Exquisite Nature at the Asian Art Museum

ni zan river pavilion mountain colors

Exquisite Nature was the first exhibition that I saw following our move to San Francisco - a display of classical Chinese painting, loosely themed around the natural world.  It occupied just one gallery, but the works drew one in for a close and contemplative viewing.

The showpiece was a painting by the master Ni Zan (1301-1374), the hanging scroll River Pavilion, Mountain Colors. The style is sparse and delicate, delineating a landscape that has been simplified and idealised, but still feels real enough that you could step inside it.

The inscription at the top of the scroll is morose, dejected:

"The sound of rain that began in the second month hasn't let up
Even in the eleventh month.
The boats of the Three Rivers paddle towards Wujiang.
As if drunk, I cannot wake up from spring's melancholy,
While waves and wild winds beat against my window."

(translation taken from the exhibition)

A later work by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) offers a sort of counterpoint. His hanging scroll Traveling deep in the mountains contains a dense array of landscape elements that combine to cover the picture surface almost completely. Unlike the Ni Zan work, it embraces a variety of different colour shades. The overall impression is controlled but perhaps softer.

Landscape painting is predominant in the exhibition but other works highlight not just the grandeur of the natural landscape but human activity within it. A pair of paintings by Xie Shichen (1488-after 1567), entitled Elegant gathering at mountain streams, show some of the pursuits of scholars in their mountain retreats: activities such as fishing, drinking or playing a board game. A rural scene by Zhou Chen (active 1472-1535) is entitled Cockfight in a mountain village, although this is thought to illustrate a verse from the Book of Songs, an anthology of ancient Chinese poetry.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking show, and a fine introduction to some highlights of the collection.

Exquisite Nature: 20 Masterpieces of Chinese Painting (14th-18th c.)
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
2 March to 1 November 2015 (now closed)

Above: Ni Zan, River Pavilion, Mountain Colors, 1368. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Asian Art Museum. Image at http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions_index/exquisite-nature.