Landscapes Clear and Radiant: The Art of Wang Hui at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A recent anthology edited by Jason Kuo, Perspectives on Connoisseurship of Chinese Paintingcompares and contrasts the study of Chinese and European art. The goal of connoisseurs in both cultures is to attribute and date artists’ bodies of pictures, explaining their internal order. But because the mainline Chinese tradition employs ink painting on paper scrolls, with calligraphy included in the image; because China’s political history is very different; and because China’s intellectual culture is very unlike Europe’s: we might reasonably expect that Chinese and European art need to be understood in different ways. Visitors to this exhibition who recall last Spring’s show also at the Metropolitan of Nicolas Poussin’s landscapes were in a perfect position to test this claim. Poussin (1594-1665) was a near contemporary of Wang (1632-1717), but how dissimilar they are. Just as the young Poussin borrowed from the Roman styles of his day, so in his Reading Next to the Window in the Mountains (1666) Wang developed the manner of his 14th-century precursors. But soon enough, Poussin developed his own highly distinctive art. This is what we expect of a European old master, that he transcend eclecticism to create an individual style. But as he developed, Wang, by contrast, turned to imitation of a variety of earlier Chinese styles. In The Colors of Mount Taihang (1669) he began to work in the manner of 10th and 11th century masters.
In studying Poussin’s landscapes, any visually competent observer can trace that artist’s development. But even after leisurely visits on three days in succession to this exhibition, I was still uncertain that I could comprehend how, for example, Wang’s Layered Rivers and Tiered Peaks (1684) develops his earlier concerns. Nor did I have any confidence that I could reliably describe or understand his relationship to the earlier Chinese paintings nearby, in the way that I can easily articulate Poussin’s differences from his Renaissance precursors. It’s easy to appreciate in a safely vague way Wang’s extraordinary landscapes. The attractiveness of the towering, tree covered mountains in Landscape after Wang Meng’s “Travelers amid Autumn Mountains” is self-evident. But if you cannot also see how this is a copy of a fourteen century imitation of Dong Yuan’s 10th centuryTravelers amid Autumn Mountains, then who knows what you are missing. One reason that this magnificent exhibition deserves prolonged close attention is that it reveals how exotic, still, is Chinese art.