- The Figurative Works of Chen Hongshou (1599 [sic]–1652): Authentic Voices/Expanding Markets by Tamara Heimarck Bentley
This volume is about the figurative work in woodblock print and painting of the late Ming eccentric master Chen Hongshou (1598–1652). Like other seventeenth-century nonconformists, including Shitao and Bada Shanren, this artist is much cherished by late modern scholars—in his case for his visual wit and irony; his consummate skill in the ink-outline idiom, especially in the depiction of drapery lineament in figure painting; his revival of strange antique modes, notably from Buddhist monk painting; his pioneering ventures as a designer into the woodblock print medium; and perhaps also for his never having succeeded as a scholar-official, despite numerous attempts, and having to make a living from selling his art. In addition, he leaves an extraordinarily large and diverse oeuvre, even for a professional, one which ranges from bespoke, one-off works for eminent patrons, to larger workshop productions—sometimes made in series—to pastiches, copies, and forgeries. Wan-go Weng’s three volume compilation of the oeuvre is testament to its size and, indeed, also points to the complexity of questions of authorship and practice.1 Like many other famous artists of the early seventeenth century all over the world, Chen Hongshou deviated from traditional practice by running a workshop, and his students and assistants produced a large number of works in his name, seemingly with his blessing. Forgers were also already busy in his lifetime.
Bentley’s study examines the figural element of this oeuvre, especially the woodblock print series (playing cards and book illustrations), which have not been the topic of any monographic study. Having originated as a PhD thesis (University of Michigan, 2000), this book retains some of the performative qualities of that format, while in terms of critical positioning, it is very much a product of and addressed to the North American academy. Bentley systematically explores Chen Hongshou’s series of prints spanning his career, situating them primarily within a specific stream of late Ming intellectual culture, “the Li Zhi-based discourse” or “the discourse on authenticity” (p. 11), centered upon ideas of authenticity (zhen), originality (qi) (see, e.g., chap. 1/introduction) and feeling (qing) (chap. 2). Prominent literati, including Chen Jiru and the Yuan brothers, are also featured. Chapter 3 examines Chen Hongshou’s vernacular voice. Bentley also deals effectively with the development of print culture in early modern China and Europe (chap. 4). The remaining chapters attend to late work, including figures of reclusion (chap. 5), problems of workshop production and reproduction (chap. 6), and the conflicted morality and aesthetics of his time (chap. 7). The book is rounded off with a conclusion in chapter 8. It has a bibliography and an index, and forty-two color [End Page 569] plates in one section, as well as sixty-five monochrome figures interspersed throughout. The color plates are generally of good quality.
Bentley’s readings of images are, in the main, lively and satisfactory, although her argument is strongly geared toward analysis of intellectual and literary discourse and of innovation and diversification in the late Ming art market. Nonetheless, she gamely takes on the difficult problems of formal analysis and visual interpretation in Chen Hongshou’s work. This is much to her credit and sets her book apart from others currently appearing.
Where she cites an image, artist, or mode as a source for Chen Hongshou, as the diachronics of art history prompts, the reader would perhaps wish to have a more trenchant sense of how and why that image or that painter was relevant to him at that moment.2 One sometimes has the sense that it was old masterworks that controlled late Ming artists and not vice versa, as when Bentley remarks, using the passive voice, “By means of artists such as Ding Yunpeng and Chen Hongshou, these archaic styles were brought into printed illustrations...