China’s Southern Paradise, Reviewed
The Cleveland Museum’s current exhibition on China’s Southern Paradise is one of the most ambitious scholarly projects it has staged in some time, and one of the most remarkable gatherings of top notch art. It’s also a show that is bit daunting for the general visitor, and it’s particularly unfortunate that the catalogue will not be available until the final days of the show, leaving those eager to make sense of this massive and diverse assemblage of unusual and often unfamiliar objects without a guide. For a show with a big price tag that’s surely been in the works for a decade or more, this is a big goof.
Surely also, for a reviewer, the scholarly value of the exhibition is hard to accurately gauge when the scholarship supporting it is not yet available. But that said, let me propose some thoughts about how to make sense of what’s on view.
I think it’s helpful to view this as a show with two subjects. The first is the notion that Southern China, particularly the lower Yangzi Delta, formed a distinct cultural zone, with an economy and material culture recognizably distinct from that of northern China.
Early agriculture tended to develop along great rivers, with their rich alluvial soil, such as the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Nile. China has two of these, the Yellow River in the north and the Yangzi to the south, and developed large-scale agriculture at about the same time as the Middle East. From very early times, political power in China tended to be concentrated in the bleaker terrain of the north. But the south, with its subtropical climate, was the area of greatest agricultural and mercantile wealth, particularly in the cities of the Yangzi delta, such as Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai.
“China’s Southern Paradise” provide a snapshot of this southern cultural region starting with the harvesting of rice and the tending of silkworms about 5,000 years ago. The most vivid picture of its prosperity and material wealth comes from an abundance of artworks made in connection with six southern inspection tours made by both the Kiangxi emperor (1684-1707) and the Quianlong emperor (1751-84). A rich body of these come at the end of the exhibition, and form essentially a show-within-a show. Artistically, I don’t personally find most of these works very artistically inspiring. But as a documentary record of a geographical region and its social character they’re fascinating and very informative.
The other major theme of the exhibition, its second major subject, is that Chinese painting can be divided into two schools, a northern and southern school. This notion that goes back to art historical theories developed in the Ming dynasty by the great painter, calligrapher and theoretician Dong Qi Chang, who surely drew on ideas that has been fermenting earlier. Here things get rather complicated.
A peculiarity of Chinese civilization is the importance attached to writing and scholarship, no doubt in large part because such a large territory could not be ruled without writing–not an easy thing to master in China since it required memorizing between three and four thousand different characters. At an early date both mastery of this knowledge and beautiful handwriting became the key to official advancement. Scholars were revered and stood above and apart from almost everyone else. And allied with beautiful calligraphy came mastery of painting and poetry, which were also executed with a brush. The three arts became intertwined, and mastery of all three was considered necessary for the achievement of high scholarly status.
Thus, unlike in Europe, where artists were generally tradesman, and often of low social station, in China many of the greatest painter and calligraphers have been figures of notable prestige and political power, such as prime ministers or even the emperor himself. Even the most gifted and tactful of scholars, however, generally at some point became the victims of political intrigues, and at some point found it advisable to move from the capital in the north to some haven in the south. A North/South tension runs through the history of Chinese culture and of Chinese art. A stone rubbing near the beginning of the exhibition, for example, celebrates the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, who as early as the third century CE withdrew from positions at court and retreated to a bamboo grove, where they engaged in metaphysical conversation, enjoyed music, drank wine, and wrote poetry.
My best guess is Dong’s distinction between the northern and southern schools was initially based on the fact that the imperial court in the north supported large numbers of painters who were essentially craftsmen, who were working for pay, and did not have great knowledge of poetry and literature–in short, who were not true poet-scholars, as Dong conceived that exalted role. And at the same time it impeded the self-expression of the poet-scholars, who had often come to the north from the south, who found court life corrupt and burdensome, and who could work with greater freedom if they retreated from the court and resettled in the south. As Dong formulated this North/South distinction, he did not hesitate to associate it with a distinction of quality and inner principle. For him the northern school was dry and academic; the southern school was intellectually and spiritually superior.
