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Bada Shanren, Lotus and Ducks

Bada Shanren 八大山人 (朱耷), Lotus and Ducks (colophon by Wu Changshuo 吳昌碩), c. 1696 (Qing dynasty), ink on paper (hanging scroll), image 185 x 95.8 cm (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution). Speakers: Stephen D. Allee, Associate Curator for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution and Steven Zucker. Visit the Freer Gallery.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Freer Gallery of Art in a storage room, looking at the work of an important 17th century Chinese painter, calligrapher and poet. - [Stephen] Bada Shanren was born prince of the Ming dynasty. When he was 18 the dynasty fell to invaders from the north, who founded the Qing dynasty, which was the last imperial dynasty in China. It had an enormous effect on the young man, who fled and eventually decided to join the Buddhist church. - [Steven] And because we know that he was a part of the royal family, we know that he would have been versed in Confucian philosophy and aware of Daoist philosophy as well. But he enters into a Buddhist monastery and he spends 30 years there. - [Stephen] When he left the monastery, the story goes that he was found in the marketplace babbling, had ripped off his monks robes and lit them on fire. He re-emerged in the 1670s, '80s, as an artist. And that's when he took the name Bada Shanren. He was quite an eccentric fellow. Maybe not quite as eccentric as some of the accounts would have it. The large hanging scroll is from his most mature period. Later in life, he takes one of his names as the Lotus Garden. The lotus has particular symbolism in the Buddhist faith as something pure that arises from the muck of the lake and yet comes up pristine, and beautiful, and flowers. And that is a metaphor for many different aspects of life including religious awakening. And probably, of all the flowers that Bada paints, the lotus is one that he comes back to again and again. - [Steven] Although they're constructed just of two strokes of ink, they create this full volume, and a sense of lightness and preciousness that recalls the beauty of a lotus blossom with remarkable fidelity. - [Stephen] He's very calligraphic in his approach and in his use of ink and his use of the brush. He specializes for a bit in birds and fish. You'll often see them where the pupil is rolled up in the socket to show the whites of the eyes and that is the case in the large hanging scroll where you have one duck up on high, one duck below, you wonder is the one below looking to the one above. But this comes from the idea that in early depictions, to show the white of the eyes was to express anger. So that anger is interpreted as being his anger at the loss of the Ming dynasty, the loss of the dynasty into which he was born. Now, that interpretation becomes popular in the early 20th century with the transition from the Ching Dynasty to The Republic. But if you look at the division, low and high, the separation between the two with a wide swath of unpainted paper, all of the flower stems coming up and rising the full length of the painting on the right side. It's interesting to note that there are, at the bottom, four stalks that begin, but they suddenly become five as they go up. Now, lotus stalks do not branch, so is he saying something there? That's another question to which we don't have an answer. But we can see, again, with the leaves at the top and the way that he does the blossoms themselves, calligraphically, usually with just a couple of strokes for each petal, and the wash used to depict the leaves, the different tonalities of ink, and the layering of the ink, creating a sense of volume and three dimensionality. - [Steven] What strikes me when I look at this large scroll, is the ability of the artist, with such an economy of line, to produce an entire environment. Each of the ducks are on a rock, and the smaller of the rocks looks so much like the kind of scholar's rock that would have been placed into a contemplative garden. And so there is this philosophical aspect here as well. - [Stephen] Well, indeed, are we in a garden, or are we in nature? A Chinese garden is an artificial re-creation of nature, created for the same reason that Chinese paint landscapes. One of the great early Chinese landscape painters, Guo Xi, made the point that when you serve in government, when you have to live in the city, you become caught up in competition, issues of money and status. The proper place for mankind is with nature. That's how you understand the great Dao, the great system that brings us all together, the universal principles. So how do we avoid that, how do we get back to the Dao? Well, we paint, and we look at paintings of landscape. And the trick about a Chinese painting, whether it is landscape or a piece such as this, is that you are not observing it you are in it. It's not you looking at the man walking on the little road, you can see the waterfall that he must hear, but can't yet see, so you imagine yourself being that individual and you're about to turn the corner and see what you're hearing, but now there is that waterfall. You are not the person looking at that person, you are the person. - [Steven] And the scale of this particular painting is such that it actually envelops me as a viewer, and I feel as if I have entered into this scene. - [Stephen] The perforated rock at the bottom is most often associated with gardens of the literati, and they're bringing in these perforated rocks from Lake Tai. But they represent a microcosm of the larger cosmic mountain. And so here you have the miniature cosmic mountain, and there you have the full development of the large cliff face opposite, separated by the blank space, because in Zen, things emanate from the center out. The center for all Zen is empty, things come from nothing. When you look at all of the album leaves, you see that again. The center is empty and all of the details, all of the physical elements are at the edges and the corners. - [Steven] And in some of these paintings from the album, the form that I expect to see is largely outside even of the picture plane. - [Stephen] There's always some part that's left out, that's at the edge, that's beyond what you can see, and you as the viewer, you supply the rest. You supply that larger context. - [Steven] And that may be one of the reasons that these paintings, which are more than 300 years old, feel absolutely relevant right now. - [Stephen] Bada Shanren is, without doubt, one of the most popular traditional painters in China today. He lived in a time of transition. He went from prince to a commoner living in a hut in a period of madness. In February, 1912, the imperial system in China came to an end, and the republican form of government came into existence. And in the inscription on the large hanging scroll by Wu Changshuo, one of the major 19th- and early 20th- century artists and calligraphers, he expresses that idea that we are now living in times similar to those of Bada Shanren. And so we can understand his emotional meaning behind these angry birds, but modern China also comes after 1949 and that was a major transition that led to a lot of dislocation for many Chinese and a lot of the social upheaval and change within China which has led to the modern state. So there's a resonance, people feel that they're looking at someone who understands them and who expresses them. (jazzy piano music)