted from the tombstone information, are only occasionally found in the essay itself.

          Beyond these top works, the majority of the collection—one hundred pieces, encompassing some of great potential interest—are categorized in Groups 3 and 4. Photographs of these objects, though displayed as in Groups 1 and 2, are not always of the same quality in terms of resolution, the inclusion of additional inscriptions, or the mounting. Group 3 comprises paintings and calligraphy that SAM judges to be worthy of further research. Although the museum claims that the works in Group 4 are of lesser importance and are included only for the sake of comprehensiveness, they, too, represent an important contribution: here are the lower-market productions and outright fakes of the collection, objects that ought to be of significant interest in the connoisseurially oriented discipline of Chinese art history. Their publication as part of the online scholarly catalog runs counter to generations of museological practice that has tended to bury copies, forgeries, and more pedestrian compositions as unworthy of art historical study, rather than as integral parts of the visual past.

          Group 3 highlights the inherent potential of the digital scholarly catalog for progressive publication and public participation in scholarship. SAM explicitly invites contributions to this group from users, in the form of short essays, though presumably transcriptions of seals and inscriptions, biographical information on artists, and other incremental pieces of research would also be welcomed. This group provides an extraordinary opportunity, especially for young researchers, as it contains a number of works that are every bit as interesting and important as those in Groups 1 and 2: for instance, three works from the Qing court, including a collaboratively produced mid-eighteenth-century history painting, an imperial patent from the last years of the dynasty, and a fan by the court artist Shen Zhenlin that was probably intended as an imperial gift;[8] landscapes in a variety of formats attributed to a number of important late Ming and Qing artists, among them Hongren’s Plum Blossom and Rocks from the seventeenth century, a small untitled fan by Sung Maojin (1619), and an eighteenth-century album of paintings after past masters by Huang Ding; and a rich selection of modern works spanning the twentieth century, such as Lan Yinding’s fascinating 1955 album Sketches of Life in Formosa and a monumental scene of riverine industry from 1971 by Zong Qixiang. Even brief examinations reveal compelling art historical questions in each of these works, and in many others, and they offer significant opportunities not only to researchers but also to instructors interested in problem-based approaches to teaching.

Background image:
Shitao, Farewell Landscape for Mr. Wuweng, 1689 (detail of brushwork)
Source: Seattle Art Museum

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