There is room for confusion over the category known as Chinese traditional painting. The works in this field range from classical paintings that predate the 20th century through to contemporary paintings, all of which employ in some way age-old themes, materials and techniques.
Artists use ink and water-based colour on paper or silk to create traditional tableaus, most often depicting landscapes. Additionally, the themes are rarely unique, but are variations of earlier compositions, continuing a solid historical thread. The differences are in the details.
‘There is a very strong relationship between what comes later and what goes before in Chinese traditional painting,’ says Elizabeth Hammer, head of sale of Chinese Classical and Modern Paintings at Christie’s New York.
‘There’s an idea that if you launch out without knowing thoroughly what came before you, you have no foundation,’ explains Hammer. ‘Traditional painting has a much stronger connection with the past than it does to global art trends.’
Given that Chinese traditional painters learned their craft by copying earlier masters, it can be very difficult to distinguish an original from a copy, especially if the work is very old. Even if the artist was not deliberately creating a fake, the copy might have been confused with an original at some point.
As a result, even experts have a difficult time guaranteeing authenticity. If you get five experts in a room, Hammer says jokingly, they’ll end up with seven different opinions about a painting. ‘There are no short cuts to authenticating,’ she says. ‘It requires a great deal of time and study, and it is still largely subjective.’
Although classical paintings are highly treasured, the easiest approach, Hammer says, is to acquire a traditional Chinese painting that has a direct connection to the artist who made it. That said, paintings made during the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties continue to be coveted by collectors.
During the past few years, the most desirable works have been those owned by or made for the 18th-century imperial court of the emperor Qianlong, who assembled one of the world’s largest art collections. In these works, identified by Emperor Qianlong’s collector’s seals, everything — the painting quality, the materials, the presentation — is the absolute best. Or in other words, fit for an emperor.
Chinese paintings come in a variety of styles. Some are monochrome, and others are very brightly coloured. Some are made in the literati style, meaning that they tend to use expressionistic brushwork and were painted as an expression of personal creativity. Others are made in gong-bi, or ‘meticulous’, style, utilising very precise details to appear much more decorative.
To focus one’s collecting interests, Hammer suggests finding the style that speaks most strongly to you, whether it is bold and expressive or quiet and detailed. Then, you can focus on a few artists who work in that milieu, and get to know their works intimately. In doing so, you can develop your eye and taste for an artist’s style that harmonises with your own.
The most prized Chinese traditional paintings are those that reveal the artist’s personality and character. It is believed that an evil person cannot make a fine work of art. To really understand an artist’s works, it helps to learn his or her biography, and about the times in which the artist lived. ‘There are so many layers of complexity and interest in a good Chinese painting,’ Hammer says. ‘The more you know, the more you experience, the more you can bring to your understanding of it.’
The vehicle through which an artist communicates is ultimately the brushwork. Are his or her strokes bold and sure, or are they nuanced and restrained? Did he or she use many strokes of different kinds, or just a few, brilliantly placed?
Hammer says that a true collector of Chinese painters shouldn’t worry too much about celebrated names. Instead, she suggests following your instinct when collecting, and buying something that delights you. ‘You can get a wonderful painting for a couple of thousands of dollars,’ she points out.
Almost any work made in pre-modern times will have gone through some repairs, Hammer notes. Sometimes, she says, these repairs look great on the surface — but don’t be deceived. Overpainting can obscure both the damage and the original brushstroke, detracting from the value — and authenticity — of the original.
Traditionally, Chinese paintings are only taken out and viewed on special occasions, which serves to preserve their condition. Otherwise, they are kept in storage. Collectors who choose to frame and display their works continuously should take care to keep them out of direct sunlight. Artificial low light and conditions that are not too dry and not too humid are the ideal for keeping a traditional Chinese painting in good shape.
There’s great value for a collector in building a visual database of various examples. For that, Hammer says, it is necessary to go to see paintings in person.
In the United States, she notes, collections of traditional Chinese paintings are especially strong at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Freer Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. In China, the palace museums in Beijing and Taipei, as well as the Shanghai Museum, are exemplary.
‘Also keep in mind that you can come to Christie’s and handle one,’ Hammer says. ‘When life can be so busy, it is nice to be able to slow down and just hold a painting in your hands.’
‘I’ve never had a painting roll itself up when a new person walks into a room,’ Hammer says. Even if you don’t speak Chinese, and are not connected to the region, the painting will still have something to say to you. ‘It wants to have a dialogue,’ insists the specialist. ‘The more you come back to it, the more you will enjoy the conversation.’