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Understanding the Master

Post #883 • October 9, 2006, 9:37 AM

Boston — "The perfection of art is to conceal art," said Quintilian. Thus Dong Qichang painted. Having copied countless masterpieces, he perfected a plain style. Despite its lack of showmanship, it influenced the whole course of Chinese painting - artists at the time and thereafter recognized it as authentic, profound, and masterful, even in its plainness. Understanding the Master: Dong Qichang and His Circle at the MFA features examples by Dong, students, followers and admirers. It includes a variety of finished works, informal notes, copy books, and ceramics glazed with landscapes that homage the master. Dong's works glow with a Morandian charm, as if artistic humility itself could emit warmth.

Dong wrote copiously about painting and calligraphy. (It is a pity that no one has translated his anthologies into English. What thoughts lie undiscovered in titles like The Eye of Painting, The Meaning of Painting, and Notes from the Painting-Meditation Studio?) The show features a handscroll that comments on various masters' styles, switching between styles to illustrate the method under discussion. Dong believed in the power of copying. He also divided Chinese calligraphy into a Southern style that possessed verity but not polish, and a Northern style for which the reverse was true. While no more fair or practicable than the similar Northern/Southern distinction in Ch'an Buddhism, which he practiced under an eccentric teacher, it does reflect Dong's high regard of intuition and unintellectualized insight. Understanding the Master includes two large works by Bada Shanren, perhaps Dong's greatest admirer, letting forth a river of ink as he realizes these virtues in triumphant images.

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