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Wang Mian, Plum Blossoms in Ink

Wang Mian, Plum Blossoms in Ink, 1335 (Yuan dynasty, Zhuji, China), ink wash on paper, 67.7 x 25.9 cm (Shanghai Museum, China) speakers: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Shanghai Museum, looking at a hanging scroll and at the center of the scroll is the original work of art by an artist whose name is Wang Mian, a Yuan Dynasty artist. This is on paper and it's ink that's been applied with a brush. - [Kristen] The painting itself is quite small compared to the entire hanging scroll. Lots of other things have been added to it, but at the center of the scroll, you've got starting in the upper right, this branch of big round petals of flowering plums. - [Steven] Plum blossoms are among the first flowers of spring. And they are harbingers, they really speak to a period coming out of the cold winter. Flowering plums is an ancient painting tradition. Long before this period. - [Kristen] It became very popular with literati or these highly educated literate men who were painting for the sake of their own self cultivation and for one another. - [Steven] The idea of self cultivation is a really important part of Chinese culture. It is central to the ideas of Confucius, to the ideas of Daoism and it's central even to Buddhism. The idea that we have a responsibility for our own perfection. - [Kristen] Painting, poetry and calligraphy, these three perfections, all really serve that same purpose. This is, as a subject for painting something that allows for these artists to practice that brush work, to focus on the relationship to poetry, to look at the art of the line that is so central to Chinese painting. - [Steven] And in fact, the artist has created not only a visual rendering of plum blossoms, but he's added his own poetry directly below. - [Kristen] He's added six quatrains. You can see his signature on them, Wong Yuanzhang, which is one of his designated names and his seals as well. He's responding to the subject of plum blossoms. - [Steven] And look at the abundance of blossoms on those branches. The branches themselves are these sweeping serpentine lines that run down and show his extraordinary control. - [Kristen] This really is calligraphy and you can see, of course, there's rich stalks of the branches of the plum blossom then in contrast with the bulbous petals, these single quick movements, and then the little dots that are the stamen of the flower just bursting from the branches, ready to fall to the ground. These quick circular shapes that pick up the richness of the ink that's also in the quatrains of the poem. The poem actually speaking directly to the lines of the blossoms. - [Steven] I love the way in which the blossoms look so full, but when we actually look at them carefully, we realize that they're only negative space. There is nothing there except for their contours. There is no background. There is no sky. This is so spare and so controlled and yet, so evocative of a branch of which we're seeing only a fragment. I think it's valuable to spend just a moment thinking about this historical time. - [Kristen] This was the time when the Mongols had swept in and set up court in the north. And many of these scholars went into early retirement. - [Steven] It must have been so disruptive after thousands of years of central Chinese control. Now China was controlled by Mongols from the north. And so we have the beginning of these cultivated men who speak, not so much to the emperor, not to the court, but to themselves. - [Kristen] To themselves and to each other. And in fact, actually you can see their responses to the same work that suggests that perhaps he shared this with others. - [Steven] So this was a deeply social kind of art. As we look around, we see that original rectangle of paper. It has been framed by all these additions. - [Kristen] There are four more entries on here by his contemporaries. So we know that this showed a deepening of his social ties in the present, but then of course the lineage, as it evolves over time, this idea of other artists and other scholars looking back at this and using this to connect with their own history. - [Steven] It's interesting, because in the west, we think of adding something to a work of art as a kind of vandalism, but here there is an adding of value. - [Kristen] It's a deepening of social ties. It's a deepening of connection to the past, a deepening of one's relationship to this whole tradition of painting poetry and calligraphy. (jazzy piano music)