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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
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Zhejiang Provincial Musuem
Luo Ping: Portrait of Mr. Dongxin [Jin Nong] (detail), circa 1760s

1.

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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Xubaizhai Collection/Hong Kong Museum of Art
Luo Ping: Ghost Amusement (detail), 1797

2.

By the early 1780s, we can find nationally known Chinese scholars singling out three of Luo Ping’s paintings for special praise: the two portraits of Ding Jing and Jin Nong, and a third work identified as Ghost Amusement. This alerts us to the other side of Luo Ping’s labors as a ghost painter, namely that of being a painter of ghosts, for it was as a painter of ghostly images that Luo achieved his final leap into the ranks of upper-literati society. This quest led him, after Jin Nong’s death, to leave his family for a protracted period, and to travel in the autumn of 1771 to Beijing, where prestigious officials were gathered in the greatest numbers and the chances for preferment beckoned. He carried the Ghost Amusement scroll with him, as a supplement to his portrait paintings of Ding Jing and Jin Nong, and as a further proof of his skill.

This was a bold and perhaps almost unprecedented experiment, which carried within it a way of confronting the dangers of the unknown and probing the meanings of the underworld through his own vision of the ghost worlds that for most of us are never revealed or comprehended. The painting may have been originally conceived as a series of individual leaves, and the first identifiable colophon—or attached brief statement—from an influential scholar to whom Luo showed the initial ghost images can be dated to 1766. But in Beijing, as Luo learned to make his way and expand his contacts, success followed fast: nine new colophons were added to his scroll in 1772, four more in 1773, one in 1774, a steady scattering in the later 1770s and 1780s, and a further torrent in Luo’s final years, with six in 1790 and seven in 1791. Luo Ping died in 1799, but the tokens of respect for his ghost images continued in written form throughout the nineteenth century.

What exactly were these “ghost amusements,” as contemporaries called them? The art historian Yeewan Koon, who contributes a lengthy commentary to the ghost scroll in the exhibition catalog, first describes the technical aspects of the paintings’ production: Luo Ping painted his ghosts on saturated sheets of paper that had not yet dried, so that “shadowy lines with dark accents bleed into miasmic washes to shape the strange forms.” She offers this analysis of the first of the eight paintings that constitute Luo Ping’s completed scroll:

Half naked with bald pates and small swollen stomachs, the two figures also recall the world of hungry ghosts, one of the Buddhist realms of existence. But the human emotions on the faces of Luo’s ghosts place them in a gray consciousness that lurks between the real and the otherworldly. In this painting, Luo has created an ethereal existence by making his ghosts both strikingly familiar, through their human pathos, and evocatively strange, through their physical deformities.

By contrast, Koon points out, the second ghostly image leads toward a more human terrain of interpretation:

The second leaf is a contrast of types: a skinny, bare-chested ghost with an official’s hat follows a fat, bald ghost in tattered clothes against an empty background. The oscillation between specificity of types and ambiguity of situation allows room for a range of interpretations; some viewers were prompted to read this scene as phantasmagoric social commentary. [One scholar], for example, a Hanlin academician and playwright, described the figures in leaf 2 as a “slave ghost” and his master, whom he then compared to corrupt Confucian officials.

This “urge to rationalize the ghosts as allegories of human behavior,” adds Koon, “is derived in part from the theatrical immediacy of the images,” and in this sense the ghost paintings catch the tensions and contrasts that were coming to dominate this time in China’s history—as well as the layers of religious euphoria that lay behind the alternate reading of the scrolls title as a “realm of ghosts,” a literalness of interpretation that Luo Ping deliberately fostered by his repeated claims that he had seen the ghosts in person on many occasions. This claim, writes Koon, was a part of Luo Ping’s “invented persona as an artist who saw and painted ghosts,” a persona that “set him apart in a capital teeming with talent.”

This topic of theatricality is explained at length by historian and literary critic Judith Zeitlin, who contributes a detailed essay for the catalog on the “literary and theatrical perspectives” of the ghost scroll. She points out that the fascination with telling and hearing ghost stories was an old one in China, but that even at prior peaks in ghost-story collections “the distance between writing about ghosts and painting ghosts was nonetheless a large one.”

Zeitlin reminds us that the English word “ghost” is not really adequate to catch the range of the Chinese term gui that it is meant to encompass—in the Chinese eighteenth-century context the term could include “all manner of spirits—demon, ogre, monster, and goblin, as well as the souls of the dead and their apparitions to the living.” The traditions of narration included “comedy, satire, and the grotesque.” In his ghost scroll, Zeitlin observes, “Luo Ping sought to capture the suspension between absence and presence, visibility and invisibility, associated with ghostly apparitions in the literary tradition.” Luo Ping might have experimented with the moist paper and wash technique in his earlier period of ghost painting album leaves for Jin Nong, as in one of Jin Nong’s most celebrated works, Figures and Landscapes of 1759, where the spectral yet somehow childlike ghosts seem to be almost playing some version of hide and seek among the thickly growing trees of a forest.

