Chen Hongshou: Repentant Monk

An Elegant Gathering by Chen Hongshou, circa 1646-47, detail, handscroll, ink on paper, 29.8 x 298.4 cm, Shanghai Museum

The year 1589 marked the beginning of the Ming dynasty’s death rattle. Halfway through his reign, the Wan Li Emperor’s (1573-1620) most able minister, Zhang Zhuzheng, died and the Emperor, long chafed by him, indignantly refused to carry out his imperial duties and from 1589 to 1613 never attended imperial audiences, ceased to perform public ceremonies and even refused to attend his own mother’s funeral. With this vacuum at the centre of power, the country quickly descended into crisis from lack of direction; this chaos was exacerbated by increasingly destructive raids from the Manchu on China’s northern border. What with rebellions springing up in the countryside, China was rapidly approaching a complete standstill. Chen Hongshou (1599-1652) was one of the most influential artists towards the end of the great Ming dynasty and into the first decade of the Manchu Qing dynasty.

China Descends into Chaos

The next emperor, Taichang, only ruled for a month and he was followed by Tianqi (1621-1627), who was a completely useless figure. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Chongzhen (1628-1644), the last Ming emperor. During his brief reign, China descended into a state of total chaos and terror, and as Manchu forces broke through the gates of the Forbidden City, he committed suicide by hanging himself from a locust tree on a hill on the northern side of the palace grounds.

The Manchu were a nomadic society considered culturally, socially and morally inferior in the eyes of the Han Chinese. Chen Hongshou’s opus straddles the period from approximately 1615 through to his death in 1652, all covered in this rare exhibition, the first of its kind in North America. It contains paintings from Berkeley’s own collection, private international collections, works from American museums and works from the Shanghai Museum that have never been exhibited in the United States.

Intellectual Resistance to the Qing

Intellectual resistance to the Qing continued until the end of the 17th century by a large coterie of Ming loyalist scholars, officials, and artists who took their protests, not to the streets, but to the painting table. These respected and sometimes eccentric painters whose works always contained ever-so-subtle resistance to the Ming, included Hongren, Bada Shanren, Daoji, Wang Hui, Zhu Da, Wang Shimen and others. Paintings by them dominated Alternate Dreams, 17th Century Chinese Paintings from the Tsao Family Collection, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition, reviewed in Asian Art Newspaper’s September 2016 issue. This issue can be bought online.

Throughout his entire life, Chen Hongshou was living in a nation that was slowly but inexorably crumbling and when the Ming fell in 1644, he, like the later Bada Shanren, became a monk for a short time to ensure his safely and it was there that he adopted the sobriquet of ‘Repentant Monk’. Some of his early works are almost melancholic and the destruction of his beloved Han Chinese culture to barbarians left a lasting impression on him which haunted both his mind and his brush for the rest of his life.

Chun Hongshou’s Disillusionment in Life

This haunting, combined with a disillusionment in life and the ‘system’, which denied him an official position, pushed him into a dissolute life. In his painting, however, he often conjured quirks from his fountainhead of creativity such as peculiarity, sly humour and the depiction elements of nature in forms never created by nature. Nothing escaped his eye – three of the Five Elements, stone, water and wood as well as human physiognomy. He has not actually been called eccentric per se, peculiar perhaps, but eccentricity, or its synonyms – odd, strange, abnormal, quirky, whimsical, off-centre, and unconventional – all certainly apply to Chen Hongshou.

Albums in the Style of the Ancient Masters by Chen Hongshou

He created a number of albums, several of which were works in the style of the ‘ancient masters’, and these include delicate depictions of a bird on a branch, very much in the style of Northern Song paintings for flat fans, an example of which from 1630-1632, is a 10-fold album in the exhibition from the Shanghai Museum, as well as the 10-fold circa 1650 album from Cleveland. He was fond of depicting groups, for example, Su Wu and Li Ling with Attendants (circa 1635 from Berkeley), A Scholar Instructing Girl Pupils in the Arts (1649, also from Berkeley), Immortals Gathering (1649, from Indianapolis) and Li Bai’s Night Revel in Peach and Plum Garden (1650, from Boston).

Eccentric Physiognomy in Scroll Paintings

These scrolls depict the artist’s penchant for eccentric physiognomy in which the faces themselves, especially the men, are often depicted with elongated jaws, almost like a skull deformity. Women are sometimes depicted with very slightly elongated jaws, but there is one example in the exhibition which stands out as a major facial distortion. An Elegant Gathering, a 1646-1647 black ink handscroll from Shanghai has as a frontispiece, a black ink, fine line image of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara/Guanyin as the Water Moon Guanyin, holding a kalasa and with an unusual diadem, dressed in elegant robes and backed by a glorious nimbus. Instead of having a beautiful face, this image looks like an over-the-hill boxer who has been pummelled far too many times. Why? Only the artist could have answered.

Chen Hongshou’s Fan Paintings

His fan paintings, of which there are two in the exhibition, do not exhibit signs of eccentricity, at first glance, except for the fact that the ancient trees are usually depicted with some extremely bold shadow outlines. One, on loan from Yale, depicts an ancient, gnarled plum in flower, a traditional subject. At first glance the composition feels correct, but at second glance one realises that the background of this ancient tree is a cluster of flowering narcissus that is twice the height of the tree itself!

Style of Depicting Rocks in Chen Hongshu’s Paintings

Rocks are another of the Five Elements to receive his peculiar attention and this is seen in the form of low tables with individuals around them. Completely flat on top, the rough sides reveal the table to a single slab of stone – a remarkable piece of stone cutting work, if it were ever done in the first place. Garden seats and plant stands are often depicted by him as scholar type stones with flat tops, a possibility, but not a probability. Going from small stones to mountains is where the artist’s bizarre imagination can go.

The Mountain of the Five Cataracts, a 1624 hanging scroll on loan from Cleveland, looks for all sakes and purposes to be a traditional mountain landscape, but, once again, on closer inspection, one realises that there has been mischief afoot. One of the waters flowing from the top of the mountains is slightly darker than the others and rather than looking like water, it resembles the flow of cold honey.

This really wonderful exhibition is not just a groundbreaking one for this artist, but one that challenges the viewer to entertain the adjectives in one’s head – peculiar/eccentric/odd/ strange/abnormal/quirky/whimsical/off-centre/unconventional … in an attempt to describe this man’s paintings to one’s own satisfaction.

By Martin Barnes Lorber

Repentant Monk: Illusion and Disillusion in the Art of Chen Hongshou, until 28 January, 2018 at University of California Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, An illustrated catalogue is available with essays by Hiromitsu Kobayashi, professor emeritus at Sophia University in Tokyo; Shi-yee Liu, assistant research curator of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Tamara Bentley, associate professor of Asian art history at Colorado College