Irony, play and compassion

Playing at painting - Shen Zhou's garden scenes

SHEN Zhou 沈周 (1427-1509)is wonderfully rough, depending very greatly on the vivacity of his colour and the invention of small moments of harmony in what might otherwise seem to be lackadaisical and careless brushwork. The game is played on a knife-edge as the precision of these small turns must hold up the whole thing. A fake Shen Zhou is by comparison too skilful a confection, lacking in the pauses and breath-taking awkwardness that gives wholeness to the authentic article.

A gentleman leans from a pavilion, his chin jutting in an exaggerated way. Facing him the rocks of a wall canter along like a crowd of shoppers at a sale and above them a railing meanders in loopy steps. But the puddle of lotus leaves is arranged with measured elegance, the slight movements of the water indicated with limpid precision.

On another page, a gentleman awaits a visitor in his pavilion. The pathway to it has been made into a narrowing funnel of flowers. The bamboo fence that holds this seems painted carelessly. The figure is a ridiculous blob. But the overall disposition of elements shows great balance, with daring care of forces, especially the sliding, thrusting landscape and vegetation of the lower section. The colour too is subtle, with the black outlining of leaves contrasted to the 'bone-less' painting of the flowering plants.


 Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427-1509)
Handscroll with six sections
Ink and colour on paper
30.5 x 45.3 cm (each section)
Private collection

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