by Mark Van Proyen
Muqi, the Chan Buddhist monk, painted Six Persimmons during the Song Dynasty in China around 1265, just before Mongol hordes beached the Great Wall to inaugurate the Yuan Dynasty in 1279. It has been called the Mona Lisa of Asian art, an ascription that misleads because there is no basis for comparing the two paintings beyond the magnitude of their respective reputations. Also, there is little basis for proclaiming the work The Heart of Zen, which is the title of the exhibition in which it appears at the Asian Art Museum. Zen refers to the Japanese adaptation of Buddhism that flourished much later. After December 7, it will be joined by Chestnuts, another of Muqi’s paintings, and will be displayed until December 31. From December 8 to 10, both paintings will be on view.
Muqi’s works were never fully appreciated in China during his lifetime, as they were deemed rough, vulgar and maladroit by the refined standards of the Song and Yuan dynasty imperial courts. Three centuries later, after they arrived in Japan in around 1500, they were ensconced at the Daitokuji Ryokoin Zen temple in Kyoto. As time passed, they were elevated to the status of cultural treasures, influencing the later Zenga painting practiced by the Kano school in the 16th and 17th centuries. Neither Six Persimmons or Chestnuts have been exhibited outside of Japan, so the opportunity to see them in San Francisco is rare. And when I say rare, I mean bucket-list rare. An added plus is that Heart of Zen affords an opportunity to walk past the queue of clickbait-addicted looky-loos waiting to take selfies at the Takashi Murakami exhibition. Poor fools. If they only knew.
Arthur Waley famously appreciated Six Persimmons as “passion congealed into stupendous calm.” That sums it up well — perhaps too well — given the work’s many nuances and subtleties. Measuring slightly less than 14 x 11 and a half inches, it is a seemingly humble still life of six pieces of fruit, a rare subject for Song Dynasty painters who preferred landscapes. The fruits appear at the center of the composition, with one positioned in front of the others. You might read this and think the painting suffers from compositional stasis, which it does until you look closely. Then, you see several painterly events that belie its deceptive equilibrium. How this painting was made and organized elevates and supersedes what it depicts. It demands patient contemplation and slow examination.
The background of Persimmons is painted in an ethereal yellow ochre that looks almost smoky. The fruits float against this space because there is no indication of ground plane or cast shadows. Some of the ink used to paint the Persimmons has a slight blue cast, while some of it is dark charcoal gray. If we look at them left-to-right, we might see them as representing a cyclical sequence, like phases of the moon. Those at the far left and right are painted as if they were dissolving ghosts, emphasizing abbreviation over modeled description. Here, and in the fruit stems, we see a deft and vigorous use of the dry-brush technique, seen in stems of perfectly formed axe-cut strokes. Then, our eyes move to the middle quartet of persimmons, painted with a wet-into-wet saturation technique where fluctuations of ink flow toward dimensional modeling of the rounded surfaces. Here, some theme and variation change-ups give each a vaguely gelatinous cast that hints at protoplasm not quite fully formed. The fourth and fifth persimmons from the left are odd, almost rectangular. Their contoured edges are subtly different, as are the spatial intervals between them, creating oscillations and pressure points. These subtle change-ups create a respirating effect that expands and contracts the picture space. The physical density of the fruit is an open question awaiting resolution. Only the stems are articulated with crisp certitude.
You only notice such things when your mind is quiet enough to absorb them – a quietude few people can sustain. Close observation of this sort highlights the role memory plays in everyday perception. In Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson noted how it intrudes on experience. He describes different types of memory (contraction, perception, habit, recollection, and pure memory), each inflecting experience in ways that destabilize certitude. These ideas bear on how we might regard Muqi’s painting. When we look at it, we see a drama of disquiet amid quietude, which plays out across pictorial space and the relations between form and time.
While we savor and absorb the breathtaking nuances of this magical little painting, we should be reminded that Zen Buddhism derives from the older Chinese practice of Chan Buddhism, blended with Taoism as a part of the Mahayana school that turned away from the more hierarchical Tibetan Theravada tradition. (In fact, in his later years, Muqi was a Buddhist priest with his own modest temple.) At the top of this article, I wrote that there is no basis for comparing Six Persimmons with the Mona Lisa. Now, in paradoxical Zen fashion, I point to one: Both paintings balance across moments of major cultural shift. In the case of the Leonardo masterpiece, the pivotal shift was from the high Renaissance’s crystalline dignity to the late Renaissance’s subdued theatricality. With Persimmons, the shift was from the exquisite quietude, ebullience and transcendental vulnerability of Song Dynasty landscape painting to the somber aloofness registered in paintings from the succeeding Yuan dynasty. Encoded within both is a wistful recognition of immanent loss passing ever so slightly beyond a momentary zenith of righteous confidence.
Contrary to popular belief, the appearance of Six Persimmons in San Francisco had nothing to do with the Asian Pacific Economic Conference held there during the second week of November. The two events coincided, but they were purely coincidental. The story: In May 2017, Abbot Kobori Geppo of the Ryokoin Temple in Kyoto visited the Asian Art Museum and was so impressed with its collection that he agreed to permit Six Persimmons and Chestnuts to travel to the city by the bay.
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“The Heart of Zen” @ Asian Art Museum through December 18, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.