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Kung Hsien (1619-1689), attributed

“Streams and Mountains without End”

Hanging scroll, ink on silk
200 x 55.7 cm. (79 x 21 7/8 in.)

Waterfalls, trees, and clouds dominate the foreground, creating a pictorial tension that yields only slightly with the complex architectural structure that appears in the middle ground. Serried peaks make up the remainder of the picture, with imposing forms extending to the very top of the painting. These rock and mountain forms are strongly textured and shaded, with the result that they are far more three-dimensional and substantial than is usual in Chinese painting.

The entire style here, in general and in such particulars as the drawing of the trees, requires attribution to the early Ch’ing dynasty master Kung Hsien. In comparison to other of his works (figs. 1-4), the present painting is more complex, more ambitious, and thus might have been done for some particular occasion. Kung himself left clear statements on his goals in painting: “Compositions should be natural but they must be surprising, for naturalness in combination with the unsurprising is no better than naturalness alone.” The present painting is both natural and surprising, thus fulfilling to perfection Kung’s prescription for aesthetic success. It should be noted that three of the paintings illustrated here bear inscriptions at the top of the painting, and in the present case damage may have required removal of the original inscription. The painting can stand on its own, however, with the composition and its execution testifying visually to the great skill of its creator.

Kung Hsien was born in Nanking into a family registered in K’un-shan, Kiangsu province. Kung was brought up in comfortable circumstances on an estate, which survived the fall of the city to the Manchus in 1645, and in a house, the Sao-yeh Lou or “Sweeping Leaves Tower,” which survived into modern times as a tourist attraction. While Kung’s later literary activities and skill in poetry and calligraphy indicate a good education, he seems never to have sat for any of the examinations, perhaps because of the rampant corruption and factional disputes that characterized the government in the decades of his youth and early manhood. Kung Hsien took early to painting, beginning to study at the age of twelve or so, and certainly benefitted from his acquaintance with Tung Ch’i-ch’ang (1555-1636) with whom he studied during the early 1630s in company with Yang Wen-tsung (1597-1645). A later poem by Kung Hsien paid tribute to a number of his early artistic influences: “In my lifetime I have had the good fortune of meeting Tung Ch’i-ch’ang; the two Li, Yun and Tsou are also men of whom I especially approve.” The two Li were most likely Li Jih-hua (1565-1635) and Li Liu-fang (1575-1629); Yun Hsiang (1586-1655) was the uncle of Yun Shou-p’ing (1633-1690) and Tsou Tien the father of Tsou Che (paintings dated 1641-84).

Kung’s poem of 1674 continues: “In my later years I became exceedingly fond of the two Kuei-chou painters.” The only two artists from Kuei-chou of any significance at the time were Yang Wen-tsung, Kung’s fellow student and one of Wu Wei-yeh’s “Nine Friends in Painting,” and Ma Shih-ying (1591-1646), Yang’s brother-in-law. It would thus appear that during the political infighting and maneuvering that prevented effective resistance to the southward thrust of the invading Manchus, Kung was associated, however peripherally, with the opponents of the Fu-she, or “Revival Society,” the group responsible as well for the withdrawal from public service of Wang Shih-min (1592-1680). Soon after the fall of Nanking in 1645, Kung’s wife died. Leaving his children in the care of his neighbor, the collector Chou Liang-kung (1612-1672), Kung spent the next fifteen years in the area of Shanghai, where he worked as a tutor; at home in Nanking, where he lived mainly in seclusion; and in Yangchou, where his social relationships appear to have been quite extensive.

