But to fully fathom the richness of "Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future: Master Ink Painters in 20th-Century China," it helps to know the backstory.
The exhibition took two years and several trips to China to mount. Curators say most of the 110-plus works have never before been displayed in the United States and some have never been shown in China. Because the works are on paper and are unframed, often on scrolls, they're rare, fragile and light-sensitive, so the works are being divided into two rotations. Small bamboo blockades prevent viewers from inching too close to the works.
The show runs through July 4, and is augmented by a book, a symposium, a music performance series and a Family Day. Free docent tours help illuminate the period of change represented by the painters, known in China as the "Four Great Masters." The pivotal paintings of the four — Wu Changshuo (1844-1927), Qi Baishi (1864-1957), Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and Pan Tianshou (1897-1971) — reveal the transition between ancient and modern traditions during a time of major changes, Western influences and upheavals. They incorporate calligraphy, poetry, portraiture and landscape, and in the case of Pan, perhaps political commentary.
"This is the first exhibition from China (in the Western world) that contains so many masterpieces of these four great artists," according to Xiaoneng Yang, curator of Asian art at the Cantor Arts Center.
At the gallery entrance, the viewer is immediately struck by the portrait of Wu, a collaboration of two artists. His face is painted in photographic detail by Zhu Wenyun while his billowing red robes are painted by Pan. The contrasting styles, embodied in a single work, are a fitting entry to the exhibit.
Behind it are three other portraits by Wu's associate and mentor Ren Yi, including one of Wu as a "Bitter Junior Officer," his head covered by a bowl-like helmet. These works are the only ones in the gallery that are not by the four key artists. Like Wu, who broke away from his path as a civil servant to become an artist, each of the four ink painters departed from traditions while continuing to honor them.
The works are neatly arranged in four chronological sections delineated by the color of the wall, helping viewers grasp the distinctiveness of each artist. In a nutshell, Wu is best known for his delicate flower and bird paintings. Qi's works often have a lighthearted quality, with humorous portraiture as well as animal studies of creatures including the aforementioned mice. Both Wu and Qi favor vivid tones in many of their works.
By contrast, Huang's landscapes reveal heavy, dense brushwork, while Pan paints massive landscapes and animal studies with abstract rocks and cliffs, or floral branches with blackened blossoms.
How are their works different from those of earlier ink painters? It's "the spirit and the style," curator Yang says during a visit at the opening of the show on Feb. 17. The four artists mastered the traditional techniques of calligraphy and seal painting (the small red rectangles that served as the artists' signatures), and flowers, birds and landscapes. But they were also innovators, bringing in their own observations and influences from the West, expanding their subject matter and techniques. Among those techniques were freehand brushwork, Western-inspired abstraction and even finger painting.
In most of the works, the black of the ink serves as the primary color, augmented by subtle shades of peach, green or blue and large amounts of white space. Huang, a scholar and editor, created dense landscapes, some with strokes resembling a van Gogh work, says Yang, while Pan, who also had an academic background, painted oversized works, sometimes using his fingers. Pan's "Water Buffalo in a Summer Pond" shows a massive beast with a golden eye, and has a red seal at the center that says "Chan of the Finger."
Pan is the painter who may most intrigue the Western viewer, in part because he ran afoul of the notorious "Gang of Four" during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Even earlier, after he painted "This Land So Beautiful" in 1959, showing a high blue cliff topped by a signal flag, he was advised to substitute a red flag instead. He refused. Another of his paintings, of vultures leering ominously atop a cliff led one member of the "Gang" to conclude not only that the vultures were spies, but so was Pan himself.
Pointing to the work of 1966's "Plum Blossoms in Moonlight," the last large work by Pan, Yang notes the dark tones in the work and says that Pan's career was halted by the political turmoil of the late 1960s. Pan, who had been president of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, was falsely accused of being counterrevolutionary or "nonrevolutionary," was forbidden to paint, and was imprisoned and tortured, dying in infamy.
However, Pan's reputation has been restored, and China now has a museum dedicated to his work, points out Patience Young, the museum's curator for education. "The tide turned after he died," she says.
Young, who trains docents and serves as the museum's liaison with students and faculty, continues Yang's discussion on the four transitional artists. She walks over to Wu's 1902 "Tripod Ding Cauldrons," a hanging scroll that contains brass rubbings and calligraphy, with flowers and blossoming branches placed in the cauldrons. Using "ancient bronze cauldrons as containers for flowers was not done," she said. Combining man-made elements, like the brass rubbings, with botanicals was also innovative.
Moving to Qi's hanging scroll titled "Pine Grove and Hobbyhorse," painted in the late 1920s, she observes that in most Chinese landscapes, the eye moves from the foreground at the bottom to the top. In "Pine Grove," that rule is tossed aside, as are the normative rules of perspective.
The largest elements are the rocks or cliffs in the background, which not only dwarfs a house and people in the middle but also looms over the pine trees in the foreground. The effect is one of childlike charm. Other favorites with viewers include the brightly colored "Longevity Peaches" and his humorous portraits, including one of "Iron-Crutch Li, the Daoist Immortal," examining the interior of a gourd. The caption: "What medicine is in that gourd?" A spirit of lightness permeates his work.
Huang's work, by contrast, is "more intense," Young says. Although "inspired by earlier styles" — some of his works pay homage to traditional artists — he uses color and brushwork in a denser, more expressionistic manner, particularly late in life, when his sight was compromised by cataracts.
Leading a tour for docents and other guests, Young says Huang's work can be challenging for Western eyes to grasp at first glance. She suggests that viewers stand back from the work rather than trying to view it at close hand.
Huang's use of color was sparing, and Huang's own notes for "Verdant Summer Mountain," painted in the early 1950s, reveal that he intentionally merged his colors with the black ink, burying or muting the greenery and the peach-toned houses amid the black brushwork "to avoid misuse of color."
Armed with hours of training and slide viewing before getting ready to lead the tours on their own, the Cantor docents seem able to easily distinguish the works of the four artists from one another as well as from the artists of the past. But they cited other challenges.
"Many of the Asian visitors are going to know more (than we do)," Norma Schlossberg says.
What: The exhibition "Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future: Master Ink Painters in 20th-Century China"
Where: Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
When: Through July 4, Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m. Free docent tours 12:15 p.m. Thursdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and by appointment.
Info: Go to http://museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.