“Enigmas: The Art of Bada Shanren (1626–1705)” at the Freer Gallery Presents Rare Paintings and Calligraphy by Eccentric Chinese Master
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 June 20–Jan. 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.
“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.
The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (closed Dec. 25), and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other public events, visit asia.si.edu or follow twitter.com/freersackler or facebook.com/freersackler. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.
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