Present occasion and history

Meditations on history and art, the Imperial curator

DONG Qichang's 董其昌 (1555-1636) achievement emboldened subsequent painters to emphasize expression of self and the flouting of established practice while still sampling masterpieces, sometimes through transgressive quotations where elements were collaged from different works. Appropriated forms were subtly modified to make a coherent whole defined by daring and personal choice. Contemporary audiences of well-prepared insiders could approach this as coded game of cultural sophistication.

A master of the post-Dong synthesis was WANG Yuanqi 王原祈 (1642-1715), curator of the Qing Imperial collection at a time when some Han intellectuals saw accepting such employment as a form of collaboration with foreign occupiers. His was a bargain for the opportunity to submerge himself in the accumulated materials of history.

A Wang Yuanqi landscape is a thing of intensity. In this painting from the last year of his life the underlying shape of space is taunt, twisted; the brushstrokes short, cutting, slowly realized. He works round and over a shape in stages that surely took days of re-consideration. In a media such as oil painting he might have repeatedly re-covered and scrapped the canvas, creating a dense, shifting surface. But here - in ink, where every brushstroke remains visible - the effect is one of a translucent archeology of layers and evolving structure, gradually building forward from light washes to black ink and dense colours.

One is inclined to deem such a landscape 'a painter's painting' and Wang a 'painter's painter.' His work is concerned with the making of literati painting per se, his compositions are distillations and collages of analytical and emotional understandings of the masters of the preceding Yuan and Ming dynasties. Wang had the unique privilege of maintaining the greatest collection in the Empire, studying at close hand the caliber of paintings that others could only find descriptions of or see in isolated instances in some private collection. The inscriptions on his paintings offer insights into various painters and motives, and taken together constitute a significant body of art theory.

 WANG Yuanqi 王原祁 (1642-1715)
Landscape (dated 1715)
Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper
51.5 x 33.3 cm
Private collection

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