Eccentric Encounters & Salty Solutions

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Yangzhou Eccentric Encounters

On the top floor of the flashy Deji Plaza is a recently opened art museum which is showing an exhibition of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou”, a group of artists who flocked to Yangzhou in the 18th century to cash in on the deep pockets of salt merchants during the city’s period of prosperity. One would naturally assume there are eight members in the group, but in fact the list is disputed with around 14 painters associated with the Yangzhou Eccentrics, all of whom are represented in the exhibition on show until May.

While it is impossible to define a single style for the group of artists, they are known for their expressive brushwork and spontaneous or unusual composition, breaking away from rigid painting formats that existed at the time.

For Bian Shoumin, that meant brisk, confident brush strokes in his rendering of water reeds and wild geese. Scroll after scroll, he addressed the same subject matter with a safe and pleasant colour palette. It is not surprising he became known among friends as Luyanbian, literally “Reed and Goose Bian”.

Gao Fenghan’s technique, on the other hand, is anything but expressive in his highly photographic portrait of an elderly man. Composed and peaceful, the figure gazes into the distance, his wispy beard hairs a diaphanous veil over spine tingling fingernails that rival today’s taxi drivers’. The portrait fills a circular space in the centre of the hanging scroll outlined by a fine white glow, giving the sense it protrudes from the painting, casting away from the calligraphy surrounding it which stays firmly put on the silk surface.

Shortly after finishing this scroll, Gao’s painting style changed dramatically as he lost ability in his right hand and had no choice but to use his left. Unfortunately however, the exhibition lacks any of his later left-handed works which would provide an engaging comparison.

The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou as a term only came to be used around a century after the artists were active, meaning not all members of the group were contemporaneous. Luo Pin was but a toddler when Gao passed away and is the youngest to be identified in the Yangzhou group. Yet, his paintings are perhaps the most outlandish.

With slick calligraphic contours, Luo conjures up his oddball characters with admirable effortlessness in his eight-part hand scroll of ghosts. Using only a dozen or so lines, the artist expertly captures the gestures and emotions of his subjects as they drift and run through washy ethereal backgrounds. I can’t help but laugh at the cloaked creature with his exaggerated bald head and stealth determination as he chases two fearful mortals. The amusement a painting almost 250-years old can still bring is testament to the success of Luo as an artist.

Luo’s obsession with ghosts may well have been linked to the tragedy that left him orphaned at a young age, but he was recognised in adolescence for his artistic ability and taken on by fellow Yangzhou Eccentric Jin Nong, who acted as both mentor and father figure. Known in particular for his thick and boxy calligraphy, Jin was so successful during his time that often he asked Luo to paint on his behalf, before signing each finished piece to sell.

To whom a painting should be credited is an issue not limited to Jin. Zheng Xie of the Yangzhou Eccentrics also openly forged the paintings of his friends, while others did so in secret, exploiting their profitability to sell to affluent patrons. But before we can decipher the shams from the originals, we have much to learn, making it worth the visit to Deji Art Museum’s current display.

“The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” at Deji Art Museum, F8, Deji Plaza 2. Finishes May, open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-22:00; Monday 14:00-22:00. Entrance is ¥100.