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Specters of a Chinese Master

Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping (1733–1799)

an exhibition at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, April 9–July 12, 2009; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 6, 2009– January 10, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Kim Karlsson, Alfreda Murck, and Michele Matteini
Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 303 pp., $62.00
Zhejiang Provincial Musuem
Luo Ping: Portrait of Mr. Dongxin [Jin Nong] (detail), circa 1760s


Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the capital at Beijing with the prosperous commercial and intellectual hubs of Suzhou and Hangzhou. At the time of the overthrow of the Ming dynasty, in the 1640s, Yangzhou had been sacked by the conquering Manchu armies from the north, after a grim and lengthy siege that left the city in ruins and its population decimated. But Yangzhou’s strategic location and commercial prominence served it well, and by the time of Luo Ping’s birth it had made a spectacular comeback, in part because it became the financial center for the salt merchants of coastal and central China, who purchased from the central government the right to sell and transplant salt, and built up colossal private fortunes from this lucrative trade.

Partly because of the lavish kickbacks that the merchants made to local officials and to the emperor’s personal household managers, the city was graced with six visits from Emperor Qianlong, visits that sparked a building boom in order to provide adequately opulent living quarters for the imperial visitor and his entourage. At the same time there were correspondingly lavish expansions of Buddhist temples, decorative waterways, elaborate gardens, and a predictably energized ambience of restaurants, teahouses, and brothels.

The city was favored with both imperial patronage and the generosity of the salt merchants—many of whom assembled magnificent libraries and hired renowned local scholars as cultural amanuenses or tutors to their children, so that they might have a chance to pass the imperial examinations. This vibrant intellectual world in its turn attracted other scholars and artists to the region so that Yangzhou became a byword for informed connoisseurship and aesthetic exploration.

Luo Ping’s father had passed the second level of the state examinations, which was no small feat, and could be achieved only by those with excellent academic training—but he died before Luo Ping was one year old; the most celebrated ancestor Luo could claim was a great-grandmother who was glorified—at least in family lore and reminiscence—for having taken her own life in the fierce siege of 1645. Luo was raised by an uncle, who saw that he got a good education, fostered his skills as a poet, and introduced him to some of the wealthy merchants known for their cultural gatherings. At age nineteen, Luo married a finely educated woman, already celebrated for her literary and artistic skills, with whom he had three children, who also became accomplished poets and painters.

Around 1757 Luo Ping met and became friends with a seventy-year-old widower, Jin Nong, who was living alone in one of the many Buddhist temples in the city. In his prime, Jin had worked variously as an art dealer, calligrapher, and tutor, and had built up a national reputation as a poet and a painter. One of his many specialties was painting plum blossoms, a genre at which Luo and his wife were also skilled. Jin’s eyesight was fading, and it was apparently a natural step for the two men to become friends.

Jin was often behind with a backlog of orders for painted scrolls and calligraphy, and for Buddhist devotional art (another of his specialties). It was in tune with the spirit of the times to take on more than one could accomplish, and it was natural for Jin to turn to Luo Ping for help, as he did to various other young students or assistants. One unanticipated consequence was that Jin was more than just a teacher and mentor to Luo—he became a friend of the family, and often visited Luo and his wife, staying sometimes at their residence in Yangzhou for days or even weeks. Some Yangzhou artists and scholars chided Jin Nong for exploiting his young assistants as “substitute brushes” or “ghost painters,” saying that the practice showed his “laziness” and indicated that he was “taking advantage of his pupils for the sake of profits.” By chance, one of Jin Nong’s letters to Luo Ping has survived, giving quite precise details about what the older man was seeking from his ghost painter:

Paint a vermilion bamboo with bright pigment. To be excellent, it must be luxurious and fresh with an antique flavor. Leave more empty space so that I can easily inscribe it. Paint another one: an ink bamboo using the other one as a model, but don’t do anything too surprising. For the ink bamboo, half a teacup of ink should be enough.

In another letter we see Jin Nong giving even tighter guidelines. The ghost painter must leave adequate space next to the two Buddhist figures, writes Jin, for “if the inscription is too small, it will be unsatisfactory.” “Tomorrow morning I will send paper for the ink bamboo,” adds Jin, “along with some prepared ink.” In the closing lines of this letter he writes, “If you will again paint for me, I will choose some excellent objects to present in exchange,” and he closes quietly, “Letter written by lamplight on the 27th.”

