Published: 14:38, June 13, 2024
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Framing a portrait of innovation
By Zhao Xu

Suzhou exhibition focuses on art during Ming and Qing dynasties, Zhao Xu reports.

Lyricist-poet Wu Yunzhao (middle) depicted by renowned Ming-dynasty portraitist Zeng Jing (1564-1647), with the landscape painted by Hu Zongxin. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"A camera of the Ming (Dynasty of China)" is how Yang Danxia, an expert on ancient Chinese painting from the prestigious Palace Museum in Beijing, describes Zeng Jing, a leading portraitist active in the late 16th century to mid-17th century China.

Of the many works he presumably painted, only around 20 have lasted to date.

Two artistic traditions intersected — one embraced by traditional Chinese portraitists; the other, by Western artists who had previously been trained, among other things, to carve a vivid image with light and shadow.

Yang Zewen, curator at the Suzhou Museum

One of them, owned by the museum, depicts a man named Wu Yunzhao, a lyricist-poet and member of the literati among whom Zeng had commanded a large following.

Donning a monochromatic robe and a black headscarf befitting a scholar-recluse, Wu was placed amid forested mountains, where he was accompanied by his own read, which he held by hand, as well as two boy attendants rendered skillfully by Zeng.

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It's worth noting that the scenery was done by Zeng's contemporary Hu Zongxin, one of the several landscapists Zeng had cooperated with in an effort to bring out the inner tableau of those he portrayed.

"Zeng brought something new into a long tradition of ancient Chinese portraiture, with huge success," Yang says.

That reason alone has guaranteed his position in art history, and his inclusion in an ongoing exhibition focusing on the art form during the country's Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties between the mid-14th and early 20th century.

"Why Ming and Qing? Because in between those centuries, Chinese portraiture, steeped in the thoughts and aesthetics of Confucianism, underwent big changes, of which Zeng was a key figure," says Yang Zewen, the exhibition's curator.

Featuring around 100 pieces of work ranging from ancestral and royal portraits to images of eminent officials and celebrated men of words, the exhibition is held by the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou city, Jiangsu province, whose modern-day capital Nanjing, around 200 kilometers from Suzhou, was where Zeng spent his most productive years.

In 1582, around 18 years after Zeng was born, Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest, arrived in Macao, where he studied the Chinese language and customs.

It eventually took him 13 years to arrive in Nanjing, where he stayed for a couple more years before making his way further north to Beijing. There he was given an audience by Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty in 1601.

Among the gifts he presented to the Chinese ruler were three oil portraits. The emperor was believed to have been astounded by how lifelike the images were. In the following two centuries, more Jesuit missionaries followed Ricci's footsteps, among whom were many painter-portraitists with an innate understanding of the power of art.

"Two artistic traditions intersected — one embraced by traditional Chinese portraitists; the other, by Western artists who had previously been trained, among other things, to carve a vivid image with light and shadow, " says Yang Zewen.

A Qing-dynasty portrait of a woman, painted using mogu fa, or the technique of structuring with ink, as first employed by Zeng. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Light and shadow — prominent factors in Western painting including portraiture — had largely been ignored by ancient Chinese portraitists "for a deeper, philosophical reason", to quote Yang Danxia from the Palace Museum.

"For them, it was the perceived truth about an individual rather than physical likeness that mattered. So, instead of going after a heightened sense of existence and momentariness often conveyed by the employment of intense light and shadow, they went for something more constant, more indispensable of the man, as seen through their mind's eye," she says.

However, that doesn't mean that the Chinese portraitists who had contact with the missionaries and their art weren't tempted to reflect on their own way of painting. In fact, some of them did, including Zeng, who soon came up with what's known today as the mogu fa, or the technique of structuring with ink.

He first used light ink both to outline the subject's facial features and to shade certain areas of his face. This was before colored ink, sometimes of a rosy-beige or dusky tone, was applied on the face, one ultrathin layer after another. The goal was not to cover the black ink-shaded areas but to slightly subdue and soften them.

Still visible under the translucent colored paint, these inky parts would add dimension to a face that would otherwise look much flatter, emphasizing details from the brow ridge and cheekbones to wrinkles and eye bags.

"By doing so, Zeng had merged the two main methods in traditional Chinese portraiture, one using pure lines without any color or wash, the other, more popular in Nanjing and the surrounding regions, relied on the smooth application of colored ink for facial depiction," says Yang Zewen, the curator.

"He did so, informed by Western portraiture. And what he had accomplished was highly evocative representations of his subjects that still exuded the sensibilities of the literati culture."

To walk that fine line, Zeng had to adhere to a muted color palette, and had limited his experiments only to the faces of his subjects. The rest of the figure, clothing included, are rendered with highly suggestive lines.

The resulting succinctness and two-dimensionality was an antithesis to what his Western counterparts were so bent on achieving through their palpable rendition of delicate crispy lacework or sensual silk and velvet.

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"Toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Yangtze River Delta region, where Nanjing was located, experienced great prosperity, which in turn led to a general enthusiasm toward anything new. Zeng, with his latest adaptations, became the portraitist of his time," says Yang Danxia.

"He was admired, copied and emulated as a pioneering force who brought the art to a place it had never quite been."

In 1644, three years before Zeng's death, the Ming Dynasty met its own end, succeeded by Qing, which lasted for another 267 years.

The dynastic transition did almost nothing to stop Western artists from coming to China, and Beijing in particular, where they tried very hard to impress the Qing rulers, and in that process, interacted closely with their Chinese counterparts.

Reflecting on Zeng's phenomenal success, Yang Danxia says: "It's important to remember that Zeng had never sought to revolutionize classical Chinese portraiture. In fact, his very success lies with the great sensitivity he had shown toward an art tradition into which he was born, while trying to take that tradition just one calculated step further."

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