It doesn’t look like an exhibition about dissent, at least not to contemporary eyes accustomed to more rousing images. There are no weapons, tanks, bombed-out ruins, images of heroes and martyrs, flags, or rousing slogans. Nonetheless, despite their serenity, the 60 scrolls and albums of miniaturized landscapes and calligraphy in “The Art of Dissent in 17th-Century China: Masterpieces of Ming Loyalist Art from the Chih Lo Lou Collection”—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 2—are indeed about protest. The works were selected by Maxwell K. Hearn, longtime curator and newly appointed head of the Met’s Asian Art department, from one of the most comprehensive private collections of art of the Ming-Qing transition.
The Ming (1368–1644) gave way to the Qing (1644–1911), China’s last dynasty. It took the Qing invaders, Manchu tribesmen from northeast of the Great Wall, another 40 tumultuous years to subdue the last Ming loyalists rallying in the country’s remote southwest. Many rebel Ming scholar-artist-officials refused to serve in the Qing government. Some committed suicide, while others became Buddhist monks, either as political protest or to avoid persecution, and turned to art for solace. Landscape painting provided an escape from defeat, despair, and the harsh life of the times. Often lacking traditional models, these late-Ming artists forged their own singular styles, combining the representational with pure form in ways that can appear strikingly modern.
One of the stars of this period was Zhu Da (1626–1705), also known as Bada Shanren (Hermit of the Eight Greats), among many other names. He was a descendant of the Ming imperial family and became a monk when he was around 20. He was thought to be both brilliantly mad and a drunk, although whether that was his true character or a canny act of self-preservation has long been debated. At a certain moment in his life, it was reported, he proclaimed himself dumb, and thereafter never spoke another word. While his biography is obscure, he lived a long life and eventually left the monastery to become a professional painter.
On view are several examples of Zhu Da’s vivid, bracingly idiosyncratic, formally sophisticated artworks, including a pen-and-ink drawing of a wonderful fish, pictured beneath an expanse of Chinese calligraphy. With its belligerent, disapproving human expression, the fish might even be a self-portrait. Also on view are an undated album leaf in ink and an album datable to 1698, consisting of 12 leaves of ink drawings, with a little color added. Both depict landscapes that reflect in style the radical abstraction of late Ming, although Zhu Da rarely painted landscapes before he was 70. These album leaves are marvelous. Rolling hills, waterways, mountains, rocks, bridges, waterfalls, tiny roads, a pavilion here and there, clouds, mists, an occasional figure or two, and more-traditional subjects are all rendered with quickness, boldness, sensitivity, and economy. Perhaps Zhu Da’s treatment of space—disrupted, tilted forward, illogical—is stylistically his most distinctive characteristic. He does not suffer from horror vacui, leaving large areas of emptiness, although, at times, he transforms the space into an indicator of solid form. The brushstrokes can be rough as well as silken, pointillist or planar, anticipating Cézanne and the Post-Impressionists. Powered by a compelling energy and intensity of feeling, his works appear utterly fresh and spontaneous, even across the centuries.
Lilly Wei is a New York–based art critic and independent curator.