Saving the best for last.
The much-anticipated and one of the most important exhibitions at Shanghai Museum this year will be unveiled on December 7.
Though Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a master in painting, calligraphy and art theory, was born in Songjiang in the city suburbs, this will be the first time his work has been exhibited in Shanghai.
Yang Zhigang, the museum’s director, said preparation had taken several years and some of Dong’s artworks are on loan from 15 of the world’s top institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tokyo National Art Museum. The exhibition features nearly 154 representative paintings and calligraphy from different periods plus ancient masterpieces that influenced Dong.
The exhibition halls on the third floor of the museum have been closed since October 8 for renovation to allow a better presentation of Dong’s work.
The special treatment devoted to this exhibition reflects Dong’s status in Chinese art history, because his beliefs became guidance for later paintings for nearly 300 years.
The son of a teacher and a somewhat precocious child, Dong passed the prefectural civil service examination at 12 and won a coveted spot at the prefectural government school. He rose up the imperial service ranks, passing the highest level at the age of 35, and later attained an official position with the Ministry of Rites.
Dong’s work favored expression over formal likeness. He also avoided anything he deemed to be slick or sentimental. This led him to create landscapes with intentionally distorted spatial features.
He considered there to be a Northern School, inclined to depict the landscape itself, and a Southern School which preferred to paint images in the artist’s heart. However, these names are perhaps misleading as they refer to the northern and southern schools of Zen rather than geographic areas. A northern painter could be geographically from the south. In any event, Dong strongly favored the Southern School and dismissed the Northern School as superficial or merely decorative.
His ideal of Southern School painting was one where the artists formed a new style of individualistic painting by building on and transforming the style of traditional masters.
This was to correspond with sudden enlightenment, as favored by Southern Zen. Dong was also a great admirer of Mi Fu (1051-1107) and Ni Zan (1301-1374). By relating to the ancient masters’ style, artists were to create a place for themselves within the tradition, not by mere imitation, but by extending and even surpassing the art of the past.
Dong’s theories, combining veneration of past masters with a creative forward- looking approach, would prove to be influential on Qing Dynasty artists as well as collectors. Together with other early self-appointed arbiters of taste known as the Nine Friends, Dong helped to determine which painters were to be considered collectible.
Alongside the exhibition, a series of seminars will be held to discuss Dong’s life, art and influence.
For art lovers, this rare exhibition will be a visual feast, but it could also be a literal one. In April, when members of the exhibition team were in Songjiang, they came across the local snack of rice cakes.
To increase their flavor, they added more butter and sugar. Dong’s calligraphy has been stamped on these rice cakes and green-bean cakes and they will be on sale at the museum’s gift shop.
The museum director said visitors could take away the snacks for “an aftertaste of the charm of Dong’s art.”