New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting a rare exhibition of masterpieces of 17th century Ming Loyalist Art that will be on display until Jan. 2. The works featured in the exhibition were collected in the 1950s and 1960s by the late Hong Kong collector Ho Iu-kwong (He Yaoguang, 1907–2006), who named his studio the Chih Lo Lou or “Hall of Supreme Bliss.” The collection is now held in a nonprofit public entity administered by Mr. Ho’s descendants.
In order to provide an appropriate aesthetic and intellectual context for the material, the exhibition is organized into five thematic or regional groupings: Ming Martyrs; The Yellow Mountain and Nanjing Regional Schools; Guangdong Artists; Monk Painters; and Jiangsu and Zhejiang Artists.
The collapse of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and subsequent conquest of China by semi-nomadic Manchu tribesmen from northeast of the Great Wall comprised some of the most traumatic events in Chinese history. This wrenching era also spurred an enormous outpouring of creative energy as many former Ming subjects turned to the arts to express their loyalty to the noble but doomed cause of Ming restoration and to assert their defiance and moral virtue. Drawn from one of the finest and most comprehensive private assemblages of the art of the Ming-Qing transition, this exhibition showcases more than sixty landscape paintings and calligraphies that highlight the intensely personal styles created by the leading artists of that time. Particularly noteworthy are the clusters of exceptional works by Huang Daozhou, Hongren, Bada Shanren (Zhu Da), and Shitao.
The Manchu conquest followed several decades of political weakness at the Ming court that had left large portions of the country in chaos. When the capital in Beijing fell to a Chinese bandit army in 1644, Manchu forces poised along the Great Wall routed the rebels but then continued their march southward. After crushing Ming resistance in the city of Yangzhou, which was burned for ten days as an example, the southern capital of Nanjing surrendered, but it took another forty years to suppress various Ming claimants to the throne and to quell armed rebellions in the south.
During this time, many former Ming subjects maintained their loyalty to the fallen regime by refusing service under the Manchu Qing (“pure”) dynasty (1644–1911). To endure the often harsh conditions of alien rule, these so-called leftover subjects took psychological as well as physical refuge in nature, and their representations of landscape often project their emotional responses to this radically changed world order. In transforming painting and calligraphy into vehicles for self-expression, they demonstrated a remarkable independence from traditional styles and techniques. For this reason, they have been celebrated as visionary individualists, whose styles have remained influential down to the present day.
The Art of Dissent in 17th-Century China
Masterpieces of Ming Loyalist Art from the Chih Lo Lou Collection
September 07, 2011–January 2, 2012
Alex has written for Vanity Fair, Barrons, Bloomberg and Condé Nast Traveler.