Exhibition | Enigmas: The Art of Bada Shanren

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on December 22, 2015


Bada Shanren (Zhu Da), Lotus and Ducks (detail), ca. 1696, Qing dynasty; hanging scroll, ink on paper
(Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, F1998.45)

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Press release (18 June 2015) for the exhibition now on view at The Freer:

Enigmas: The Art of Bada Shanren (1626–1705)
Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 20 June 2015 — 3 January 2016

Born a prince of the Ming imperial house, Bada Shanren survived the military conquest of his dynasty and lived as a Buddhist monk for 30 years before emerging into fame as a professional artist. His storied life leaves many questions unanswered, and his masterpieces of painting and calligraphy are renowned in Chinese art for their daring idiosyncratic approaches to style, composition and meaning. On view from June 20, 2015 until January 3, 2016, at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, Enigmas: The Art of Bada Shanren (1626–1705) features 43 of the artist’s works, on public display for the first time in more than a decade. Enigmas is the final exhibition of the Freer’s celebrated collection of Chinese paintings before the museum closes for major renovations in 2016.

Bada Shanren (Zhu Da), Two Geese, ca. 1700, Qing dynasty; hanging scroll, ink on paper, 184.1 x 90.6 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, F1998.47)

Bada Shanren (Zhu Da), Two Geese, ca. 1700, Qing dynasty; hanging scroll, ink on paper, 184.1 x 90.6 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, F1998.47)

“The Freer Gallery of Art owns the largest, most diverse and arguably the most significant collection of Bada Shanren’s art outside China,” said Stephen Allee, associate curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. “The enigmatic quality of Bada Shanren’s work brings one back to his art again and again. Trying to fathom some ambiguous aspect of a painting or calligraphy, one is convinced there is a key to unlocking the mysteries, cracking the code and that maybe this will be the time one stumbles across it. Of course, one never really finds the answer—Bada Shanren is too self-contained an artist for that—but the quest is always rewarding, as each careful viewing invariably yields new pleasures and discoveries.”

Particularly significant among the artist’s surviving works is the album Scripture of the Inner Radiances of the Yellow Court from 1684, which bears his earliest known signature using the name ‘Bada Shanren’. Similarly, Lotus is a rare early album done ca. 1665 while the artist was still a Buddhist monk. Its ingenuity of composition foretells the stylistic developments of his later works.

Bada Shanren developed a unique visual vocabulary full of personal symbolism and artistic gesture, and he frequently included unusual elements and juxtapositions that were deliberately jarring or obscure. Many works possess great graphic power, but the meaning behind them is elusive, leaving viewers puzzled and intrigued. Although outwardly playful at times, some paintings reveal a troubled psychological edge, an innately dark outlook on his own fortunes and the condition of the world at large, that he concealed behind a surface of simplicity and humor.

In Enigmas, visitors have an opportunity to view a broad selection of Bada Shanren’s work from his time as a monk in the 1660s, through his peak professional years in the 1680s and ’90s, to his late period in the early 1700s, when he became a hermit seeking solitude and harmony with the natural order.

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A catalogue from a 2003 exhibition was republished in 2013 by Orchid Press:

Joseph Chang, Bai Qianshen, and Stephen Allee, In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony: Paintings and Calligraphy by Bada Shanren (Hong Kong: Orchid Press, 2013), 222 pages, ISBN: 978-9745240308, $60.

51r7G3Iwr8L._SX409_BO1,204,203,200_Bada Shanren, the enigmatic, eccentric monk-painter also known as Zu Da, created a wealth of beautiful and important paintings and calligraphy over the course of his life (1626–1705). A princely descendent of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) imperial house, Bada Shanren developed a distinctive, evolving individual style of painting that had a profound and lasting influence on other calligraphers. Two prominent collector-scholars, Wang Fangyu and Sum Wai, were devoted to the collection and study of Bada Shanren’s oeuvre. Their gift to the Freer Gallery of Art of twenty superb works by Bada Shanren and an extensive research collection of around 1,900 items, together with a further purchase of thirteen works from their collection, have made the Freer the unrivaled center for the exhibition and study of Bada’s art. In the spring of 2003, an exhibition of these works will be on display in the Freer Gallery of Art; this book accompanies the exhibition and will have a life well beyond it, as it documents an important part of the museum’s permanent collection. Text in English, with glossary and detailed descriptions of exhibits in bilingual English/Chinese.

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