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'The Three Hermits: Plum, Chrysanthemum, and Narcissus'
Among the works on display at the MFA is (detail) "The Three Hermits: Plum, Chrysanthemum, and Narcissus," by Chen Hongshou. (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)
VISUAL ARTS REVIEW

A glimpse of greatness

Chinese masterworks hint at beauty of collection from which they come

For scholars of Chinese art, a pilgrimage to rural New Hampshire is a required rite of passage. That is where one of the world's great private collections of classical Chinese art resides with its owner, Wan-go Weng .

For a broader public, however, the collection remains unfamiliar. Formed mostly in the 19th century by Weng's great-great-grandfather Weng Tonghe , it has never been presented in a comprehensive museum exhibition. So "Through Six Generations: The Weng Collection of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy," a sumptuous display of 30 masterworks from the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, is a momentous event.

Because it presents but a fraction of the 300-400 pieces that Hao Sheng -- the show's organizer and the MFA's curator of Chinese art -- estimates as making up the collection, it is also a tease. What is on display is so dumbfoundingly beautiful, you'll wish you could see a lot more.

About a third of the exhibition's space is devoted to honoring the history and accomplishments of the Weng family, giving the impression that the production was designed to show Weng, who turns 89 this year, that the MFA might someday make a good home for some or all of his most treasured possessions.

Among the show's main attractions is a handscroll 53 feet long and about a foot high representing the Yangtze River from its source in the misty mountains to the ocean. It was painted in 1699 by Wang Hui in shades of green, gray, and brown and with a fine, brushy touch -- a manner called the Scholar-Amateur style to distinguish it from the showier Professional style. Also known as the Orthodox style and identified with the cultivated literati, such painting was favored by Weng Tonghe, a scholar-amateur in his own right.

It is wonderfully absorbing to sit at the low, 30-foot - long case where Wang Hui's Yangtze River scroll is laid out under glare-free Plexiglas. Up close, one notices myriad details: tiny travelers on foot and horseback winding along mountain roads, boats of all kinds floating on the river, trees and rocks and other topographical phenomena, little houses, villages, and towns. From a distance, a broader, more abstract rhythm prevails, as the scene unfolds to left or right like a movie or a kind of visual music.

Contemplative serenity and oneness with nature were the goals of the scholar-amateurs. Study a panoramic landscape scroll from 1701 by Wang Yuanqi or vertical mountain views by the same artist and you see that the brushwork has a slightly fuzzy, abstract expressiveness apart from the scenery it evokes. It conjures a you-are-there sense of the artist responding directly to nature. It's a quality that has much appeal for modern Western eyes -- think of the exquisite tension between mark-making and landscape imagery in the drawings of Vincent van Gogh.

Scholar-amateur artists were also inspired by the art of calligraphy. Just as character and sensibility could be expressed in the marks of the brush in Chinese painting, so was the artist's spirit expressed in the way the artist made the signs of Chinese writing. That is one reason works of calligraphy -- including poems, letters, and commentaries appended to paintings -- are so integral to the Weng collection.

A Western viewer who does not read Chinese and has had little experience with the art of calligraphy is bound to find the examples in the exhibition rather opaque, however much he or she may appreciate their abstract rhythms and designs. Nevertheless, the exhibition as a whole reveals clearly what a refined combination of formal sensitivity and literary idealism animated scholar-amateur painting and calligraphy.

One of the exhibition's most beautiful paintings is "The Three Hermits: Plum, Chrysanthemum, and Narcissus," made in 1651 by Chen Hongshou , a calligrapher and renowned painter. It describes with razor-fine lines and gossamer shading the upper parts of three flowering plants horizontally arrayed across the otherwise blank silk surface. Besides being a work of keen botanical observation, it is a tribute to three hermetic spiritual masters evoked in a poem by Hongshou inscribed to the left of the image.

Hongshou created another of the exhibition's most arresting works, a large picture of a monk and a poet sitting and conversing at a rugged stone table under an extraordinarily gnarly, lushly flowering tree. It has a comical, cartoonish look, but it also suavely exemplifies the literati's idealized wedding of nature and philosophy.

Not to be missed, too, is one of the collection's most famous works, "Frontispiece to a Daoist Sutra," by the 13th-century artist Liang Kai . Rendered in fine black ink lines, it depicts a spectacular vision of a seated divinity and his entourage surrounded by clouds and flanked by crowded scenes of earthly goings on. It is amazing for its draftsmanship and its eye-straining profusion of miniaturistic detail.

The part of the exhibition that pertains directly to the six generations of the Weng family includes examples of painting and calligraphy by Weng Tonghe, Wan-go Weng, and other family members, as well as such artifacts as ink wells, a jade stamp, and family photographs. This material is historically interesting but a letdown from the masterpiece part of the show.

Weng Tonghe was considered one of the top calligraphers of 19th-century China, but he was not a very distinguished painter going by what's on view here. And though skillfully made, Wan-go Weng's illustrative landscape painting and his group portrait of guests gathered for an elegant party at his home is hardly in a league with the great works from his collection.

Also on view is a short film in which Wan-go Weng talks about his ancestors, his own life, and how he rescued the collection just before the Communist takeover in China in 1948.

Though it is a distraction, it is not hard to understand why the MFA included the Weng family part of the exhibition. It is the museum's way of saying to Weng, "We honor and respect you, your family, and your legacy, and should any part of your great collection ever come to us, we will give it all the honor, respect, and care that it deserves, too."

One can only hope that the MFA someday will succeed in its mission. The museum is already a tremendous repository of Asian art. Works from the Weng collection would make it greater still.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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