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Wen Zhengming’s Old Cypress and Rock and the Literati Culture

2021-08-12 来源: 51Due教员组 类别: Essay范文


Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) is known as one of the “Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)”. Wen was raised in an upper class scholar family in Suzhou and received his training of Chinese painting from Shenzhou (1427-1509), who was at that time a great master. After his brief service in the government in 1520s, Wen returned to his hometown and became a painter, calligrapher and poet. He was regarded at the time as the scholar ideal (Clunas, 157). Throughout his life, Wen’s art covered a wide range of subjects and produced for various purpose, such as appointment of his patrons or a gift to his friend. The painting Old Cypress and Rock (Figure 1) was painted by Wen Zhengming in his eighties in 1550. It could be said that the work represents Wen’s mature style. Cypress trees and rocks are not only common subjects in Wen Zhengming’s art, but also the traditional motifs in paintings and literatures of scholar officials ever since the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The essay intends to give a detailed analysis of Wen’s Old Cypress and Rock, asking how it is different from earlier literati paintings of similar subjects and how this work is related to and reflecting the literati in the Ming Dynasty.

The handscroll Old Cypress and Rock, painted by Wen Zhengming in 1550, was a present to a friend who was ill at the time with Wen’s wishes for him to overcome illness (Clunas, 158). In the handscroll, Wen placed a gnarled cypress and several rocks of strange shapes with several lines of his calligraphy inscribed at the upper left corner of the handscroll. What lies in the center of the picture is an old cypress. Unlike the straight pine trees as seen in many Chinese artworks, the cypress in Wen’s handscroll is an old tree with twisted branches spreading across picture. The carefully depicted exposed root and zigzag tree trunk in the lower part strength the asymmetric and unstable visual quality. So as the larger rock to the left of the tree, whose upper part seems extended out of the air and supported only by a small and hollow base near the ground. This kind of strange stone is commonly found in Chinese gardens as decorations, which embodies a special taste of grotesque. However, such asymmetry functions as a visual indicator given that a handscroll is usually viewed at a private occasion, opened gradually from right to left. When a viewer opened the handscroll, what first comes into his eyes are some smaller rocks, followed by an ancient cypress, whose twisted branches point to the larger rock, and then to the calligraphy at the end of the handscroll. It is thus a skillful arrangement connecting each elements in the handscroll and produced a continuing entity.

The hanscroll is a continuing entity not only in its visual arrangement but also the metaphoric meaning of the objects and the calligraphy. Pine trees and cypress in Chinese art and literature symbolize the endurance in adverse environment, while rock is another symbol of endurance against the corrosion of natural force. As we could see from the handscroll, although the cypress is old, and grows into a nearly slanted shape with zigzag trunk and twisted branches, it is strikingly energetic and lively, which is visualized Wen’s rigid, powerful brushstrokes depicting its trunk, and the dense and meticulously depicted leaves covered the branches. The message delivered by the old cypress is the same as it in the inscribed text, which says: "Weighed down by snow, oppressed by frost, with the passing of years and months its branches become twisted and its crown bent down, yet it strength remains majestic" (Ebrey, 199). Recalling that the work is a gift to Wen’s younger friend who was ill at the time, we could see the clearly the wishes and encouragement embedded in the handscroll. With the old but strong cypress and rock, and the poet, Wen intended to offer his friend the fortitude to overcome the illness.

The obvious social function of the handscroll should not eliminate Wen’s self-expression in the work. Painted in his eighties, the work could also be a metaphor of Wen’s own life, who was aged but still possessed great vitality and potential. Wen’s self-expression is revealed in his personal and skillful brushstrokes, characteristic calligraphy and typical subjects which were popular among the literati class. However, Wen’s style and the “passion for pure form” as seen in this work seem to be different from earlier works. This could be clearly seen if we compare Wen’s Cypress and Rocks with a work by Su Shi (1036-1101), in which similar subjects like a rock and a tree are represented (Figure 2). While Su’s subjects are simplified by his wild, unrestrained and idiosyncratic brushstrokes, Wen’s used different types of brushstrokes, such as various types of “wrinkled brushstroke” on the rock and tree trunk to capture the rich details of the surface and the textures. Unlike Su’s unrestrained personal expression, Wen introduced more traces of artistic skillfulness into his rocks and cypress to represent their materiality, and a sense of delicacy which is typical of his style and the style of literati painting in Suzhou region in the Ming Dynasty.

Several factors account for the change of literati self-expression and the literati culture in the Ming Dynasty. First, Wen was more aware of the artistic skills of past masters and paid more attention to the pure artistic form. According to Sullivan, "the ancient trunks, twisting and writhing with a life of their own, are not just a symbol of the indomitable spirit of old age", they are but also the revelation of "a passion for pure form that is new to Chinese painting", which exemplifies the fusion of "the life of nature and the life that is in the artist" (Sullivan, 124). During the Ming Dynasty, literati artists from upper class like Wen Zhengming has more access to copied and authentic works of the past masters. Performing the artistic skill of past masterpieces thus became a way for literati painters to demonstrate their taste, and knowledge of art history as a way of self-promotion.

This is the result of the second factor: the economic development in coastal cities like Suzhou and the transformation of patronage. The changing economic environment constructed a different landscape of literati culture from that of earlier dynasties. Before the Ming Dynasty, literati painters separated themselves from professional painters by underlining the amateur quality in their art. They painted mainly for ink-play and self-expression. Their works were rarely sold, but usually given to friends as gifts. However, in Wen’s era, it was sometimes difficult to tell apart literati and professional painters simply from the style, as many literati painters also involved actively into the art market. Although the Old Cypress and Rock was intended as a gift to his friend, it soon became a commodity circulated in the market, and it was Wen’s name that made it even more valuable (Clunas, 158). Regarding the change of literati culture in Ming, Bush noticed that "The merchant class had achieved wealth and aspired to the culture of the literati. By the early sixteenth century, they had come to appreciate painting done with scholarly restraint, and in the rich coastal cities their patronage supplemented that of the scholar-officials." The highly completeness of the handscroll and delicate design showing Wen’s personal artistic language may not only due to the fact that it was a gift to the friend, but also Wen’s awareness of his place in the art market.

In conclusion, Wen Zhengming's Old Cypress and Rock exemplifies the style of a certain string of literati painting in the Yuan Dynasty both in its aesthetics and its social function. On the one hand, representing the most familiar subjects, the handscroll exemplifies Wen’s mature technique of painting and calligraphy, integrating skills of traditional masterpieces of Chinese art to create a new form conforming to the taste of contemporary literati. The work embodies not only Wen’s message to his friend, but also the artist’s own self-expression. On the other hand, the work also reveals the social function of literati painting in Ming from several perspectives. The style of Wen’s literati style as seen in this work implies the increasing popularity of literati taste and dependency of literati culture on the economic environment of the society.



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