Irony, play and compassion

Sympathetic but unflinching lines – literati portraits

In CHEN Hongshou's 陳洪綬 (1598-1652) painting, ink pulses along the outline of the figure. It is a fine line, pared down, crisp … here thinning to grey, there feathering out to let the weave of the silk rise to the surface. The gentlemanly face and draped body it describes are awkward, ungainly, strange. We see not so much muscles and mass as the twitching of gestures.

Knowing and contemporary, the artist enacted an unflinching stare, a 'warts and all' rendering that is by turns descriptive and like an archaic opera. The line of a cheek is exactly like what we would recall from a glance, while a hand is intentionally lumpen, firmly unresolved. The events that are shown are themselves reduced to a pantomime of social life and the play of well-mannered etiquette. We are given the elemental bizarreness of ritual and cultural convention.

At the same time, in this and other of Chen's paintings there is tenderness and emotional caress, a presentation of individuals trying to fill out roles that are larger than themselves, uneasily playing at being heroes, mildly embarrassed. Chen seems to suggest that such foibles and pretences are nevertheless the places of our joy and define our most genuine friendships – a piercing insight that this is all we can do, fragile and passing creatures that we are.

  Chen Hongshou 陳洪綬 (1598-1652)
Pausing from studies to enjoy wine
Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
98.5X41.7 cm
Private collection

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