Irony, play and compassion

To be at play is to keep the ‘as yet un-formed’ aspects of life open, avoiding final settlements and provisionally setting aside certainties. Play does this by suspending rules and assumptions, admitting the disruption of humour, and abetting the corrosive work of irony. Literati play is wide-ranging and thorough, appearing across everyday life and encompassing the sensory and sensual, the literary and social.

In art, play can be even more freely wayward, confounding anticipated values and received interpretations. In raising a smile, it gently makes an accomplice of the knowing viewer. Play in literati art often combines amateurism with deep knowledge of history and art. The apparently clumsy brush reaches deep where, by contrast, professional painting may be sleek and wonderfully skilful, but also dull and shallow.

Here an impossible crystalline rock irrupts within a typical landscape, rising in front of a distant peak that is hardly more than a painterly convention. Space and proportion are dream-like and extreme. This sophisticated joking carries a spurious signature of the moderately well-known painter SONG Xu 宋旭 (1525-after 1605), a fabrication that indicates the serious (exchange) value of some artifacts of literati play.

  Song Xu 宋旭(1525-after 1605) (unsure)
Hanging scroll, ink on silk
115 x 35 cm
Private collection

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