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Parting the Curtain: Asian Art Revealed

The Literati Tradition: Scholarly Pursuits in China and Japan

Wen Zhengming: The Zhiping Temple, 1516; hanging scroll: ink and colors on silk; 30 1/2 x 16 in.; purchase made possible through a gift from an anonymous donor and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

The Literati Tradition: Scholarly Pursuits in China and Japan, a special section of the exhibition Parting the Curtain, presents selected paintings from the BAM collection with a focus on landscape works by Chinese literati and Japanese Nanga painters, representing the important interplay between these two traditions. The literati tradition in Chinese painting blossomed thanks to a hierarchical Confucian society that placed enormous value on a highly educated elite who, through a formal examination process, became civil servants throughout the country. These educated gentlemen frequently pursued painting, calligraphy, and poetry as amateur pursuits in which individual expression was valued over exactitude or realism. Chinese paintings by scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exemplify the development of the style, which was adopted and adapted by Japanese artists of the early nineteenth century.

The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) painter Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) was both a strong traditionalist and a leading innovator in Chinese painting whose influence reverberated across generations. His 1516 work The Zhiping Temple exemplifies the literati style of painting with its emphasis on brushwork and a restrained warm/cool coloring method. He also aptly describes the lifestyle of the literati in his depiction of a scholar visiting a friend at his mountain temple retreat.

Almost two hundred years later, the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) artist Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715) continued the tradition, adhering to a formal arrangement of trees, mountains, and water in his Landscape of 1705. His style draws directly from that of past masters of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). This kind of conscious reference to the past was frequently invoked by painters following the dictates of the great theoretician Dong Qichang (1555–1636), whose own works can be seen in two fan paintings also on display in Gallery 4.

Dong’s theory on Chinese painting, which designated Northern and Southern schools of painting based on two branches of Zen Buddhism, associated literati, amateur painting with the Southern school in its emphasis on intuitive, spontaneous action over skill or realism. Dong’s own enactment of these theories can be seen in his slightly awkward rendition of Landscape with Man in a Boat (1612), which makes reference in style and inscription to great master painters of the distant past. This highly self-conscious, art history–based approach became the foundation for the development of the Nanga (or Southern style) school of painting in Japan.

Japanese Nanga painters adopted the styles, traditions, and practices of the Chinese literati in their paintings. Their painting became purposefully plain, their palette limited to monochrome or very light cool/warm color schemes, their subject matter the landscape of a fanciful, imagined China; their artistic associations were based on those of the glorified past.

Two examples of the Nanga tradition on view in the exhibition are Winter Landscape in the Mi Style (1837) by Chikuto Nakabayashi (1776–1853) and Autumn Landscape (1826) by Baiitsu Yamamoto (1783–1856). Both painters, friends from youth, had the advantage of seeing many original Chinese works of art and had absorbed and transformed their lessons by the time they produced these mature period paintings. Their understanding and appreciation of Dong’s theories are evident in their reliance on models of the past in formal construction and brush techniques. Both works are references to a Chinese landscape tradition, yet neither would be mistaken for a Chinese painting because of the polish and patterning that create a decorative flair.

Japanese artists continued to create works based on literati principles even as the literati themselves faded from prominence in China. By the nineteenth century, China’s artists had largely headed in a new direction dictated by new sources of patronage and economic pressures, leaving the Japanese to continue the tradition.

Complementing the works in Gallery 4 are selected Chinese and Japanese paintings from the Ching Yüan Chai Collection, on view in Gallery C.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art