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A Golden Collection

Studies in Connoisseurship: Chinese Paintings from the Arthur M. Sachler Collection At the Fogg through March 31

By Eleni Constantine

OCCIDENTAL ARTISTS--poets, painters and professors--have claimed Originality as a blessing and curse unique to Western creativity. The Western world commonly thinks of Chinese painting as a matter of historical course, a succession of repeating patterns and traditions. But the exhibit of Chinese master paintings at the Fogg: Studies in Connoisseurship: Chinese Paintings from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, is a spectacular demonstration that this stereotype is as false as any other. The paintings, spanning 600 years (1300-1900) show that while many Chinese painters of these ages conceived of their works as being in the idiom of a particular school, or thought of themselves as part of a particular lineage, there were many individuals who not only shaped the development of existing stylistic traditions, but created new genres and forms. The Sackler exhibit reveals our commonly accepted bias--that Individuality is uniquely Western--to be shakily founded on ignorance and arrogance.

It has been increasingly recognized in recent years that formalism is an incomplete approach to Western art, that one should examine the social history of even the most "individualistic" and asocial artistic work. Sinologists have simultaneously been discovering the inverse; that there were Chinese artists who tried to create outside of the socially established categories, making tradition serve them rather than serving it.

During what was in the West "the Renaissance," Chinese painters from the area around Lake T'ai, the Yangtze River, and Mt. Huang (known as "the eye area" for its geographical appearance and importance to Chinese art) split into two groups, according to their acceptance or rejection of the patronage of the art-collecting emperors. The scholars and "amateur" painters (those who did not earn their living by their art) were freer to develop individual styles than were the members of the court academy, who worked in the imperial cities. The former, often political exiles, lived and painted quietly in the hills. Ironically, this behavior brought them veneration and fame--and as this happened, these innovators became institutions, their styles became schools of painting.

The Sackler collection has a Western bias in that the paintings were selected with an eye to the most "original work of the scholar-amateurs." Hung in the Fogg next to examples of the first-rate copies they spawned, the masters' works shine all the more distinctly. Comparing original with copy, qualitative differences emerge--things that you can put your finger on, figuratively and physically, in the painting but that are hard to verbalize. (The catalogue, a magnificent opus of scholarship and reproductions, strives bravely to do so and comes up with some hilarious erudite observations: "the particular hose-like configuration of the branches presupposes the influence of a follower of Wang Shih-sin.") The art of learning to recognize these subtleties is perhaps what "connoisseurship"--a word scented with elegant perfume, fine wine and elitism--is all about.

JUDGING BY THE works in the exhibit, Dr. Sackler and his mentor, Professor Wen Fong, are connoisseurs par excellence. Each painting is a distilled essence, a jewel, a flower alone; each, by its particular excellence, isolates the viewer in a moment and place containing nothing but this eye and that painting. Artistic statement on paper becomes not only legible, in a calligraphic sense, but tangible. The bamboo leaves in groups of three in Tao'chi's work, "Orchid, Bamboo and Rock," form the ancient character "Ko" meaning bamboo--the painting is also a sort of poem. Cha Shih Piao's "River Landscape in Rain" is also more than a visual experience; its wetness drenches the worlds of painting and perception.

The "eye" of the collection, as it were, is a group of scrolls and albums by Tao'chi, a monastic scholar and painter who eventually renounced Buddhism and became a professional painter in the metropolis of Yang-chou. His "Echo" is a definitive understatement: on the left, a mountain made of brushstrokes swirls up out through clouds (also defined by the texture of the stroke). A tremulous, finely-drawn bridge spans the silent gap between this huge statement and a smaller hill that echoes it. The echo is seen, heard and felt.

Tao'chi is a bit more accessible in his lovely album of "Flowers." It's not hard to see why Sackler, who is on intimate terms with these paintings, finds these his favorites. Sackler-the-connoisseur is a mysterious Howard Hughes-like figure. But his reputation and influence in Chinese art scholarship in the U.S. is such that the Metropolitan Museum's art department answers the phone: "Hello, Sackler enclave."

At the Fogg's opening reception on Valentine's Day, Sackler was elusively sociable, passing from group to group and pausing in each just long enough to make an appropriate comment. These conversational pebbles rippled through each social pool they were tossed into; returning to Tao'chi's peonies half an hour after first passing them, you heard those still standing in front of the painting repeating, to those passing by, Sackler's comparison of Tao'chi's flowers with a Mondrain painting of chrysanthemums "that he has at home." The point of the anecdote seemed to have vanished, however, somewhere in this chic game of telephone. Real connoisseurship is not cocktail conversation.

ANY WAY, "the exhibit speaks for itself," as Sackler says. It does so with an aristocratic magnificence; these paintings know they are masterpieces and carry themselves, accordingly, like emperors. The Fogg's exhibit, with its dark brown frames against cream walls, has created an appropriate space and silence for these works to stand and speak in. Though the descriptions of each work (abbreviated from the catalogue entries) are unobtrusive and informative, you don't need such letters of introduction to these paintings. The works in the Sackler collection are approachable at all levels of sophistication in a way that is unusual for the elitist art of Chinese painting.

Studies in Connoisseurship is an exhibit which amply repays critical examination and scholarly research (the catalogue is a brief but almost complete education in Chinese painting from 1300 to 1900). But, unlike some exhibits of this caliber, it does not insist that one be either a student or a connoisseur to appreciate it. After looking at these paintings for a few hours, however, anyone might seriously want to be both, to contemplate such things forever in Oriental tranquillity.

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