Some 60 celebrated landscapes are part of a rehang at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Don’t pass them by: They are demanding to the eye and mind alike.
Oct. 7, 2021
It always feels like early autumn in the Chinese painting galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lighting is warm but low; the décor, wheat-beige and nut-brown. Despite sparks of color, the ink-and-brush paintings are visually subdued; their images can be hard to read from even a short distance away.
And although the galleries hold the museum’s permanent collection of Chinese paintings, no picture stays for long. Compared with Western-style oil painting — a hardy, meat-and-potatoes, survivalist medium — Classical Chinese painting is fragile. Often done in ink on silk, it has two natural enemies: time and light. The danger is less that they will fade the ink than that they will darken the silk. Paintings depicting daylight scenes can end up looking twilight-dim.
Most of the 60 paintings in the museum’s current reinstallation, “Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art,” were never meant to have prolonged exposure. Some were conceived as album pages and kept between closed covers. Many in the form of scrolls were stored rolled up and brought out for occasional one-on-one viewing or as conversation starters at parties. (For reasons of conservation, the paintings on view now, which range from the 11th to the 21st century, will stay out until early January, and then be replaced by others.)
And if reality of time, and time passing, is physically built into these objects, it is also a theme addressed by the art itself. Most of the paintings in “Companions in Solitude” are of landscapes, and many are identified not by place-name — mount such-and-such, lake so-and-so — but by season, as if changing weather were the real subject.
In paintings like “Winter Landscape,” attributed to the 16th-century artist Jiang Song, or “Autumn Colors Among Streams and Mountains” by the great Ming dynasty master Shen Zhou, nature seems less to be depicted than hallucinated. It’s in motion, in a state of molecular dispersal. Mountains dissolve into clouds, earth into water as you look.
Yet while many of these landscapes suggest the operation of transiency, they also embody a very specific cultural ideal: the possibility of escape from a crowded, relentlessly urbanized world to reclusion in the psychologically gentler, spiritually more spacious realm of Nature.
Reclusion had a long religious history in China, with Buddhist and Daoist monks and priests establishing hermitages, houses of contemplation, in remote sites. But in many of the landscapes at the Met, the longing for retreat also had a secular, class-based source. It was generated largely by an educated urban elite attached to the court or government, and eager to escape the crush of professional pressures and unpredictable politics.