Exhibition reveals masterpieces rooted in China's past

Chris Bergeron

Like the craggy mountains that have inspired them for centuries, Chinese painters have weathered the political storms and shifting cultural winds that have shaped their art in unpredictable ways.

Since the communist "liberation" of mainland China in 1949, painters, like most artists, felt the contradictory tug of venerated traditions and political orthodoxy that limited exposure to Western ideas.

A groundbreaking exhibition of Chinese ink paintings at Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum uses rarely seen masterpieces to examine the sporadic evolution over the last 50 years of a distinctive art deeply rooted in China's ancient past.

This traveling exhibit, "A Tradition Refined," showcases 63 often extraordinary paintings by artists from the Peoples Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and abroad that reveal the intertwining influences of insular traditions and subversive modernity.

Like a pilgrimage along a winding trail to a temple atop a sacred peak, this show provides a thrilling journey through five tumultuous decades of Chinese culture.

Whether you are a dedicated Sinologist or can't order egg rolls at the Lucky Dragon, you will see exquisite paintings from traditional ink scrolls of cloud-shrouded summits to Communist Party-approved paintings of power plants, from ultra-realistic images of tofu to abstract landscapes that might have come from Andy Warhol's factory.

Organized by three curators, "Tradition Refined" advances a revolutionary approach to modern Chinese ink painting produced in the communist mainland, Nationalist Taiwan, freewheeling Hong Kong and amid the Chinese diaspora to Europe and North America.

Organizer Robert D. Mowry, Alan J. Dworsky curator of Chinese art at Harvard museums, said the exhibit categorizes the development of modern brush art around a five-stage dialectic based on how painters shared similar styles that reflected prevailing attitudes to tradition and the political climate where they lived.

Janet Baker, curator of Asian art at the Phoenix Art Museum, and Claudia Brown, professor of art history, Herberger College of Arts at Arizona State University, organized the show along with Mowry.

The exhibit is organized according to five categories: Tradition Uprooted; Tradition Abstracted; Tradition Embraced; Tradition Reasserted; and Tradition Transcended. To view the paintings chronologically, visitors must weave somewhat through sub-galleries representing each stage, as if riding a skiff leaving behind earlier works to glimpse more modern ones around the bend.

Mowry said it is the first show to exhibit "side by side" representative paintings from the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the West to examine how painters on the mainland sought to evade state-sanctioned models and subtly incorporate Western approaches in their work.

And it explores how the greater freedom of Taiwanese artists affected their counterparts in the PRC as China gradually opened its doors to the West to promote modernization.

Indeed, East collides with West in wondrous profusion, resulting in the hybrid styles of a genuinely contemporary and international Chinese art extending beyond national borders.

Subtitled "Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection, 1950-2000," it runs through Jan. 27 in the museum at 32 Quincy St., Cambridge.

Born in Shanxi province in 1920, Li studied English literature at Nanjing University where he befriended Michael Sullivan, who became a renowned scholar of Chinese art. After coming to the United States in 1947 to study art, Li taught at several American universities and began acquiring Chinese art. All works on display were drawn from Li's collection, regarded as the finest of its kind in the West.

While there are no "household names" for the general public, this show offers something more helpful and ultimately more visually exciting: a survey of artists whose paintings exemplify the aesthetic undercurrents driving Chinese art in the second half of the 20th century.

At the simplest level, visitors will see exquisite paintings, like Yu Chengyao's "Deep Ravine, Rushing Torrent," that capture the grandeur of craggy mountains and gnarled trees in thick urgent brush strokes. A general with the Chinese army who fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists, he inscribed a poem on the scroll - "White clouds hover above the emerald valley. When can I return home?" - that evokes poignant yearning for his ancestral home.

A generation later, Wan Qingli painted figures from ancient folklore in "Broken Lotus Roots" with a curious mixture of old-time melancholy and modernist whimsy. Jailed during the Cultural Revolution, he later studied Chinese art in the United States where he painted the hills outside Lawrence, Kan., in bold lines and lurid colors reflecting, scholars say, "both antiquity and originality."

For visitors unfamiliar with Asian art, the exhibit can provide all the surprises and revelations of a bike ride through Shanghai's teeming streets, dodging noodle vendors and chic executives with cell phones.

Mowry urges visitors "not to be intimidated" by art from a complex non-Western culture.

"Don't take the approach, 'I don't know anything about it.' Don't stay away because it's all new," he said. "Look at it the other way and get excited." Visitors will benefit immensely from informative wall text that mixes biographical background with clear, concise explanations of artists' signature techniques and themes.

"We've tried to make everything comprehensible to a visitor who's educated, curious but not a specialist," said Mowry.

While scholars compare painters from varied dynasties or analyze arcane stylistic differences, Mowry hopes visitors new to Chinese art "just look with open eyes."

"Don't worry about who painted it and what does it mean," he said. "Don't feel overwhelmed. Enjoy it like music."


The Arthur M. Sackler Museum is located at 485 Broadway, Cambridge.

It is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

General admission is $9; $7 for senior citizens and $6 for students. Paid admission includes entrance to all three of Harvard's art museums.

Admission is free to all on Saturdays before noon.

For more information, call 617-495-9400 or visit