A quiet tension crackles in "Painting and Calligraphy of the Ching Dynasty," the handsome exhibition at the Freer Gallery of Art. Its artists were at war. They took opposing sides in that old esthetic battle between constancy and change, between the old ways and the new.
Their late 17th- and early 18th-century Ching dynasty society was hierarchical, static and conservative, and though its painters disagreed, there is much they shared: They all used the same materials, those the Chinese call wen-fang ssu-pao, "the four treasures of the scholar's study" -- the ink stick and the ink stone, the paper and the brush. They all turned to the same subjects -- misty mountain landscapes, fish, scholar-monks at work, birds on flowered branches, the leaves of the bamboo. And Ching dynasty calligraphers, those of either party, often chose to make transcriptions of the same antique texts.
Half the artists represented, the "Four Wangs," for example, were devoted antiquarians who -- like those wholehearted traditionalists, the Pre-Raphaelites of England -- revered the past's authority. The others in the show -- those known as the "Eccentrics" -- were radicals by contrast. Like the Impressionists of Paris, they found official art oppressive and disobeyed its rules.
Those who like to search for sequential revolutions in the history of art may find this show disturbing. Like E.M. Forster and James Joyce, like Scho nberg and Rachmaninoff, the painters represented here worked at the same time.
The Ching dynasty (1644-1912) was the last to govern China. Its Manchu emperors distrusted innovation. They collected the Traditionalists, but rejected the Eccentrics -- whose free and highly personal calligraphies and hand scrolls are for the most part absent from the imperial state collections now in Peking and Taiwan.
One of those Eccentrics, the painter Chu Ta (1626-1705), was a prince himself, though a prince of the wrong family. He was related to the Ming dynasty royals the Manchus overthrew. Fearing for his safety at the time of the transition, Chu Ta took sanctuary in a monastary, where he went mad -- or pretended to. Once there among the monks, notes Freer director Thomas Lawton, Chu Ta inscribed the character for "dumb" on the lintel of his door -- and thereafter spoke no more. But though he gave up talking, he did not give up painting. "Flowers, Birds and Insects," his illustrated album, is a highlight of the show.
His strongly composed pictures look as if they were painted in mere seconds. With one stroke of a loaded brush, Chu Ta could suggest a bamboo stem, a shadowed leaf. It is easy to see why his work was much admired by Zen artists of Japan.
Another Eccentric, much approved of by the Japanese, was the calligrapher Teng Shih-ju (1743-1805), who is represented here by a "Poem on Seeing Off Mr. Chu, the Ts'an-Chu n," which begins:
Moonlight of jade flutes and plum blossoms,
Gold winecups in the tower . . .
The sentiments are entirely traditional. What is not at all old-fashioned is the bold and shifting brushwork of the painter's cursive script. Each word seems itself a painting. The character for "moon" has the boldness of a stricken gong, while that for "blossom" has the tumbling weightlessness of a flower's petal floating to the ground.
The Chinese recognized no boundary between poetry and painting. Chinese connoisseurs detected in inked brush strokes, whether those of landscapes or of verses, all sorts of antique echoes, references and rhymes. A poet's handwriting and brushwork communicated just as much as the words that he wrote down, and the calligraphies on view, though formed of words, not pictures, please the ear less than the eye. One poem on display, greatly valued for its beauty, was written in "clerical script" by Ho Shao-chi (1799-1873), who, with an athlete's control, held his brush perpendicular to the paper while suspending his whole arm. Shen Fu of the Freer Gallery, who chose the show and wrote its useful labels, has also placed on view examples of the tools employed by the painters of the period. One ink stone on display is carved with handsome flowers; its wooden cover is inset with mother-of-pearl ducks. The ink stick next to it (made of glue and pine soot) is stamped with characters of gold. These old tools, works of art themselves, were presented in 1918 to the founder of the gallery, the late Charles Lang Freer. The Freer accepts no loans; all the objects on display are from its collection.
Ching dynasty artists, whether painters or calligraphers or both, were careful students of the past. Many were collectors of antique bronzes, jades and seals. A large landscape scroll on view, "Dwelling in the Fu-ch'un Mountains," painted by Wang Hui (1632-1717), is a careful copy of a painting by Huang Kung-wang, who died in 1354.
Even the Eccentrics paid homage to antiquity. One of the most important, Shih-t'ao (known as Tao-chi, 1642-1707) -- who was also a Ming prince -- is known for his rebellion against academic art and for his highly personal style. Yet "Peach Blossom Spring," his hand scroll here, illustrates a poem by T'ao Yu an-ming written 13 centuries before.
Few painters in the West, nowadays at least, are so attentive to the old -- we do not expect our Warhols to illustrate the Iliad or to produce careful copies of masterworks by Raphael -- but such devotions were appreciated by Ching dynasty connoisseurs.
One calligraphy on view by Wang Yu an-ch'i (1642-1715), one of the "Four Wangs," transcribes a 700-year-old poem by Su Shih:
At year's end, the wind and rain are melancholy;
But in my paper-windowed bamboo hut the lamp flame gleams;
I always derive pleasure from these circumstances . . .
The viewer will be pleased as well by this quiet show. It closes Jan. 31.