Bada Shanren was a Ming-dynasty prince
Bada Shanren (1626-1705) was born in the Jiangxi province of China into the illustrious Ming dynasty. His birth name was Zhu Da, and as a child he displayed a prodigious talent for drawing and calligraphy which was nurtured by his father.
In 1644, his elite status was threatened when the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide following the overthrow of the Ming dynasty by the Manchu army. In fear for his life, Zhu Da fled to a monastery where he changed his name and became a Buddhist monk.
He loved wordplay
Among the many pseudonyms the artist used throughout his life the best known is Bada Shanren, which means Mountain Man of the Eight Greats. Scholars have speculated that the artist chose this name because the Chinese characters resemble the words for ‘laugh’ and ‘cry’, suggesting he was making a veiled reference to the anguish and absurdity of his forced isolation.
Wordplay and double meanings came to dominate Bada’s poetry and art in subsequent years, as he carefully navigated a feudal world that was intrinsically hostile to him.
His poetry is notoriously difficult to translate
Like any intellectual in a police state, Bada had to be careful about what he said, yet his fascination with the metaphysical also contributed to the obscure nature of his art.
According to specialist Liz Hammer, ‘Bada Shenren is often intentionally trying to be obtuse and convoluted.
‘He became a Buddhist monk at 18, and its teachings informed his outlook for the rest of his life,’ she continues. ‘The Buddhist position is that everything is an illusion, and what each of us perceives as reality is only our own individual version. As a result, Bada’s poetry and paintings play on multiple levels.’
Hammer suspects that some of Bada’s uncanny imagery emerged in his formative years. ‘During the fall of the Ming dynasty he was part of this fin-de-siècle moment in China where a certain oddness and tension could be seen in the paintings and calligraphy,’ she says. ‘I think it was reflecting the enormous stresses that were impacting society.’
Bada Shanren was reported to be mad
Over the years there were various reports attesting to Bada’s bizarre behaviour and prolonged bouts of muteness. ‘It is fair to say he was eccentric,’ says Hammer, ‘but some have suggested his madness was feigned as a form of self-preservation. Qing officials would have been more likely to leave him alone if they thought he was a lunatic.’
Bada only left the monastery to become a professional painter when he was in his sixties, determining that the Qing dynasty was sufficiently established by then that he no longer posed a threat.
He was a radical innovator ahead of his time
Hammer says that Bada’s extraordinary appeal is down to his individuality and innovation. ‘He painted very evocative images of animals — they are lively and witty, but again, he’s playing with illusion. Quite often his birds and fish are placed so that they seem to be floating in space and time. They defy gravity.’
The exaggerated features, peculiar expressions and strange flora are also unique. The painting Bird and Rock (1702, above), offered for sale at Christie’s in September, depicts a bird perched on an oddly shaped mossy stone painted with unusually short, horizontal brushstrokes.
‘Today we are so accustomed to abstract art that we don’t question when something looks illogical, but in the early 1700s this would have been much more surprising,’ Hammer says. ‘Although Chinese painting utilised abstraction earlier than European art, Bada was without question ahead of his time.’
He has been much faked
In 1991, the highly respected scholar, artist and collector Wang Fangyu, who once owned the painting Bird and Rock, published the definitive book on the artist. Master of the Lotus Garden: Life and Art of Bada Shanren sought to identify the themes, styles, signatures and seals that typified Bada’s practice.
One of the key aspects of Wang Fangyu’s book is a careful analysis of what constitutes a Bada Shanren painting. ‘Bada was and continues to be much imitated,’ says Hammer, ‘so Wang Fangyu determined which paintings were authentic and explained why.’
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One notorious forgery was made in the 1920s, when the young artist Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) fabricated a letter sent to Bada from another Qing-dynasty painter called Shitao. Like Bada, Shitao was a descendent of the Ming imperial family and fled to a Buddhist temple when the dynasty fell. From there he began a correspondence with Bada.
Zhang Daqian used this friendship to authenticate a painting allegedly by Bada called Thatched Hut of Great Cleanliness, which was purchased by a wealthy Japanese collector. The fraud only came to light in 1961 when the picture was published in a book on the artist. Ironically, Zhang Daqian’s forgeries of paintings by Bada Shanren and Shitao, now correctly credited to him, sell quite well.
So how do you assess whether a Bada Shanren work is authentic?
‘No single criterion is conclusive, and a good deal of subjective judgement is involved. Even among knowledgeable individuals, differing opinions are the norm,’ says Hammer.
‘Investigating an object’s history is a good place to start: are there any collector’s seals, and can the former owners be identified? Was the work published or exhibited anywhere?’
The physical aspects of the object — the paper, ink, ink tone, and seal paste — should all be consistent with the artist’s period and location.
‘Also the composition, theme, and painting style should all compare well with other accepted works by the artist,’ notes Hammer.
‘Check the seals. While Bada Shanren used many seals throughout his life, impressions of those that are thought to be genuine are published. Compare in particular the overall size of the seal, the structure of the characters, and the space between the lines that make up each seal.’
You should also check the signature: ‘Bada Shanren was known to have signed his paintings and calligraphy in distinctive styles throughout his life.’
And not least, consider the brushwork. ‘While this is the most subjective part of an analysis of a Chinese painting or calligraphy, traditionally it is also the most critical,’ explains Hammer. ‘When compared to other accepted works by the artist of similar period, the brushwork should reveal similar structure, strength, and spirit.’
Bada Shanren is big in Japan
Bada Shanren painted in the Chan Buddhist tradition — known as Zen in Japan — and consequently many of his paintings have ended up in Japan.
In May 2019 Christie’s sold a number of hanging scrolls by the artist from the Chokaido museum in Yokkaichi, Japan, for HK$9.5 million. Hammer believes that Bada Shanren’s enduring appeal lies in his extraordinary unconventionality and brilliance of style.
‘His was an entirely unique pictorial voice,’ she declares, ‘and one that continues to resonate today.’