But like most stylistic labels, when we come to specific instances the categories quickly become confusing. Indeed, Dong often grouped painters who worked in the north with the southern school, and vice versa. To make sense of these confusing distinctions we really need to place paintings of the north and southern school side by side, rather than to view one or the other in isolation. And this exhibition does not do this, at least not in a systematic way.
What ‘s more, one of the curious failures of the exhibition is the failure to provide a substantial showing of the work of Done Ci Chang, and I suspect that this reflects an unfortunate error of connoisseurship and scholarship. Dong has always been a controversial figure in Chinese art history. Some regard him as an exemplar of corrupt misrule, whose house at one point was destroyed by a peasant mob; others as a reformer who at considerable risk opposed the depredations of the illiterate, murderous eunuch, Wei Zhongxian. In addition, Dong’s artistic work has also been the subject of dispute, some seeing it as clumsy and amateurish, others as one of the high points in the history of Chinese art–as an artistic rebirth—though one based on a rich grasp of tradition–comparable to what we find in European art in the paintings of Cezanne.
The Cleveland Museum owns what is often regarded as Dong’s masterpiece, his hanging scroll of Mount Qinbian. Inexplicably, in his massive recent catalogue of Cleveland’s collection, Ju Hsi Chou, dismissed the painting in a few sentence, as the work of an assistant, although it contains two inscriptions in Dong’s own calligraphy, and there’s no reason to suppose that Dong used assistants in this way, which would go against all the ideas expressed in his writings about art. The paintings expressive qualities are surely those of a great master, and there are other comparable paintings from his hand. To my mind the omission of this painting from the present show throws its whole presentation of later Chinese painting out of balance. Surely in any serious account of “the southern school,” both Dong’s paintings and his theories, while admittedly at times strange and hard to grasp, should play a central role.
From the standpoint of artistic excellence, surely the most remarkable section of the exhibition is that gathering of southern Song painting, which contains two of the all-time greatest hits of Chinese paintings, scrolls from the Nelson-Atkins Museum by the two greatest masters of this period, Twelve Views of Landscape by Xia Gue (active circa 1190-1224), and Composing Poetry on a Spring Outing by Ma Yuan (active circa 1190-1225). While Chinese painting sometimes strikes western eyes as flat and “not realistic,” the paintings of the southern Song show a masterful grasp of form and texture, and of subtle atmospheric effects that have no counterpart in western art until the 19th century. To fully make sense of southern sung painting, however, it would have been helpful to have better representation of the Northern Song, from which it developed. Paintings of the Northern Song tend to be more rugged, more mountainous, and more austere; those of the Southern Song more intimate, more lyrical, and more infused with an awareness of the evanescence of the passing moment.
Again, it’s worth asking about a painting that was left out. In his catalogue Ju Hsi Chou dismissed as a copy a painting by Ma Yuan in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Watching the Deer by a Pine Shaded Stream–a work which has been widely reproduced in survey books and was never questioned before. Here I feel a bit less confident than in the case of the painting by Dong Qi Chang, but to my eyes the painting looks completely authentic, and even if it’s not by Ma Yuan’s hand, in its mood and composition it much more fully conveys what southern Song painting is all about than the considerably more prosaic works by Ma that are included in the show.
Of course no quick summary can quite do justice to the diversity of objects in this exhibition, and one of the notable benefits of undertaking a venture such as this is that it invariably leads to new discoveries. Let me mention just one of these, the correct identification of a stringed instrument that has been in the Cleveland Museum’s collection for decades and that was catalogued as Japanese. In fact, the instrument is not Japanese but is a Chinese instrument, known as a Guqin; and it turns out that it has a Chinese inscription on the inside indicating that it was made by Zhang Ruixiu of Suzhou in 1584 for a famous musician and founder of a school of music in Suzhou, Yan Chang. It’s the earliest of about ten known instruments by this maker. Bit by bit, discoveries such as this fill in our understanding of the past. They’re one of the many benefits of an ambitious project such as this.
China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through January 7, 2024.
Henry Adams is Routh Coulter Heade Professor of ARt History at Case Western Reserve University, author of 14 books and catalogs, plus more than 300 scholarly and popular articles, and a former curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.