During the late 1650s Kung Hsien began using a seal whose legend, Ch’en Hsien, “the servitor Hsien,” suggests that he had by then accepted Manchu rule and could proclaim himself a servant of the crown; Wang Hui in the early 1650s and Yuan-chi in the early 1690s when he was at court used similar seals. In Yangchou Kung painted for the police commissioner, the famous poet Wang Shih-chen (1634-1711), who also hosted such artists as Ch’eng Sui (1605-1691) and Wu Wei-yeh at various gatherings. Kung gained his most prominent pupil, Lu Ch’ien, at this time and began a thirty-year-long friendship with Cha Shih-piao (1615-1698). One of Kung’s main preoccupations during the early 1660s was compiling a selection of poetry by mid to late T’ang poets. According to Chou Liang-kung: “Kung loves intensely the mid and late T’ang poets and assembled and arranged poems by more than one hundred masters, for some of whom most people had not seen a single verse.” Kung’s interest in T’ang shih poetry allied him closely with Wang Shih-chen, who began his study of that subject before the age of ten. Both Kung and Wang held that the T’ang masters epitomized the height of shih poetry, and that serious students who wished to become masters themselves could do so only by first mastering the orthodox tradition of the past by copying and imitating approved works by those exemplars.

Kung’s theoretical and pedagogical interests at this time were also manifested in the annotated albums known today as Pan-ch’ien Hua-shuo, “Kung Hsien’s Talks on Painting for Students.” His aim here was much the same as that which motivated his compilation of T’ang poetry: to make available to advanced students material that would increase their understanding of their subject and help to refine their techniques in pursuit of specific effects. Kung’s painting manuals might in fact be characterized as how-not-to manuals, for they were concerned primarily with contemporaneous infractions of rules established in the Northern Sung period by such artists as Kuo Hsi. Kung Hsien’s treatment of light, his emphasis on the seasonal and temporal aspects of nature, and his analysis of the technical means best suited to achieve effective characterization of times and seasons were all based fairly directly on Kuo’s formulations. Similar too is Kung’s use of nature itself as the constant reference point in his comments; relationships between trees, the structure of rocks, and the fall of light on forms are all discussed with reference to their occurrence in nature rather than in earlier paintings. Kung moves furthest into art history in his discussion of ts’un texture strokes, but he generally assumes prior knowledge of their actual appearance and illustrates only those that he himself favored at the time.

In addition to the rather specific and technical concerns that appear in the sketchbooks, Kung Hsien was also interested at this time in more general aspects of theory and expression. “‘Painting has six standards;’ those were the words of Hsieh Ho of the Southern Ch’i dynasty. But in my opinion there are not six standards but rather four desiderata. First is brush; second is ink; third is hills-and-valleys; and fourth is spirit-resonance. Brush method should be antique; ink spirit should be rich; hills-and-valleys should be stable. When these three are attained, then spirit-resonance will be among them. Brush method needs ripeness and well as antiqueness; if it is only antique and not ripe, then it is dry. Concerning the richness of ink, be clear that this does not mean simply wet. Hills-and-valleys is a general term for positioning and arranging (composition). Compositions should be natural but they must be surprising, for naturalness in combination with the unsurprising is no better than naturalness alone. The natural and the unsurprising come from the practiced hand; the surprising and the unnatural come from the untutored hand. Today there are the two schools of professionals and scholarly practitioners. The paintings of professional specialists are natural but unsurprising; the paintings of scholars are surprising but unnatural. How can those I have called practiced hands be raised to the level of the untutored hands? If one can increase antiqueness, then ripeness will be increased; the riper the more rich; the richer the more natural; and the more natural the more surprising. This is painting’s highest grade and is reached through high natural endowment and long, efficacious work. Within there should be the imagination of poetry, the grammar of prose, and the spirit of philosophy. Ah! How could anyone slight this ability.”

Kung returned to Nanking in late 1666, around the same time as one of his major supporters, Chou Liang-kung. Among the artists then active in Nanking Kung Hsien had the greatest admiration of K’un-ts’an and Ch’eng Cheng-kuei. Chou Liang-kung recorded Ch’eng’s judgment of Kung’s work around this time: “When Ch’eng Cheng-kuei discusses painting there are few among modern men of whom he approves. But on a painting by Kung Hsien he wrote: ‘In painting there is complexity and simplicity, which refers to brush and ink rather than to the theme. In the thousand hills and myriad ravines of the Northern Sung masters there is not one stroke which is not simple, while in the dry branches and lean rocks of the Yuan artists there is not one stroke that is not complex. The one who has understood this is Kung Hsien.’” In 1669 Chou hosted a gathering in Nanking which brought together most of the artists known as the Chin-ling pa-chia or “Eight Masters of Nanking,” as well as such other artists as Wang Hui, from whom Kung requested a portrait of his Nanking retreat, the Half-acre Garden at Crouching Tiger Pass.

