A look at the seamless combination of poetry and painting over many centuries of Chinese art, illustrated with lots from our forthcoming Hong Kong auctions
The symbiotic relationship between painting and poetry in Chinese art is one that spans centuries, encompassing the classical painting of ancient times and, more recently, trailblazing works by modern and contemporary artists.
On 28-29 November, Christie’s Hong Kong will hold its Autumn Auctions, including sales of Fine Chinese Classical Painting and Calligraphy, Chinese Contemporary Ink and Fine Chinese Modern Paintings which feature standout examples of this unique interconnection. Here, Chinese Painting specialist and Head of Sale Jessie Or offers an expert guide.
Literati painting came to be prized during the Ming dynasty, with the ‘Four Masters’ — Wen Zhengming (1480-1559), Tang Bohu (1470-1523), Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Qiu Ying (1494-1552) — celebrated not only for their painting abilities, but also for their poetry. After finishing a painting, these renowned artists would write an accompanying poem that encapsulated their state of mind and the emotions expressed in the picture. Jessie Or describes these poems as an ‘added flavour’ that help the viewer to grasp the sentiment of the artist during the creative process.
‘Of the Four Masters, Wen Zhengming was the most well-rounded and exceptional of scholars, and his works symbolise the rigorous techniques of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy,’ explains Or. ‘One such example is Gathering in the Deep Mountains (above), upon which he inscribed a poem that enhances the visual ambience of the painting and also expresses his personal feelings.’
Literati painting continued to flourish through the Qing dynasty and in Landscape in Four Seasons, Yun Shouping depicts the changing scenery associated with the passing seasons, and writes a poem for each of them.
Aside from deepening and enhancing our understanding of the art, poetry has an additional visual function. In Traditional Chinese landscape painting, for example, the use of white space means the addition of poetry enriches and balances the composition without overcrowding it. ‘Even those unable to read Chinese characters are able to appreciate the visual effect of the poetry as an integral part of the painting’s composition,’ adds the specialist.
Imperial court paintings
Imperial court paintings have become particularly popular with collectors over the past 15 years. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty began the compilation of the Shiqu baoji, an historical treatise that included cataloguing of the imperial collection, as part of a concerted effort to organise and research the court’s vast array of art and antiquities.
Such paintings would have been passed down from the collections of previous courts and would have included offerings made by officials to the Emperor. The Qianlong Emperor supported artists, appointing them to serve as court painters, where they were tasked with recording the details of day-to-day life in the imperial chambers.
Dong Bangda’s Spring in Peach Blossom Land is one such painting commissioned by the Qianlong emperor. As the title suggests, the painting depicts the flourish of peach blossoms on an early spring morning. ‘The signature of the artist is executed neatly and carefully,’ Or says, ‘which expresses the artist’s profound respect for the fact that this work was to become part of the Emperor’s collection.’
The characteristics of the stamp
The Qianlong Emperor’s writings included poetry to accompany specific paintings, such as Zhang Zhongcang’s Dream of the Crane Studio. ‘When the Qianlong Emperor came to look at Dream of the Crane Studio, inspiration struck and he wrote a poem based on his appreciation of the work,’ says Or. ‘Writing directly onto the painting, he also stamped several different seals, giving this piece a literal form of approval.’ The specialist describes these seals as the equivalent of a Michelin star, symbolising the ultimate approval of the imperial court and, of course, increasing the painting’s value.
When researching or appraising imperial court paintings, the characteristics of stamps are one of the most important considerations. Through these stamps, collectors are able to trace the provenance of a piece, as well as building an understanding of the context of the artist and his work.
Painting and poetry that bordered on the abstract
‘During the Qing dynasty, many literati of the recently-toppled Ming dynasty made an effort to maintain a distance from the Qing court, with some even opting for a life of seclusion,’ the specialist explains.
As a descendant of the Ming dynasty prince Zhu Quan, Bada Shanren sought refuge in a remote Buddhist monastery. In terms of his artistic development, Bada Shanren reached a pinnacle in the late-Ming / early-Qing period. His pioneering style, which has had a profound influence on subsequent generations of artists, combined poetry and painting in a manner that could be described as abstract.
One of the leaves in his Landscapes and Flowers album (above) shows grapes painted in an abstract style alongside a poem describing the journey of Han dynasty (2nd century BC) explorer Zhang Qian to the West (modern-day Xinjiang and Central Asia). ‘Zhang Qian’s mission to the West meant that Han China was exposed to Central Asian culture for the first time,’ says Or. ‘Could the grapes be a reference to this meeting of cultures?’
As a direct descendant of the Ming royal court, Bada Shanren encountered clashes between the Han and Manchu groups, references to which might be concealed within the lines of this poem. In fact, his paintings frequently contain hidden meanings that unlock a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural context of the work —one reason why Bada Shanren’s work continues to attract collectors from across the world.
And to the modern and contemporary
Poetry continues to play an important role in Chinese modern paintings and contemporary ink, as a tool for communicating an artist’s ideas and state of mind.
Subjects of Zhang Daqian’s paintings include both commoners and members of the higher nobility. In Lone Scholar in the Autumn Woods, offered in the Fine Chinese Modern Paintings auction, Zhang Daqian uses poetry as a way of expressing the feelings of both, while also revealing his own emotional state — in this case, his sense of isolation and being far from home.
Chinese contemporary artist Liu Dan builds a more obvious bridge with the traditional painting of the past, adding a long poem to his 2016 work Scholar’s Rock-Grotto Heaven which serves to balance the composition visually. By merging traditional elements of classical painting with modern creativity, Liu Dan creates what might be described as the prime evolution of contemporary ink style.