Luo Ping was not only innovative in “portraying” his ghosts with such specificity, he kept the element of surprise constantly to the fore. The scrolls viewed in a Chinese literary gathering would never be entirely stretched out as they normally are in a Western museum (or in this exhibition). Rather, the host displaying the treasure would carefully orchestrate the flow of scroll from right to left, closing off the segment just seen with the promise of the next section to come—and the colophons too would be seen, savored, even remembered before being closed off again to the viewer.

Thus Luo Ping in the third section of his Ghost Amusement portrayed an absorbed amorous couple in unmarred human form, gazing into each other’s eyes, while a man in the tall white hat of the underworld’s guardians prepared to lead the couple into the netherworld. The woman’s bared red shoes offered the viewer a signal that was, for the times, shockingly erotic. After four more panels of the magically displayed ghost figures, the eighth and final panel would have come with a startling force to the unprepared viewer—as two complete skeletons were portrayed standing tall and opposite each other in a clump of bare trees, dark rocks, and wild grasses. The precisely delineated specificity of these figures did not convey an auspicious message, but instead closed the scroll on a somber more than a mysterious note.

Scholars have shown recently that the sense of the strange here was artfully drawn by Luo Ping from a new kind of source, the illustrations made by Vesalius for his volume of anatomical studies, the De Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543, and republished in an anatomical book by Gaspard Bauhin at Frankfurt in 1605. This is thought to have been taken to Macao by a Swiss Jesuit in 1621, and published in a Chinese edition in 1630, some version of which was borrowed by Luo for his own purposes.

Luo was back in Yangzhou with his family by 1775, though he was often traveling, visiting other towns and painters. In the summer of 1778 he learned that his wife had a lung disease, and hired a well-known local doctor to grind herbs and look after her—she was still well enough to paint collaborative works with Luo and their children. In 1779, however, on the sixth day of the fifth month, Luo left for Beijing, where work and new contracts were no doubt easier to find. On the nineteenth day of that same month, his wife died in Yangzhou—though it took two and half months for Luo to get the news. Still, Luo was in a busy whirl of work and did not return to his home until the end of 1780, having on the way persuaded two friends to help him give his wife a proper burial.

From 1790 onward Luo lived mainly in Beijing, often with his two sons, who seem to have been successful painters. He remained busy and active into the 1790s and, among numerous commissions and social events, found time in 1797 to create a second version of his Ghost Amusement scroll, similar in main outline to the original version from the 1760s but with a different—though still Western—version of a skeleton in the final panel.

A portrait of Luo at sixty-four was made by an unidentified artist in Beijing that autumn of 1797 and what it suggests most sharply is the depth of Luo Ping’s tiredness. This may be partly because his face is strongly shaded, following the Western portrait modes that had been popularized by Jesuit painters at the emperor’s court earlier in the century, but his pose and such details as his tousled beard seem to be at odds with each other, just as his gaily embroidered shoes—symbols of Yangzhou fashion at its most playful and uninhibited—seem jarring in the presence of the dangling Buddhist rosary that Luo Ping holds in his right hand.

From what little we do know of this point in his life, the last few years in Beijing were busy with multiple small commissions but ultimately proved disappointing, and Luo yearned to return to the more provincial pleasures of Yangzhou. Without even mentioning the name of his portraitist, in the autumn of 1797 Luo Ping added his own colophon as a sign of the painting’s authenticity, and used the occasion to reassert his religious faith:

In the world what things are real?
Only reciting the name of the Buddha is important….
Greed must be silenced; ignorance and depravity must be forcefully eradicated;
Repentance is the shore to dock on from the bitter sea.

In the autumn of 1798, the salt commissioner of Yangzhou granted Luo Ping a stipend so that he could return to his old home. Luo accepted the offer and traveled back with one of his sons, but shortly after their return, in the summer of 1799, Luo Ping died.

Sometime after his death, an art connoisseur wrote on the same portrait scroll in an undated colophon that Luo had been a “completely original painter of Buddhist figures, Daoist immortals, and ghosts,” and added that Luo had been “a man of exceptional creativity” who was “never muddled” and “painted with a limpid lucidity.” The colophon writer added that “before reaching old age [Luo] withered away and died.”

The old emperor Qianlong, under whose long reign Luo Ping had lived all his life after the age of three, had himself died at last in February 1799, leaving the kingdom apparently prosperous, but in fact riddled with contradictions and problems that had never been properly solved. Perhaps, as China’s premier ghost painter, Luo Ping had understood a little more clearly than the emperor and his contemporaries what darkness the following years were to bring.

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