The decade beginning around 1667 and Kung’s return to Nanking found him perhaps at the height of his creative powers. In his biography of Kung written around 1667 Chou Liang-kung recorded a statement and a challenge issued by the painter: “Precedent have I none, nor shall followers come.” That clarion call to individualism in art is more than amply supported by Kung Hsien’s paintings of this period, which display complete mastery of difficult and demanding techniques, compositions that are monumental in conception and profound in scope, and, most characteristically, visionary flights that force consideration of both the world in the painting and the world of the painting. Kung’s stated credo does not suggest any desire to withdraw to some interior world far from the social, political, economic, and artistic strands from which his personal environment was woven, but rather a determination to actively manipulate those strands to provide for his own needs and purposes. At this time Kung was deeply concerned with art history, with his artistic heritage, and with certain aesthetic concepts, and it is these which provide the firmest basis for discussion of the expressive qualities of his style.

“Untrammelled artists are unemployed sages without office to hold, so we are bound to call them scholars of painting.” With that statement Kung began his clarification of the true significance of the term scholar-official painting and a spirited attack on the then current notion that paintings by scholars were the same as what Kung termed paintings by scholars of painting.” Today, when connoisseurs and critics see superlative brush and ink work they say: ‘This has a scholarly air.’ But when that phrase of judgment and praise is applied to ordinary and commonplace work it evokes ridicule and satire. They also say: ‘This is scholar-official painting,’ but brilliance in painting is not the business of scholar-officials and scholar-officials are not in the class of painting specialists. If one (knew only the paintings of Yen Li-pen and Wang Wei of the T’ang but) did not know that Yen Li-pen was the T’ang emperor Li’s prime minister and Wang Wei an assistant minster in the imperial household, would they then not be considered scholar-officials? If one fixes superlative brush and ink as the criterion for scholar-official painting, then would Ni Ts’an, Huang Kung-wang, Tung Yuan, and Chu-jan also be in the ranks of court officials?” Kung thus attacked a tendency originating with Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and his followers to draw close correlations between given social, economic, and artistic traditions. Kung’s motivation in opposing that trend seems very clear: if the literati tradition of which he clearly felt himself a part were expropriated by those who emphasized Yuan styles over the Sung and earlier styles he himself followed, and if that scholarly tradition became confined to those who were wealthy amateurs or holders of office while he himself was dependent on painting for his livelihood, then there would soon be no place within that tradition for such as Kung Hsien.

In 1686 K’ung Shang-ren (1648-1718), author of the play “Peach-blossom Fan,” was appointed to assist in river conservancy work; until 1689, when he was recalled to Peking, K’ung was mostly in the southern region around Nanking and especially Hangchou, and soon became a close friend of Kung Hsien. The two talked late into the night when they first met and soon met again at a poetry gathering attended also by Cha Shih-piao and Yuan-chi. In late summer of 1689 K’ung visited Kung in Nanking and the artist began work on a painting depicting the poet’s studio in Shantung province. In mid-autumn, before completing the painting, Kung Hsien died. K’ung Shang-jen made arrangements for the children of his second marriage, collected the artist’s books and papers, and arranged for his burial. Kung Hsien is remembered today as a loyal servant of the Ming, as an artist of compelling and visionary imagination, and as an individualist for whom there was no precedent and no possible follower— which is the way Kung saw himself, and lived.


Fig. 1. Kung Hsien: “Mountains Beyond a River,” after Howard Rogers: Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City, Lansdale, 1988, cat. 46.

Fig. 2. Kung Hsien: “Houses in Immortal Mountains,” after Kung Hsien Ching-pin Chi, Beijing, 1997, cat. 39.

Fig. 3. Kung Hsien: “Houses in the Mountains,” after Kung Hsien Ching-pin Chi, Beijing, 1997, cat. 15.

Fig. 4. Kung Hsien: “Thousand Peaks and Myrid Ravines,” 1673, detail, after Kung Hsien Ching-pin Chi, Beijing, 1997, cat. 10.

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