There were clearly important advantages to each of the partners in this relationship of the late 1750s and early 1760s, and a wide range of examples of the two men’s collaborative art is given in the grand and informative catalog to the Metropolitan’s exhibition “Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping (1733–1799).” Kim Karlsson, one of the show’s three organizers, comments that as early as 1762 Luo was producing paintings of his own that show him “to be a vastly more technically accomplished painter than Jin, however much he may have owed his iconographic repertory to the older man.” To Karlsson “there seems to be no doubt that [Luo’s] artistic relationship with Jin was a symbiotic one based on collaboration, reciprocity, and mutual support rather than on passive imitation by the pupil.” Jin Nong of course saw the matter rather differently, suggesting that Luo Ping had learned much of his craft from his far older teacher.

On one occasion Jin painted a self-portrait on which he wrote a long inscription to Luo, suggesting that Luo should carry the portrait with him when he traveled, and show it to friends and colleagues so that all who thought Jin was finished would stand corrected:

[Luo] Ping is just in the prime of life…. If he sees extraordinary men, who, hearing my name, want to know of me, he ought to take this out—and show it to them, so they will know I am still among the living.

Jin, in other words, was giving a most valuable gift to Luo: a kind of traveling passport that Luo could use whenever he thought it might be helpful to persuade new contacts of his intimate relationship with the old master. We do not know how often Luo used this privilege, if at all, but there is no doubt he profited mightily from Jin’s friendship. Jin’s contacts were extensive, though based most densely in Hangzhou (at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal) and in Beijing.

One crucial early contact of Luo’s, to whom he was introduced by Jin Nong, was a Hangzhou resident named Ding Jing (1695–1765). Ding had worked ceaselessly (though for scant reward) as a poet, calligrapher, antiquarian, and seal carver—for which latter skill he was justly famous among the literati—and (unsuccessfully, one gathers) as a wine producer and distributor. Grateful for several paintings that Luo made for him, the normally aloof and quick-tempered Ding reciprocated by giving his young visitor free access to his vast collection of rubbings and inscriptions, as well as a gift of hand-carved seals, including one of Luo’s literary name “Luo Ping from Yangzhou.”

As a symbol of their friendship and their mutual faith as lay Buddhists, in the spring of 1763, Luo painted a powerful and astonishing portrait of the sixty-eight-year-old Ding Jing as a Buddhist luohan, or worthy. In this portrait, one of the highlights of the exhibition, Luo created a work that was both realistic and spiritual, drawing religious imagery from a celebrated set of sixteen luohans kept in one of Hangzhou’s major temples. In a letter of thanks, Ding gave a curious and moving injunction to Luo:

I would not have thought that you, my brother, who is so good to me, could nevertheless draw my face like dust and withered wood, employing the most delicate handling of the brush. After I had unrolled and contemplated [the painting], I was full of emotion and admiration at the same time. How would a simple written thank-you suffice? I am, however, afraid that such a wonderful painting, if it stayed in public, would become a target for defamation by the villains of this world. Does that really have to happen? [This picture] should be stored with great caution and confidentiality in a bamboo satchel so that my descendants may one day worship it.

In 1760 Luo Ping had painted his own portrait of Jin Nong, known now by the title Jin Nong’s Noon Nap Between Banana Palms. In this frank and clearly unposed portrait, Luo shows his seventy-three-year-old teacher seated in a folding chair, holding a round fan, naked to the waist, with the wrists at the ends of his small skinny arms hanging loosely over the chair arms—it is astonishing in its informality. But certainly Jin Nong bore his ghost painter—and by this time close friend—Luo no grudges on account of the informal air of the afternoon nap painting, as we can see from another astonishing and powerful portrait that Luo made of his teacher just a year or two later, which is another of the dominating paintings in the exhibition.

Though undated, this portrait of Jin Nong has an unusual force, both in pose and coloring: Luo Ping shows his teacher seated on a rocky outcrop in an informal cotton robe, with a wispy little ponytail of gray hair dangling down toward his right shoulder, musing over a text with a mixture of concentration and bafflement as—with a gesture beautifully observed by Luo—he curls his beard around the fingers of his right hand.

The text Jin is reading has not been precisely identified by any later scholars. It may well be undecipherable, an echo of the unfulfilled quest for Buddhist enlightenment that both teacher and pupil had shared for many years. And being undated, it is possible that Luo Ping painted this in memory of Jin Nong, for Jin died in late 1763, not long after Luo’s Hangzhou visit to the seal carver Ding Jing. Despite his long years of work, Jin died without resources, and it was Luo who saw to ensuring that the fitting burial rituals were followed. Yet again, Luo used the portrait to bolster his own reputation, for it was still true that many more scholars knew Jin Nong’s name and reputation than knew Luo Ping’s.

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