Present occasion and history

Radical interpretation – history and the creative individual

The creative interpretation of history by literati owes much to the key theorist of later Chinese calligraphy and painting, DONG Qichang 董其昌 (1555-1636). Inspired by the relativistic Neo-Confucianism of LI Zhi 李贄(1527-1602) and Chan (Zen) Buddhism (禪), Dong sought a platform for highly individual interpretations and transformations of the historic canon. He described his ambition as seeking a 'great synthesis 大成 where rawness and personal authenticity broke the bounds of precedent while retaining the underlying values and discoveries of earlier generations. He advocated calligraphy as a basis for painting, and clarified his vision of the past by elaborating a 'lineage' of literati painting that distinguished it from professional and academic painting.

Dong is often described as a poor painter - and some experts distinguish his work from students and imitators in this way, casting aside works where the technique is 'too good'. In this respect he might be compared to more recent conceptual artists: the value of his work lies less in its technical brilliance than in its essential insights into how we experience art.

Dong’s Autumn Scenery at Mount Xi is presented as being in the style of HUANG Gongwang 黃公望(1269-1354), an important Yuan Dynasty literati painter. But rather than being a simple imitation, this is a complex homage – in fact, on first impression this looks nothing like any Huang Gongwang that we know of. What Dong has attempted is a distillation of Huang's painting logic. This is seen in the unfolding of the hills and their linkage from foreground to distance. Where Huang is known for his lyric softness, Dong gives a diagram of shapes in brushwork that is awkward and slow. And yet in the pureness of its analysis there is an uncanny penetration of the idiom. The slightly later painter ZHA Shibiao 查士標 (1615-1693) inscribed the painting, saying that he kept it hidden in his own collection for most of a lifetime, such was its significance to him.

  DONG Qichang 董其昌 (1555-1636)
Autumn Scenery at Mount Xi in the style of Huang Gongwang
Inscription by ZHA Shibiao 查士標 (1615-1693)
Handscroll, ink on silk
24.8 x 85 cm
Private collection


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