The World of Chinese - - GALLERY - - LI YANTING (李妍婷)

Step­ping from the scorch­ing Los An­gles sun into the cool, aus­tere Res­nick Pav­il­ion in the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art (LACMA), you find your­self trans­ported back to 17th-cen­tury China, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a his­tor­i­cal ver­tigo in­duced by the finest col­lec­tion of Chi­nese paint­ings in the United States.

On view from Au­gust 7 to De­cem­ber 4, 2016, “Al­ter­na­tive Dreams: 17th-cen­tury Chi­nese Paint­ings from the Tsao Fam­ily Col­lec­tion”, is cu­rated by Stephen Lit­tle in mem­ory of Bay Area col­lec­tor and dealer Jung Ying Tsao (曹仲英). The ex­hibit pre­sents over 120 paint­ings from 80 artists, schol­ars, and Bud­dhist monks of the late Ming and early Qing dy­nas­ties. Among them are 15 pieces from Dong Qichang (董其昌), per­haps the most dy­namic painter in Chi­nese art his­tory.

The Manchu in­va­sion and the over­throw of the Ming Dy­nasty made the 17th cen­tury one of the most tur­bu­lent pe­ri­ods in Chi­nese his­tory. The in­evitable re­treat from pol­i­tics and the long­ing to com­mune with na­ture had been a shared lan­guage among Chi­nese literati for cen­turies; the urge to aban­don po­lit­i­cal tur­moil for in­di­vid­ual sub­jec­tiv­ity was es­pe­cially acute dur­ing this time. An ex­pat him­self, Tsao’s per­sonal his­tory was en­tan­gled with the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Rev­o­lu­tion, an ex­pe­ri­ence that shaped Tsao as an artis­tic con­nois­seur who was more con­cerned with artworks in times of artis­tic change than with his­tory it­self.

On closer ex­am­i­na­tion, the large body of works on dis­play are em­u­lat­ing ear­lier artists. Dong was renowned for his rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ear­lier Chi­nese paint­ings. Amid the dis­ori­en­ta­tion and mis­ery of los­ing his coun­try and fam­ily mem­bers, Dong re­traced ex­ist­ing forms of clas­si­cal paint­ings. And as a re­mark­ably in­no­va­tive artist, he car­ried on the lin­eage of literati art that would fun­da­men­tally in­flu­ence Chi­nese art over the com­ing five cen­turies.

One artist whose work shows lit­tle re­sem­blance to Dong’s is Su Shi (苏轼), a great poet and cal­lig­ra­pher in the 11th cen­tury. Su’s work re­flects a lost artis­tic tra­di­tion where painters and cal­lig­ra­phers humbly ad­mired their fa­vorite artists of the past and en­gaged in an aes­thetic tête-à-tête across time and space—a con­ver­sa­tion that is pro­foundly touch­ing.

As Tsao dili­gently built up his en­cy­clo­pe­dic 17th cen­tury col­lec­tion, his­tory folds back to the point where he and Dong stand par­al­lel, com­bat­ing their col­lec­tive fate of dis­place­ment by si­mul­ta­ne­ously look­ing back and for­ward. They are both grounded in his­tory.


Horse­mouth Cliff by Fu Shan,

A fan paint­ing by Wang Shimin, 1648 MA, 2016

Flow­ers and Birds by Fang Hengx­ian, 1674 Cloudy Moun­tains by Chen Jiru, 1596

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