Craig Clunas on Ming paintings, 1400-1450

xie jin painting

I attended a really interesting talk by Prof Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) last week: “Yongle to Zhengtong: Fifty Years That Changed Chinese Art?”. Clunas was co-curator with Jessica Harrison-Hall on the Ming exhibition at the British Museum. He explained that the focus of the exhibition itself was more historical than art historical: it was not intended to stress the artistic or aesthetic qualities of the objects. This lecture, however, was a chance to focus specifically on art historical developments in this period.

He touched on several themes but seemed again and again to be steering us away from the panacea of an easy answer. For instance, he contrasted Chen Lu’s monochrome ink painting Plum Blossom in Moonlight with the array of fabulously vulgar gold ornaments, studded with gems. At first blush, the two could not be more different. Yet arguably the profusion of flowers and vitality of the tree in Plum Blossom share the same quality of excess as the jewellery.

He offered tools to unpick the conventional division of Chinese painting into (1) the painting of the imperial court, produced by salaried professionals working to commission (forerunners of the Zhe School) and (2) the painting of the scholar-gentlemen, producing works for themselves and their friends (forerunners of the Wu School). This, he argued, is too schematic: it seems that the majority of the Ming literati elite did not even practise painting – meaning that those who did could interact more closely than you might think, whether they were of the imperial court or not.

I was fascinated too by his discussion of the curators’ “triptych” of apparently similar landscape paintings from China (by Xie Jin, see above), Japan (attributed to Sesshū Tōyō) and Korea (anonymous). To general amusement, he pointed out that the Chinese work (painted with many small textural strokes) was really quite different from the Japanese and Korean works (painted using washes). It seems that the painters of Japan and Korea were looking to the work of Dai Jin and the Zhe School, rather than the Wu School style of the Chinese example, which was not embedded – or at least not yet.

2014 Barlow Lecture
Prof Craig Clunas: “Yongle to Zhengtong: Fifty Years That Changed Chinese Art?”
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
7 November 2014

Above: Xie Jin, Travelling Early from Yunyang, 1417. Hanging scroll, ink and colours on paper. Height 102.1cm; width 47.5cm. Shanghai Museum. Image at