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Special Exhibition—Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping (1733–1799)

Curator Mike Hearn takes us inside the extraordinary world of Luo Ping, discussing the range and brilliance of the artist's vision.


Mike Hearn: Hello. I'm Mike Hearn, curator in the Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'm also the curator of the first comprehensive exhibition of paintings by the extraordinary and celebrated Chinese eighteenth-century artist Luo Ping. The exhibition, Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping (1733–1799), brings together nearly sixty works—including many Chinese National Treasures—that reveal the range and brilliance of the artist's vision, as well as his place among his peers.

Luo Ping was one of a group of artists known in China as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou. Yangzhou was like the New York City of its day. It was a large commercial city with many wealthy patrons and, as in the modern world of New York, the artists of the day sought to define their individuality in opposition to the demands of their patrons. So cultivating a sense of their eccentricity and individualism was a way to create a kind of distance between the artists and their patrons. Luo Ping moved in this environment but also made several trips to the capital—the political capital of China—Beijing, and there were really two different constituencies that Luo Ping serviced. In Yangzhou he was working primarily for wealthy merchant-patrons, whereas in Beijing he was often employed by men who were members of the scholarly elite, who were civil servants, officials in the capital. And so he had to differentiate the style of his art to suit the various clientele that he encountered in his life.

The exhibition explores both of these kinds of art works that he was called upon to make—both the more appealing narratives and popular subject matters that the Yangzhou merchant class would have found appealing, but also exploring the art of portraiture and how to represent these literati officials, not only through their superficial likeness, but through images of their homes, or their exploits, or even landscape as a way of conveying something of their identity that goes beyond simply their outward likeness.

In fact, Luo Ping's greatest contribution to the arts of China, in my opinion, is in the area of portraiture. Prior to the eighteenth century, portraiture in China was largely an anonymous craft. Portraits were usually commissioned for people to commemorate their deceased ancestors, and oftentimes the artisans who created those portraits worked from copybooks to get a generalized or idealized suggestion of what a person looked like, rather than an actual image.

By the eighteenth century, Jesuit missionaries had introduced European-style modeling to the art of portraiture in China. But still it remained an anonymous craft. But with Luo Ping, we see that portraiture takes on a new level of meaning. He's clearly influenced by ancient traditions of painting figures, and in several of the portraits in the exhibition we really have a sense of how he conveyed something not only of the superficial likeness of an individual, but actually captures something of their spirit and their inner identity.

The image that represents Luo Ping in our exhibition is an imaginary portrait of an eighth-century poet by the name of Hanshan. Hanshan—or, in English, "Cold Mountain"—was an eccentric Buddhist monk of the Chan or Zen Buddhist sect, who was, himself, a very idiosyncratic and eccentric figure who embodied the ideas of individuality and eccentricity that a man like Luo Ping would have found inspiring and become something of a role model for him. Luo Ping was himself a devout Buddhist, so he would have found Hanshan, as a Zen or Chan Buddhist, an ideal role model to emulate. His philosophy was also something that Luo Ping probably appreciated, and in this wonderful portrait, you'll see Hanshan paired with his compatriot Shide, an orphan who was a mere scullery boy or kitchen helper, in the monastery where they lived, as this pair of holy fools, who wandered around in the landscape, laughing and inscribing poems on tree trunks and rocks. The poems were eventually collected and put into an anthology that's been translated into English as "Cold Mountain," and these poems have inspired contemporary Western artists as well as Chinese poets and painters.

The image of Hanshan shows this marvelously eccentric figure with outgrown hair. His robes have fallen off his shoulders and he has this broad smile on his face. It embodies the notion that happiness, laughter, is really a way to address the world's problems. So there's a kind of nonchalance, a kind of spontaneity, to the way in which the figure is represented, that conveys something of Luo Ping's own individuality and desire to be seen as this kind of eccentric individual who was unfettered by the usual customs and constraints of society. So it becomes an ideal image embodying Luo Ping's personal philosophy. So even though the face is not one that we recognize today as portraying a specific individual, there's this wonderful sense of representing a state of mind and a kind of beloved caricature of this eighth-century Zen eccentric, as someone who is very human and accessible, and who could serve as a role model for Luo Ping and members of his class.

One of the other things that Luo Ping was noted for was his interest in depicting ghosts. In the exhibition we have a long handscroll where Luo Ping has mounted together eight different images of ghosts that he claimed he could see, in part because he had green eyes. So here we see Luo Ping at his most eccentric. He depicts ghosts that, in fact, become a kind of social commentary. The images of the ghosts resonate with images of different members of the cosmopolitan elite, with the social classes of the time, and particularly with the tension that existed between the Han Chinese and their Manchu overlords. Luo Ping lived during the Qing dynasty. The Manchu people had conquered China and occupied the entirety of China, and there was clearly a sense of discontent and chafing by the Han majority living under the constraints of the Manchu rule.

So some of these images may be even somewhat subversive. They may carry with them a sense of a social commentary that actually had a political undertone. Because of his eccentric standing in the world, something that he cultivated, Luo Ping was able to create images that made comments about society, even comments about the subjects that he portrayed, that were edgy, that were somehow very modern in their sensibility, because you have a sense that the artist was able to express something of his ambivalent feelings towards the subject, and also the tension or ambiguity that exists in moving between art and reality. And I think that's where Luo Ping's accomplishment really stands forth today. We have a sense of an artist with a very modern sensibility, who was able to look at his world and create it in a sense that appealed to us on many different levels. So instead of simply recording the outward likeness of a plum branch, of an insect or a flower or a landscape or figure, we have a sense that Luo Ping is really delving into the character of the time and of the personalities that he lived with.

The exhibition will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum through January 10, 2010.

The exhibition is made possible by Credit Suisse.

Additional support is provided by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation.

The exhibition was organized by the Museum Rietberg, Zurich.

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