Eccentric visions

There has been a revival of interest in the works of 18th century artist Luo Ping for
the impact on the course of later Chinese art, writes B. N. Goswamy

Gazing at a Lotus Pond. From an album of ten leaves; by Luo Ping. Shanghai Museum
Gazing at a Lotus Pond. From an album of ten leaves; by Luo Ping. Shanghai Museum

ONE can be certain that there are many who see artists as eccentric people, such as do not fit into their notion of the ordinary and the usual. But few would know that in the 18th century, there was, in China, a group of artists who came, almost officially, to be designated as the ‘Eight Eccentrics’ — guai in local terms.

This piece is about the youngest, and one of the most gifted, of them: Luo Ping (1733-1799). He is of special interest not because of any diverting eccentricities of his — he was an eccentric only in the sense that he was ‘out of the ordinary’, someone who challenged the long-established conventions in art — but because of his distinguished work.

All over the world, there is suddenly a revival of interest in him, for the impact on the course of later Chinese art of this man, who ploughed a lonely furrow most of the time, is being examined and evaluated afresh.

Luo Ping was born at Yangzhou, the Manchu empire’s lively southern metropolis. But his life ‘began with loss and sadness’. His father died when Luo was just one-year-old and his mother soon after. But from his young years he began to be seen as someone remarkably gifted, excelling alike in painting and poetry. And when he married Fang Wanyi, another poet and painter, he almost founded a dynasty of artists, for their children also went on to become artists.

However, his own talent flowered truly when he met ‘the man who would change his life’, the master artist, Jin Nong, an elder ‘Yangzhou Eccentric’. The bond that developed between the two men, ‘not unlike that between the father and the son’ as has been remarked, was exceptional.

Luo deferred to his mentor, illustrating his verses, carrying out his commands; but between them also went on an intense stylistic dialogue. Conventions were questioned, innovation encouraged, idiosyncrasy almost cultivated.

"Paint a vermilion bamboo with bright pigment", the Master would say. "To be excellent, it must be luxuriant and fresh with an antique flavour". And then add: "Leave more empty space so that I can easily inscribe it." The mentoring, the collaboration, resulted in some great works being produced: compelling portraits, colourful landscapes, Buddhist images, depictions of animals and plants. Of all the studies of nature, it was the plum blossom that, in the 18th century Yangzhou, was a living subject, for the flower was seen as the harbinger of spring, a sign of renewal.

Countless associations and sentiments were associated with it and it was this classical plum blossom, with all its complexities, which Jin Nong, the Master, introduced the young painter to. The whole Luo family took to this subject like to nothing else. In one celebrated 10-leaf album, Figures, Flowers and Plants one sees "a unique collaboration by Jin, Luo and Fang; the master painted the first five leaves, the next two are by the couple, and the last three feature Luo’s finger painting techniques".

Even after Jin Nong passed away — Luo Ping buried him with the reverence of a son for his father — his spirit seemed to live on, it seems. For Luo continued to experiment, defy, carve new paths. In the area of portraiture, for example — ‘I paint no portraits of ordinary people’, he is reputed to have said once — he would take recourse to irony and satire, painting his subjects sometimes as outlandish characters, causing them much discomfort. But somehow in all this he was constantly going back to an 11th century Master’s dictum that "painting did not require the likeness of representation", something that substantially changed people’s way of looking at art.

Without any question, Luo Ping emerged, over the course of years, as something of a celebrity, keeping company with the finest minds of his time. When he moved to Beijing — which, after all, was the centre of power — there might have been initial uncertainty in his mind, for the temper of that city was very different from that of his native Yangzhou, but even there he triumphed. He was witty and urbane, adept equally in word and brush. Whatever opposition he might have encountered in the great city, because of his refusal to conform, he was able to overcome. He became the toast of the local scholarly elite. It may be true that rubbing against the conservative nature of the courtly circles of Beijing, ‘the weight of the past’, led to a slight change in his work, for he did turn for a while to antiquarian pursuits. But the innate rebelliousness of his nature kept asserting. The flame was never extinguished.

One of the works with which he caused a stir in Beijing circles was what can be regarded as his most celebrated creation perhaps: the Guigu tu, or the ‘Ghost Amusement Scroll’ which he painted in 1766. It was a long, very long, scroll and on it he depicted supernatural phenomena — ghosts and other specters — which he claimed to have seen personally.

Originally, these were eight separate scenes but they were turned into a scroll that was, in a sense, left open-ended. To achieve certain effects, he had soaked sheets of paper in water, applying ink wash with colours while they were still wet, thus, creating a visual language that ‘captured an aesthetics of invisibility and evanescence’. Generations of viewers have been fascinated by the scroll, and till as late as the 20th century, people kept adding their own inscriptions to it. Today, it is some 25 metres long, bearing more than 160 inscriptions. At all exhibitions of his work, it remains the chief draw.

Interestingly, till the very end, despite many insinuations to the contrary, Luo Ping — this bon vivant and partygoer, this ‘eccentric’ — claimed to have remained an austere Buddhist. Almost routinely, he referred to himself in his signatures as a ‘Monk of the Temple of Flowers’.