For Chinese paintings, it has always been more important to capture the spirit and liveliness of nature rather than paint a realistic depiction of the thing itself. These works of art come alive at the newest exhibit at BAMPFA, “Summer Trees Casting Shade: Chinese Painting at Berkeley,” organized by Julia M. White, the museum’s senior curator for Asian Art.
Comprising donations from the personal collection of James Cahill, a UC Berkeley art history professor emeritus and a top expert on Chinese art who passed away in 2014, the exhibit features Chinese scrolls and paintings that span several centuries up to the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing.
The exhibit is split into three sections: landscape paintings, bird-and-flower paintings and portraits depicting common life. The art in each section has been specially chosen to expose gallery-goers to the vast range of Chinese paintings from the last millennia.
In the first section are nature-filled landscapes captured by Chinese masters such as Sun Junze and Guo Min. Meandering mountains, wintery forest scenes and lonely fishermen sailing on quiet rivers are captivating at once for their tranquility as well as the powerful, dramatic strokes that evoke the beauty of China’s natural scenery, such as in Dai Jin’s “Summer Trees Casting Shade,” the painting that serves as the namesake of the exhibit. Scattered forests seamlessly bloom into smooth, serpentine mountains that leave the viewer wondering where the change took place. And perhaps that’s how the artist saw his relationship to nature: all of these entities, including himself, are connected.
With the birds-and-flowers paintings, the artists’ skills are embodied in the incredible detail of bird feathers, seemingly nonchalant but deliberate scenes of cranes flying along mountains and the painting techniques that allow for almost hyperrealistic depictions of aquatic life such as carp and lotus flowers.
In “Fish and Water Plants,” carp scales glisten underneath the water from the way the shadows are painted. Faded lotus flowers, with a meticulous mix of browns and greens, seem to decay at the edges. By the sheer number of paintings depicting nature, one sees how captivating natural life was for these painters. Each of them sought to understand the connection between himself and what he painted and to share this discovery with his peers through these interpretations of the world around them.
The portraits of common life are notable for not just their beauty, but also for their uncommon subject matter: people themselves, something rarely portrayed in classical Chinese art. The first Chinese painting to enter the BAMPFA collection in 1967, “A Scholar Instructing Girl Pupils in the Arts,” portrays a serene illustration of an educated scholar teaching how to play the zither, a traditional string instrument, to his female students. Near the end of this exhibit lies a somber, yet epic portrait of the Buddha himself.
Unlike other portrait paintings, no calligraphic inscription or red wax seal is visible, as if the artist thought that crediting himself would be seen as too arrogant. The blank space dramatizes the portrait and only invokes awe for the religious figure that has influenced much of pre-modern Chinese culture.
Near the beginning of the gallery lies its highlight, the early 14th century painting “Landscape with Buildings,” by Sun Junze. Personally donated to the BAMPFA in 2015 by Cahill’s daughter, Sarah Cahill, the painting features a Chinese pavilion situated at the edge of a lake filled with lily pads. Moving up the painting, delicate pine trees flourish upward before mountain cliffs materialize through the mist. The contrast between the two gentlemanly scholars on a leisurely walk through the pavilion and the elusive, towering cliffsides creates a majestic juxtaposition between man and nature.
The natural world is teeming with a spirited vitality that Chinese painters were fascinated by, using it as a way to understand themselves. Although we sometimes forget, “Summer Trees Casting Shade” reminds us that the world is filled with extraordinary beauty and the possibility of learning something new about who we are, if only we decide to look for it.
“Summer Trees Casting Shade: Chinese Painting at Berkeley” will be on view at BAMPFA until Sept. 25.