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Treasures through Six Generations: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Weng Collection

An exhibition of Chinese painting and calligraphy highlighting works spanning 900 years

April 11, 2009 12:00am to July 13, 2009 12:00am

One of the greatest private collections of Chinese art in the nation is showcased at The Huntington in “Treasures through Six Generations: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Weng Collection,” on view April 11 through July 13 in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. Based on an exhibition organized in 2007 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Huntington’s presentation will feature 41 masterworks from a collection that is revered in China as well as in the United States. This past fall, the Weng collection was the focus of an exhibition at the Beijing World Art Museum.
Assembled primarily during the 19th century and including works dating as far back as the Song dynasty in the 12th century, the Weng collection has survived unscathed in the care of one family through more than 150 years of dynastic changes, political turmoil, and warfare. Weng Tonghe (1830–1904), who formed the collection, was a preeminent figure in China, a scholar-official who held some of the highest positions at the imperial court. His collection of paintings and calligraphy by many of China’s most renowned artists was passed down through six generations, finally coming to his great-great-grandson, Wan-go H. C. Weng (b. 1918).

The younger Weng left China for the United States when Japan attacked Shanghai in 1937, but he returned in 1948 to bring the family collection back to the United States for safekeeping. A few months later, Communist party chairman Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, virtually closing off the country for the next 30 years.

Weng, who currently lives in New Hampshire, is a filmmaker, poet, historian, and artist in his own right, and he has committed himself to the preservation and study of his cultural heritage. He served as a key adviser to The Huntington during construction of the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, Liu Fang Yuan, and delivered the keynote speech at the garden’s dedication ceremony in 2008. This is the first exhibition of Chinese art presented since the garden opened, and the works on view provide a rich cultural context in which to explore its pavilions and pathways.

June Li, curator of The Huntington’s Chinese garden and organizer of the exhibition, believes that the show will have strong appeal for connoisseurs as well as for those with little previous exposure to Chinese cultural traditions. “This is a rare opportunity to view masterpieces from the Song, Ming, and Qing periods and works that define the meaning of Chinese scholarly taste,” she says. “But it also tells stories about virtuosity, history, and family that are universally meaningful.”

One of the earliest works on display is a hand scroll by Liang Kai (13th century), who was well known for his Buddhist and Daoist figure paintings, but who also served for several years as a court painter during the Southern Song period. Not many of his works remain, and Frontispiece to a Daoist Scripture (ca. 1201–04) is the only known example of his courtly style. Made with fine ink lines in a technique called baimiao, the painting depicts six narrative scenes of human activities around a central seated figure emanating radiance and accompanied by a group of saintly attendants.

The largest work on view is Ten Thousand Li up the Yangzi River by Wang Hui, in which the artist traces Asia’s longest river in about 53 feet of imaginatively layered brushwork. The Yangzi serves as a major resource for agriculture and a crucial artery for trade. Wang Hui’s meticulous treatment of the Yangzi theme in this scroll makes it one of the imperial painter’s greatest works. Visually summarizing 3,915 miles of river, Wang Hui highlights various cities, settlements, and famous sceneries along the way with descriptive details and delicate brushwork.

Along with these and other great works by classical Chinese artists such as Shen Zhou (1427–1509), Chen Hongshou (1598–1652), and Wang Yuanqi (1642– 1715), the exhibition includes paintings and calligraphy created by generations of the Weng family, among them Weng Tonghe and Wan-go H. C. Weng. Calligraphy of the Character Hu (Tiger) (1890), a hanging scroll by Weng Tonghe, is a dramatic single character representing the word hu or “tiger,” written in ancient cursive script. Hu was regarded as a powerful talisman against harmful spirits, and Weng Tonghe’s hu is especially compelling because of his prominent status and the auspicious timing of the artwork. He wrote the calligraphy during the first month of 1890, the Year of the Tiger, when he turned 60. At that time, Weng was at the height of his career as teacher and trusted advisor to the Guangxu emperor.

A delicately painted hand scroll by Wan-go H. C. Weng, Elegant Gathering at the Laixi Residence (1986–90), is one of the more recent works in the exhibition. “Elegant gathering” (yaji) describes a meeting of cultivated individuals who exchange ideas and sentiments through poetry, calligraphy, music, and painting—a form of cultural fellowship that has been central to life among the Chinese literati for centuries. As recorded in the painting, such an event was held in April 1985 at Laixi Residence, the New Hampshire home of Wan-go and his wife, when six of the most respected historians of Chinese painting and calligraphy met to view the Weng collection. The scholars from China were seeing the famous collection for the first time, elated to know that it had not been lost but remained intact and was well cared for.

Two videos produced by Northern Light Productions for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, screen continuously in the gallery to enhance the visitor experience. One focuses on the Weng collection and its stewardship, and the other explains how to view the monumental hand scroll, Ten Thousand Li. An education room with self-directed art-making activities focuses on three elements intrinsic to Chinese painting: brushwork, calligraphy, and seals.

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