Wang Caiping (?–1893), To Longevity. Round fan mounted as album leaf; ink andcolor on paper. Diameter 10 1/4 in. (26 cm), Changzhou Museum • Courtesy

“Flying cascades, passage upon passage, the flowers bloom in proper accord… 

East, west south and north, are not all things the same?”

– Zhu Da (Bada Shanren)

New York City’s China Institute Gallery, the one museum in the United States to uniquely show Chinese art from abroad, presents its most ambitious exhibition since the recent pandemic. The Art of Chinese Flower and Bird Painting, 1368-1911 is a landmark collection of masterpieces that will certainly captivate the spirit and intrigue the eye.

With more than 100 top-flight works by 59 artists, the exhibition consists of three sections, each surveying the history of Chinese flower and bird painting, which spans 500 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Highlighting each artist’s unique contribution and style within the areas of academia, literati and individualism, the exhibition brings together many of these ideas and more, thus vividly portraying a way of painting that is most endearing, unique and ahead of its time.

The first section, Precious Plums of the Palace: Academism and Court Painters, speaks about how important court painters were in creating works reflective of imperial tastes of that period. These academic flower and bird painting were uniquely done in stark detail, precision and with much forethought. Once the painting was completed, it would be presented to the emperors requesting the commission, to later be met with the utmost of satisfaction and approval. 

Lin Liang (ca. 1416–ca. 1480). Birds in a Lotus Pond. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, 60 1/4 × 22 1/4 in. (153 × 56.4 cm), Tianjin Museum • Courtesy

The first of these works, entitled Birds in a Lotus Pond by Lin Liang (ca. 1416-1480), is a whimsical depiction of a usual autumn day: two swan geese gather reeds while various other birds are frolicking or hunting about – all happening within a picturesque setting. The attention given to each image detail is most striking; it was important for court painters to be precise in using meticulous (and freehand) brushstrokes and delicate coloring to convey and complement the task at hand, thus presenting the work as a fortuitous display of nature that is simple and serene yet most striking.

The same holds true for the work Cypress and Deer, 1758, by Shen Quan (ca. 1682-1760) a fine display of realism at its most natural of state: one deer appears most erect, while the other looks up in a humbling manner, with legs bend inwards and its body seemingly in a relaxed position. Their facial expressions are inquisitive in detail, while the pine tree stands quite prominent throughout the work. The light indigo is directly evident on the cypress leaves, while the sloping rocks are delightfully painted in various textual strokes.

Lu Zhi (1496–1576). Pear Blossoms and Pair of Swallows. Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper, 38 7/8 × 22 7/8 in. (98.5 × 58 cm), Tianjin Museum • Courtesy

The second section, Fragrant Plums in the Wild: The Literati and their Painting Schools focuses on how important the Literati style served as an evolution from the “court style” or “academic style” of the previous period. As Willow Weilan Hai, China Institute Gallery Director would say, “bringing together elements of such as poetry, calligraphy, seals and painting into a single artistic creation”. 

These elements quickly came to mind while gazing at Pear Blossoms and Pair of Swallows by Lu Zhi (1496-1576) – a beautiful scene of an exquisite pear branch in bloom while a pair of swallows fly about in a diagonal fashion, carefully in unison with their surroundings. All the while, a collection of poetry, calligraphy and seals from various artists, collectors and writers from the Wu school create a unifying whole within the overall painting. Such presence gives the viewer an idea of how important arrangement, originality and a vivid connection to nature was to this artist and his supporters.  

The third section, Vitality of Nature: Flower-and-Bird Painting and Customs dives deeper into the four seasons and its effect with human life and social mores. Based on the concept of heaven and earth (yin and yang), it was believed that this essence brought about a cycle of seasons that worked in unison with one’s own life pattern – interconnected and whole at the same time. 

Two fascinating works that drew my attention was Flowers of the Four Seasons (1866) by Tang Shishu (1831-1902) and To Longevity by Wang Caiping (?-1893), the former is a four panel grouping of the four seasons, stylistically painted in gold pigment on porcelain-blue paper, while the latter is a unique depiction of paradise flycatchers hanging onto an old branch, lovingly detailed in colors of blue-green with a pairing of browns, whites and reds, all done in a soft, dream-like manner.

Zhu Da (1626–1705) Flowers on a River, detail, 1697 Handscroll; ink on paper 19 × 508 7/8 in. (48.2 × 1292.5 cm) Tianjin Museum • Courtesy

The show-stopper masterpiece, Flowers on a River, 1697 by Zhu Da (aka Bada Shanren), is a more than forty-two feet handscroll of unusual excellence from beginning to end. Based on his life from member of a Ming royal family to that of a Buddhist monk, the work is quite modern for its time. Hui-shu Lee, contributing writer to the exhibition catalogue, notes that “the painting is a striking journey that gently coaxes the viewer from right to left through an intimate and mysterious world of ink tones and strange forms.” The painting transgresses itself from all forms of imagery and perception – its continuity extended by the painted brush, going from one movement, shape and variety to the next, all telling a story of a man on a historical and spiritual mission. 

The same can be said of this one of a kind exhibition – a mission of utmost delight, contemplation and desire.

Flowers on a River: The Art of Chinese Flower-and-Bird Painting, 1368-1911, will on display till June 25th, then travelling to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, on view from October 15th ‘til January 14th 2024.

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