Classical Chinese traditions of seclusion and an admiration of the natural world are presented to the modern age with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s exhibit, “The Artful Recluse.”
The exhibit was co-edited by Peter Sturman, an art history professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Susan Tai, the SB Museum’s Elizabeth Atkins Curator of Asian Art. It is centered around Chinese painting and poetry from the 17th century, a time of great change and political upheaval for the nation. The collection focuses in on poets and painters who chose seclusion and isolation at a time when the dynasties appeared to be moving away from those tendencies.
“Whether in residence at the imperial court or in self-imposed reclusion as an escape from corrupt court politics or from foreign occupiers, these artist-poets fundamentally and ineluctably changed not only the course of painting in China but the entire culture through innovations that involved and encouraged personal expression and artistic freedom,” SBMA Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Director Larry Feinberg stated in the Foreword to the collection.
While this tendency toward isolationism seems odd in Western culture, Sturman insists that it is a common phenomenon in classical China.
“In China…reclusion is a concept of such great antiquity and value that its ideals were retrospectively attached to the country’s earliest legends,” stated Sturman. “Disinterest in worldly gain was considered a mark of true sagacity…Reclusion deeply informs the realms of philosophy, religion, even politics in China. It is of such age and influence that it literally can be counted as one of the founding blocks of traditional culture.”
The exhibit came to life through donations from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Honolulu Museum of Art and the University of Michigan Art Museum, as well as several others. Graduate students from UCSB, UC Los Angeles and New York University all helped in the creation of the catalogue accompanying the exhibit.
“Beyond the benefit to a national and international audience,” said Tai, “this important and ambitious project served to educate and inspire many university graduate students at UCSB, University of California Los Angeles and New York University who were involved in the writing of catalogue entries.”
The final collection evolved out of what was initially a much smaller and simpler exhibit.
“The roots of this exhibition reach back less than three years to a seminar at the University of California Santa Barbara,” states Sturman in the exhibition Preface. “Our modest plans for a small-scale exhibition became less so when additional public institutions and private collections generously made available important works of art. As our plans developed, our ambitions grew. The small exhibition expanded beyond its designated space, and then, prompted by the suggestion that we produce a catalogue, our task became at once more serious and challenging.”
The exhibit is further complicated by the political and social turmoil of 17th century China. The century, corresponding with the end of the Ming and beginning of the Qing dynasty, includes a period of political crises and the growth of a vibrant urban culture. This transitory period lead to unique works of art and poetry that Sturman claims stand apart from any other time in Chinas history.
“In Chinese painting, the 17th century is peerless,” Sturman stated. “The quality, diversity and intrinsic interest of paintings bridging the late Ming and early Qing, combined with the great number of extant works, provide an unparalleled opportunity for entering deeply into this profound and refined art.”
Sturman said the isolation, both mental and physical, experienced by the presented artists and poets adds both depth and difficulty to their work.
“Figuratively speaking,” said Sturman, “some of these artists chose to reside in truly remote places. Nonetheless, immense reward accompanies the understanding of these paintings’ intentions.”
Photos Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art