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Rare Opportunity to View Seminal Event in the History of Chinese Painting
Qiao Zhongchang, Chinese (act. Late 11th-early 12th century). Detail, Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff, 11th century-early 12th century. Hand scroll, ink on paper. Purchase: Nelson Gallery Foundation, F80-5.
KANSAS CITY, MO.- Art lovers have a rare and limited opportunity to view a scroll considered a seminal work in the history of Chinese painting, Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red cliff Red Cliff. After August 1, the scroll will be taken off view and not available for public viewing for at least five years to protect it from deterioration caused by exposure to even low light levels.

"This remarkable work is almost a thousand years old, and we feel a deep responsibility to preserve it for another millennium," said Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of Chinese art at the Nelson-Atkins.

More than 18 feet long, the hand scroll was painted sometime in the late 11th or early 12th century by a little known artist, Qiao Zhongchang, to illustrate a poem by the famous poet, calligrapher, and painter Su Shi (1037–1101). The poem recounts Su’s visit to the site of a decisive battle in 208/9. This battle–the subject of a twopart epic movie, The Red Cliff, released in 2008 and 2009– marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Han Dynasty and was later immortalized by poets, such as Su Shi. The poem itself is highly personal and allusive rather than heroic and dwells on Su Shi’ s psychological reaction to the site rather than recounting the battle itself.

"The painting remarkably captures the essence of the poem," said Mackenzie. "What is so revolutionary about this painting is that almost for the first time in the history of art, personal expression becomes more important than mere representation."

Chinese painters of this era had already mastered the realistic representation of landscape using devices such as graduated ink washes and a variety of brushstrokes to convincingly suggest both atmospheric recession and the solidity of forms. Qiao Zhongchang confidently dispenses with many of these devices. Washes are absent and there is no real interest in suggesting illusionistic effects. Instead, it is the emphasis on dry brushwork—so dry that it looks more as though it was executed with charcoal than with a brush and ink–as a vehicle for individual expression that is the artist’s concern.

As if to emphasize his bond with the poet, Qiao inscribes the poem on the surface. "This painting is ultimately a dialogue with the poet Su Shi, whom possibly Qiao could have known," Mackenzie said. "Its purpose was not to capture the scene – Qiao had almost certainly never visited the Red Cliffnor even to commune with nature, but rather to create a work which expresses visually a poetic sensibility and refinement. As such the subject of this painting is not a scene, but style itself."

Although a few other paintings by literati of this period exist, none go so far in its exploration of the psychological potential of brushwork and the integration of word and image. As such it sets the stage/path for the subsequent history of Chinese painting, in which artist after artist would attempt to develop a personal style based on distinctive brushwork and manipulation of form.

"A painting such as this makes us question many notions sometimes mistakenly put forward as typical of Chinese culture such as collective conformity, copying and lack of innovation. This is the work of a highly original and surprisingly modern mind," Mackenzie said.

Nelson-Atkins | Colin Mackenzie | Chinese Painting |

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