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Beyond the brush: a set of 17th-century Chinese fan paintings epitomizes the work of an artist who eschewed the usual tools of the trade.

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One of China's most intriguing painters, Gao Qipei, did not use a brush but painted directly on paper or silk using his ink-dipped fingers and fingernails. I first saw Gao's works years ago when I still worked in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. In 1992 I curated a large exhibition on Gao (1660-1734) and a group of painters closely associated with him. The show was called Discarding the Brush, and one of its star pieces was an album of 12 fan paintings Gao had painted in 1697/1698, when he worked as a government official near the city of Kunming, in southwestern China.

The album is important not only because it is one of Gao's most inspired and characteristic works, but also because it so harmoniously brings together painting, written inscriptions, and seal impressions--Gao hand carved most of the many seals he used.

In his writings Gao made clear that he had two main reasons for painting as he did: he did not want any artificial tool to stand between his ideas and the paper or silk, and he was fascinated by the often accidental effects that resulted from his novel technique. One of the many seals that Gao liked to impress on his finished works puts it succinctly: Bi mo zhi wai,"Beyond brush and ink." Gao's grandson Gao Bing wrote a book in 1771 about his famous grandfather, in it explaining: "... the fingers can express what the brush cannot. The brush is superior in professional accuracy, while the fingers are superior in expressing the idea."

For the 1992 exhibition, I borrowed Gao's album from its owner, a private collector in Tennessee. But last January, during a visit to art dealer Paul Moss in London, I was happily surprised to see the album again. It was for sale. The ROM already owned one fine painting by Gao Qipei, and some works by painters inspired by him or who had a similar background. It made sense to build on this existing strength and, by adding this masterpiece, create a truly significant group of related works. Thanks to the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust we were able to purchase the album.

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Another intriguing aspect of the album was that its inscriptions contain biographical information about the artist, even uncovering a previously unknown connection to our own Ming Tomb (see "A Link to the Man from the Ming Tomb," page 41). One of the leaves, showing a misty cliff and bird, is inscribed in Gao Qipei's characteristic calligraphy and translates as: "Shallow waters, deep mountains, a scrap of sky, / A howling, stiff wind, the constant roar of the rain. / There is nothing to do but escape this feeling of oppression in my dreams, / Night after night a goose that returns, as tiny as a coin. Painted with the fingers by Gao Qipei of Tieling in an inn at Kunming." The seal added by the painter reads Yijian, "With one fingertip." (The two larger seals were added in later centuries by collectors.) The mention of the inn at Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, makes it clear that Gao was travelling.

He had painted the fan leaves as a souvenir for a friend, Master Li Songke, when Gao left his post in Yunnan to return to the capital, Beijing, where he had been appointed vice director of the Board of Works. Li Songke was a wealthy salt commissioner and a patron of Gao Qipei's work. The leaf showing the painter seated in a ferryboat with his donkey, the oarsman aft, also refers to his departure.

Apparently, Gao hadn't exactly struck it rich in Yunnan, for in the leaf showing a stag approaching a man who holds his hands in the gesture of greeting, he writes:"This stag, always aloof from the world, / Frequently met an Immortal. / It was wrong to sport antlers, / For all it gained was a bellyful of poverty." The stag, normally a symbol of wealth, probably stands for the painter, and the Immortal for his friend, for he concludes: "In the fifth lunar month of the year dingchou (1697) I gave this to master Songke in a Kunming inn, to make him laugh. Life from the fingers of Gao Qipei."

In an unexpected twist, the twelfth and last leaf of the album was executed eleven years later. It tells how the painter met with his old friend again, this time in the city of Yangzhou, the centre of China's salt trade. The leaf has a poem with the following dedication: "In April 1708, I had to go to Beijing for an audience with the emperor. Passing through Yangzhou, I paid a visit to the salt commissioner Li Songke. To my joy, everything was the same as it had always been; I felt we never had been parted.... This impromptu poem is meant as thanks; I hope for a smile and your instruction."

It seems that Li Songke had had the fans that Gao Qipei painted for him in 1697/1698 mounted in an album, together with one empty leaf, hoping that at some time a worthy hand would grace it with a painting or calligraphy.

He must have been pleased that Gao Qipei himself could complete the task.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Link to the Man from the Ming Tomb.

Painter Gao Qipei came from a military family and became commander-in-chief of the Chinese Army of the Plain Red Banner. The idea of organizing the army under banners came from the Manchu people, who in 1644 overthrew the Chinese Ming dynasty and established the Qing in its place. Gao Qipei's father, also a commander, was killed during the 1673-1682 revolt that tried to restore the Ming to power. The leader of this revolt, Wu Sangui, was a nephew of Zu Dashou--the man buried in the ROM's large Chinese tomb. One of Zu's sons also numbered among the rebels.

In 1678, Wu Sangui proclaimed himself emperor shortly before his death and the ensuing collapse of his rebel empire. His capital was in Kunming, the same city where, 20 years later, Gao Qipei painted his album leaves. Gao mentions both his father's killing and Wu Sangui in his inscriptions. These men were all protagonists in the Ming-Qing war, and both the ROM's album and tomb bear witness to this tragic episode of China's history.--K.R.

Klaas Ruitenbeek is the Louise Hawley Stone Chair of Far Eastern Art.
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Title Annotation:GROWING COLLECTIONS
Author:Ruitenbeek, Klaas
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Dec 22, 2008
Words:1066
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