Chinese poet-painters self-isolating


265 1954.263 hua yen conversation in autumn d 1732.jpg

I was sending three Chinese paintings I had been absorbed by to a friend but thought I needed to append some text to give any idea of why I found them so exciting, so was going to photograph the three catalogue entries that told the stories of these three scholar hermits, self-isolating among streams and mountains or drinking themselves into cheerfulness in their orchid pavilions, a cumbersome plan.   And then I thought of a wonderfully simple idea for a blog when I couldn’t write one. I could just post the three pictures with the artists’ names, and anyone who wanted to could look them up on the website of the Cleveland Museum of Art where they would find high res images of each to download and ponder.

Then the idea collapsed. We really need those texts which I could point you to in Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, the giant catalogue of 1981 which sits there in my scholar’s hut reminding me of my foolhardy ‘travels among streams and mountains’ in that distant year, with its images all in grey and white that I can wake up again through the ‘miracle of technology’ (not so miraculous any more), and the lengthy text attached to each of them that I didn’t stop to read in 1981, but which now bring before me the fanatical absorption of those long-ago devotees of the wild brush strokes of these three practitioners of Chinese Baroque (as we call it now), but my main link with those paintings has become something very obscure with the passage of the extra years and the closure of all the libraries in the last few days, and that makes my simple project unworkable.

236 1955.36 chu ta landscape after kuo chung-shu 17c ch'ing.jpg

265 1954.263 hua yen conversation in autumn d 1732.jpg

268 1976.112 li shan five pine trees d 1747 copy.jpg

These three paintings are special in their deliberate clumsiness, in not joining up smoothly their different parts, in cultivating scratchiness to signal uncertainty but also haste which comes over as passion, a kind of excitement which is frustratingly careless about whether it conveys itself to the viewer.

The painter of the pines was asked to paint five different trees. I think they started with plenty of space between them but he decided to crowd them together until they became hard to distinguish. On top of that, he filled up the empty spaces with five poems. I don’t know what these poems say or even what their subjects are. At first I was annoyed with the catalogue for leaving out translations but came to feel that this incredibly irregular writing is more beautiful than if I could read the individual words.   The writing is poetry in itself, more intricate and sophisticated than the painting, of which it is a magical contrasting twin.

li shan five pine trees.png

The mynah birds are another work by the painter of the first landscape, birds I thought I had to include to help you believe that that landscape is a radical work that you will only appreciate by looking long and hard at the high-res form of.

Chu Ta (or Zhu Da as he is also spelled in roman) has lit up the time of my isolation and turned hours into instants.

237B 67-4-2_ZhuDa-MynahBirdsAndRocks_front.png



236 (its number in the catalogue of the exhibition)  Chu Ta, Landscape after Kuo Chung-shu

265  Hua Yen, Conversation in Autumn

268  Li Shan, Five Pine Trees     The detail from this painting is meant to fill the screen, but I don’t know how to achieve this effect in the blog.

237B  Chu Ta,  Mynah Birds and Rocks

237B 1953.247 chu ta fish and rocks


I need to make this larger by putting it on its side, with the bottom of the image on the left.

237B 1953.247 chu ta fish and rocks.jpg





4 thoughts on “Chinese poet-painters self-isolating”

  1. Thank you Robert. I started again to read Deliberate Regression after it sat on my shelf for years. I looked you up and found your Blog. I’m enjoying both. You have a brilliant gift for unusual insight that I’m enjoying.


  2. I like your novel idea for a blog: images of paintings that can be supplemented online with high-res versions and additional comments. The commentaries available from the catalogue do add much to one’s understanding and pleasure. Your suggestion may not be so unlike the experience of the owners of these paintings. This experience would have been mostly private, for the enjoyment of the owner, perhaps of the painter, and most likely of one or two friends. The painting would be unrolled on a low table, comments and perhaps jokes would be made. A poem or an appreciation would be added in ink on the painting itself. Following which alcohol would be drunk in large quantities. With a silver pot being brought in on request to relieve oneself as and when needed. I saw this not in China but in Korea many years ago and it has remained for me a model of artistic appreciation.

    The pleasure taken in the works was at times considerable, always genuine and unpretentious. No gloves or special lighting were needed to protect the works or to tell you how wonderful they were. The respect for them was palpable and it mixed quite happily with conversation that could be reflective or riotous. There was none of this lugubrious silence with which we have long been accustomed in museums. Heaven.

    I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on the clumsiness, the uncertainty and the excitement which you attribute to the three paintings. Ink painting does not admit corrections. Perhaps for this reason above all others, it requires a control of the brush obtained through years of practice. This desire for mastery brought a cultivation of its opposite: ease, spontaneity, naturalness and sometimes speed. A painter will be fully in control of his means when seeming at his most casual. Appreciation will be keenest when accompanied by merrymaking. The Far East is full of such pleasant paradoxes.


  3. roughness probably a better word than clumsiness and applies to each of them differently. Chu Ta one of the great wild men of art. His poems are miracles of off-the-wall effects, from all reports. I must look further into this. And of course it is absurd to read the present moment into the lives of exiles chased across the country by wars, but I find it hard not to. will try to add another Chu Ta with rocks hanging from the ceiling.


  4. Dear Bob i loved your take on these paintings which i used to guard when i was a student at the cleveland school of art i worked there part time,,, most of the full time guards swore that the old asian galleries were haunted! i loved working down there as it was very beautiful and to Esther rich estell


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