Asia Society presents The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China

Asia Society presents The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China an exhibition on view 2 June 2013.

Contact:  Katrina Carl
Shen Shichong, Landscape (detail), 1631. Handscroll, ink and color on paper. Private collection.

he 17th century was one of the most dramatic and crisis-filled periods of China’s long history. Turbulent decades filled with droughts and floods, peasant uprisings, the corruption of powerful eunuchs at court, and foreign threats to national borders led to the collapse of the last native Chinese imperial dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644). This was followed by traumatic years of foreign conquest by the Manchus, who established the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). It was also an era of extraordinary artistic achievement.

At the forefront of these historic changes were China’s educated elite, the scholar-officials known as literati (wenren), who managed the empire’s extensive governmental bureaucracy. These public servants — who had to pass rigorous exams in history, literature, and philosophy so they could hold office — were also some of China’s most accomplished poets, calligraphers, and painters. These arbiters of taste were threatened by both the politics of the 17th century as well as the rise of a merchant class seeking to join what the literati considered their own sophisticated social milieu.

The paintings in this exhibition offer a fascinating glimpse into the private world of these scholar-painters. Deeply affected by the crises of their times, many sought solace in the ancient ideal of withdrawal or reclusion. They retreated either literally or figuratively from serving a court filled with treacherous intrigue to private lives devoted to the time-honored consolations and pleasures found in nature, art, and learning.

For these literati, reclusion could be an actual retreat into the mountains or often just a state of mind. They could pursue a life of reclusion on their own or within the company of other like-minded friends. Many of their paintings depict traditional Chinese imagery of journeys into vast landscapes or explorations of the natural world, but others are journeys of self-reflection, giving voice to personal thoughts and feelings in ways that are unprecedented in Chinese art.

As seen in the exhibition, the poems and texts that often accompany the paintings, written in masterful calligraphy, take us ever deeper into the private world of these “artful recluses.” Their response to the challenging times in which they lived can be seen in the alternate worlds they created in their art. These are worlds as subtle and elegant as those who created them, lofty realms of timeless beauty, intellect, and complex emotions.