Visiting “Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art”

The Metropolitan Museum, July 31, 2021 – August 14, 2022

Wen Zhengming, “Recluse playing the zither in a pine grove” (ca. 1540) 137 ½” x 40 ½”

The poem reads: “In the shade of the pines, pulsating greenery shelters the level bank; He sits playing a zither of fine jade to quiet the clamor of the world. The song complete, he is remote from the realm of men, The twilight clouds roll up like a painted scroll, revealing towering green mountains.”

Being a bit of a philosopher too, I subwayed (communion) up to the Met Asian Galleries (relative reclusion) to meditate on the implications of the title in 2022.
A little disappointing to see that the entrance card spelled it out—usually the Met Asian is a little more subtle about the brilliant ways they bring a contemporary sensibility to curating their classical collection:
“In the wake of 2020, a year that has isolated us physically but connected us virtually in unprecedented ways, this exploration of premodern Chinese reclusion and communion will invite meditation on the fracture and facture of human connection in our own time.”

Metaphorically speaking, the tiny figures in a boat or walking or fooling around on a zither nestled into massive landscapes are familiar in a new way. I felt lonely looking at them.

Zhu Angzhi, “Listening to the Waterfall from a Moored Boat, in the manner of Wen Zhengming” (1837)

The temple bell resonates with the sounds of the waterfall,
and not one bit of the world’s filth finds its way here…
—Translation by Michael J. Hatch

First thought: ‘You have no idea of the literal filth the modern world generates’ but of course there is always filth—and corruption. In those years the British government insisted on free trade, i.e., opium sales—the first Opium War started in 1839.

I have never been able to find any reference to, or example of, “working from life” in Chinese painting. Landscapes are built out of encoded brushstrokes that relate to leaves, bark, water, etc. coupled with the practice of an almost religious cult of observation. Seeing this show, it also became clear that the vantage point—where the painter stands—is an imaginary conceptual one. Somehow the painter floats halfway up the mountain.

Lu Yanshao, “Mount Qingcheng” (1942) 55 ½” × 18 5/16”

“Lu’s poem, which he inscribed at the top of the painting, describes the serenity and restorative power of Qingcheng; left unspoken are the horrors of war from which Lu sought respite.”

The three paintings which I’ve chosen to represent reclusion—which really can’t be seen satisfactorily in photographs at all—share the same beautiful motif, though the second is 300 years after the first and the third is a hundred years after the second.

It seems that reclusion is rarely chosen for its own sake—the happy man in peaceful times doesn’t…Oh, did I mention that in these pictures, all the recluses are men?
But we all have a new way of understanding the solace to be found in nature even if we never left NYC.

You Yin “The Studio of Prolonged Soughing” (detail) (1851)

“Soughing is the sound of wind through the trees and can also mean sighing. This painting has the profound sweetness of communion anticipated,” a gentleman waits to welcome his friend.” He is about to enter the gate!
I am so touched by it.

Dong Qichang “Invitation to Reclusion at Jingxi” (detail) (1611)

The artist made this painting to encourage his friend to leave government service—to show him how beautiful his place in the country was. What a good reason to paint! And how hard to tell whether this painting is about communion or reclusion.

Other paintings: A musician playing for the listening crane in his garden. A stunning dense painting of a plum tree in blossom. A scroll with groups of companionable sailboats. These are some of the wonderful unphotographable works in this show.

Zhang Lu, “Studying a painting” (16th century) 58 5/8’ x 38 7/8”

This is unphotographable too, but it depicts a group of workmen unscrolling a painting, enjoying themselves immensely. I have no idea what the artist is saying; possibly he is making fun of the elite who think that the appreciation of art is a refined pleasure which can’t be appreciated by the masses. Or possibly he is making fun of the lower classes who don’t understand the meditative quiet necessary to appreciate art.

And where is the painter? Floating gently above it all.



This is part 2 of Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art.
For a wonderful description of Part 1 by Zhao Xu in the New York | China Daily: