The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China

ASIA SOCIETY | MARCH 6 – JUNE 2, 2013

“Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe.”

Tao Te Ching

The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China opened in the midst of the mercantile Armory Show madness. It focuses on the art of 17th century literati (wenren) escaping the Manchu takeover that was to last until Qing Dynasty fell in 1911. “Summoning the Recluse” (1625)by Xiang Shengmo invites us to join the scholar through an act of projective identification as he navigates pathways through the endless painted mountains, over tiny bridges to a hermit hut. A corrupt Ming government run by eunuchs is disintegrating and Manchus aided by starving peasants will soon breach the Great Wall. In our turbulent times, it is easy to identify with these Ming holdouts. The viewer longs to escape with the literati, hang out with a pet crane, read Confucius, write poetry, and paint in an idealized landscape of flowers and pines. Many of the exhibition’s paintings depict journeys into vast landscapes but others are journeys through an interior landscape of self-reflection voiced in a way that had been unprecedented in Chinese art.

Xiang Shengmo (1597-1658), “Invitation to Reclusion(detail),” 1625-1626. Ink on paper, handscroll. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund.

One of the most arresting images in the exhibition comes from a scroll by Chen Hongshou depicting the histories of some of these hermit scholars. We see Tao Yuanming (365 – 427) leaving his government post, and tossing his official girdle onto a tree branch as he heads for his thatched hut in the mountains. In ancient China no form of protest was more highly regarded than reclusion.

It is easy to fantasy fast-forward and think of this as a solution to the problems of our contemporary bad government. Imagine if our legislators were a cultured elite who had to pass exams in history, literature, and philosophy to serve. Would John Boehner toss his Hermès tie onto a tree branch and head for a Benedictine hermitage to read Wang Wei or Thomas Merton? One can dream of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics hosting a Saturday on “Eremitism as a Path,” with a panel including Wolfgang Laib, Raquel Rabinovich, Khem Caigan, and perhaps a resurrected Agnes Martin.

 Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond is a rare American work promoting reclusion and the contemplation of nature as a path to transcendence. When Giovanni Bellini painted “St. Francis in the Desert” (1480), artists did not have to cope with the likes of Rosalind Krauss proclaiming, “by now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” This critic finds such a remark indescribably limited. A moving Bill Viola piece entitled “Room for St. John of the Cross” (1983) portrays meaning in revelations born of solitude. Imprisoned in a tiny cell by his Carmelite brothers who opposed his reformations to the Order, St. John’s solution was to write about love, passage through the dark night of the soul, and ecstasy. Viola’s piece recreates the cell with a sound track of the love poems. The piece combines eremitism, poetry, and art in much the same spirit as the Chinese literati.

And in the luck of night
In secret places where no other spied
I went without my sight
Without a light to guide
Except the heart that lit me from inside.

—St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul

As The Artful Recluse opened, Wolfgang Laib was sweeping up his pollen installation at MoMA. Like these Chinese literati, he alternates periods of reclusiveness with involvement in the world at large, in the hope of changing the collective. Laib spends from late February through September collecting pollen from pines, dandelions, and moss in an isolated Alpine valley. His influences are Buddhist, Christian, Bon, and Jain, all of which have traditions involving solitary monks in caves. Laib has also constructed a beeswax cave. Although indebted to Joseph Beuys, whose work also had a thurgic capacity, Laib identifies with no art movement. Laib feels his solitary pollen gathering is at the core of the work.

The Artful Recluse is not simply about history. Certainly these Chinese literati built on a painterly legacy of masters, yet eremitism was also form of silent protest against the powers that be in the outer world. This theme is important for artists today on many levels—political, philosophical, and spiritual. Many artists are caught up in the materialism of the market or proscribed by dialectical approaches that dismiss meditation, solitary experience, transcendence in nature, and any form of spiritual practice.

In an introduction to the catalog, co-curator Peter C. Sturman references a 1917 essay by Chen Duxiu attacking hermits as an obstacle to modern Chinese literature and thought. Chen Duxiu writes, “Destroy the obscure and impenetrable writing of the hermit and the recluse to establish the clear and popular literature of a living society.” The products of reclusion in art are threatening because that which is born of solitude is hard to co-opt. Laib, in his solitary pursuit of collecting pollen, is not identified with an art movement and does not kowtow to any critical agenda.

Perhaps a trip into the Chungnan Mountains would provide a new perspective for artist politicians. Jung said that progress in a culture comes from the fringes. “Portrait of Pan Quintai” (1621) by Zeng Jing shows a white-clad scholar whose library contained a thousand books. I am reminded of libraries belonging to scholars in this country, those of Khem Caigan, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Christopher Bamford. Perhaps these hermetic scholars and artists leaving the metropolis to find their own voice in nature will find a way forward. Think of Raquel Rabinovich and her meditations on stones upstate, or Jake Levin reading to his pigs in the fields. A trip into the hills over the tiny bridges has never looked more inviting.




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Contributor

Ann McCoy

ANN McCOY is a visual artist who teaches in the Yale School of Drama. She is the winner of a Prix de Rome, a D.A.A.D. Berliner Kunstler Award, and others. Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hirshorn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and others. Currently she is working on a fairy tale she has written. It will be projected on the front of the Pfaueninsel Castle in Berlin. She worked with Dr. C. A. Meier, Jung’s heir, in Zurich, and has studied alchemy for 35 years.

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