“Alternative Dreams” at LACMA

Butterflies

Bay Area attorney and gallerist Jung Ying Tsao (1929-2011) dealt mainly in 20th-century Chinese art. Few knew he was assembling a major personal collection of 17th-century painting. Few knew that his family had placed that collection on loan to LACMA for study. (LACMA curator Stephen Little has a long relationship with the Tsao family.) Regular visitors to the museum’s Chinese galleries will have noted several small installations of paintings from the Tsao collection. “Alternative Dreams: 17th-Century Chinese Paintings from the Tsao Family Collection,” now in the Resnick Pavilion, gives the collection a proper debut. The show displays 120 or so late Ming/early Qing paintings and calligraphies, representing most of the major artists with important works. It’s accompanied by a weighty catalog representing many scholar-years of research.  (At top: Zou Xianji, Butterflies among Fragrant Grasses, in the Style of Tang Yin [1668].)

Dong Qichang

As in Europe, China’s 17th century saw a profusion of ways of honoring and challenging tradition. Unlike Europe, calligraphy was revered at least as much as painting, and shared the same media. “Alternative Dreams” begins with works by the pivotal Dong Qichang. Above is a set of ten calligraphy scrolls copying Su Shi’s “Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff.” Dong crystalized the distinction between literati and courtly painting, championing the literati sort. This dichotomy has defined Chinese painting ever since.

The Manchu invasion (1644) established the Qing Dynasty and sent Ming intellectuals into early retirement. Much artistic production was coded protest. The creepy Magpies at Sunset by Chen Jiayan shows a cherry sun sinking into a smoggy horizon, representing the sinking fortunes of the Ming. A flock of magpies, normally symbols of happiness, read as chaotic, impure, and menacing, as in Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Magpies

Shitao was a Ming prince who survived Qing genocide of the royal seed. He went on to paint, ironically, the fertility of the vegetable kingdom. His single work here is a large Flowers of the Four Seasons.

Shitao

Bada Shannen, "Bird and Rock"

Bada Shanren’s Bird and Rock finds an avian side-eyeing an Eagle Rock. The Ming world has been turned upside-down. There is no horizon, no ground truth.

Install

Christopher Knight’s L.A. Times review of the show added this breaking news: “in an e-mail, Little confirmed that LACMA hopes to acquire the superlative collection.” But Knight wrote, “Color me skeptical.” He points to the six-foot bookshelf of LACMA-published catalogs, of hoped-for collections that didn’t come to the museum.

LACMA’s permanent collection of Chinese art has had its ups and downs over the years. Back in the 1930s the Los Angeles County Museum scraped together taxpayer funds to buy the supposedly excellent collection of Norwegian-born General Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe, a minion of post-Qing Chinese Nationalist President Yuan Shikai. It turned out that most of the Munthe collection was tourist junk.

LACMA’s collection website lists only 42 Chinese paintings, less than for Korea (61). Many of the best paintings the museum owns are from the 17th century, and a few are displayed here alongside Tsao works. Chinese painting is perhaps the hardest-to-fill gap in LACMA’s would-be encyclopedia.

Will the collection land here? The one sure bet is that the Tsao paintings are in L.A. through Dec. 4. It’s an auspicious season for art on the Ming/Qing cusp. The Huntington has just opened an international loan show of Chinese woodblock prints, many from the 17th century.

(Below, Gong Xian’s four-scroll Landscape, 1674, the artist’s largest painting in the U.S.)

Landscape

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