Wen Zhengming’s Wintry Trees: Mourning and Reciprocity

Craig Clunas

Wintry Trees is a hanging scroll produced by Wen Zhengming at a time of personal loss. Craig Clunas explains some of its classic features and explores the work’s unusual inscription which raises as many questions as it answers.

Little is known about the first owner of Wintry Trees except his name and that he spent time with Wen Zhengming shortly after his bereavement. Was this mysterious visitor offering sincere condolences or was his gift-giving merely an attempt to exploit a culture of reciprocity?

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

This is a very beautiful image. Beautiful in its kind of sparseness and bareness and quiet. When I look at Wintry Trees, it’s always an excitement. There’s always a sense of occasion when it’s unrolled and you look at the painting. I’m going to be talking about this picture and about some of the mysteries and the stories that are bound up in it.

This is a hanging scroll. It’s by a very famous Chinese painter called Wen Zhengming. In many ways this is typical of a Chinese painting of the Ming dynasty.

The scene is a landscape, a grove of trees with a river or a small stream meandering through the middle of them. It’s on paper and it’s executed in ink. It has no colour. The artist is very consciously referencing the style of a much earlier Chinese painter, a painter called Li Cheng who lived in the tenth century, so 500 – 600 years before Wen Zhengming’s time. A Li Cheng is this idea of sparseness and dryness and emptiness and wintriness.

Calligraphy is the more highly valued art form in China at this time. Because apart from anything else, calligraphy is felt to be one of the best indexes of the personality of the artist. And so Wen Zhengming, who’s admired in his own lifetime – he’s admired for his personality, his moral character, his kind of uprightness – this is all very much part of why he’s such a star at the time. That’s visible through his calligraphy.

A seal in China in the past and indeed in East Asia today, the seal acts as almost equivalent to a signature. They’re marks of his authenticity. Gentlemen carved their own seals, it was one of the few kind of artisanal crafts that gentlemen actually engaged in.

The more prominent seals that are visible on Wintry Trees today relate to its ownership by the emperor in the eighteenth century. The emperor writes a poem in the middle of it. And he wrote literally thousands of poems on the pictures in the imperial collection. The evidence that it’s passed through the hands of interesting or important or significant people, that doesn’t detract from the picture, that adds to it.

Wen Zhengming, he’s what’s often called an English literati artist. He was a wealthy man, he was a member of the upper class. His work is produced to be kept for himself or also to be given to social contacts, to friends, to relations. But there’s no way you can get a Wen Zhengming painting by just, you know, sending him an order. That just doesn’t work.

One of the things that makes it slightly distinctive in the very large output of Wen Zhengming, is that although most of his pictures are landscapes, it’s quite usual for there to be people. Often there is a hut or a distant roof of a curl of smoke or some sense that the landscape is inhabited by people. And not only are there no people in this picture, there’s no sign of human existence. And that may have something to do with the situation in which it was produced.

Let me talk a little bit about the inscription. So what the inscription tells us, this inscription, which is dated 25th January 1543, is that the artist’s wife has recently died. And this man called Li Zicheng has come quite a long way to make offerings and give presents on the occasion of her death. We have no evidence of any contact between Wen Zhengming and the recipient of the picture, Li Zicheng, other than this inscription on this painting. And calling him Li Zicheng is the most formal level. This is not the way that he’s going to talk about somebody that he knows. So Li Zicheng makes the offerings at the funeral and that requires a reciprocal gift. You can’t not respond to that. So Wen Zhengming does this picture for him and kind of almost by the explicitness of the inscription he says you know, “And that’s us done, we’re quits”.

Also he tells us how long it took him to do. He tells us that it took ten hours. Now this kind of very specific detail is unusual. It’s kind of hard to say what he means by this. Does he mean, “I knocked this off in only in ten hours”? Do we want to read that as him saying, “I didn’t care about this guy, so I only spent ten hours on it”? Or is he telling us that you know that, “This really mattered to me so it took me a whole ten hours”? But the more I think about it, the “Now we’re quits”, and the sincerity of the mourning are not opposites. This is a time of loss, of personal loss, and you know his feelings may well be complicated. And we just don’t know. You know, we’re going to, at this point bump up against the limits of our interpretation.

This usually detailed inscription, by telling us so much all it does is give us more questions. But it gives us more interesting questions perhaps.

You can get a lot out of this picture just by looking at it. Just by thinking about it. Just by thinking about winter, about seasonal change, about the human life cycle.

When we stand in front of Wintry Trees, there’s always an anticipation about what you’ll be thinking about the next time you see it.

 

 

 

 

With thanks to

The British Museum

Luk Yu-ping

 

 

Archive

The Art Institute of Chicago

The British Museum

Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

 

 

Music

9 Lives

 

 

Artworks

Wintry Trees

Wen Zhengming, 1543

HENI Talks footage

 

A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks

Attributed to Li Cheng, Chinese 919 – 967 C.E.

Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127)

Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk

44 x 22 inches (111.8 x 55.9 cm)

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Kansas City, Missouri

Purchase: William Rockill Nelson Trust, 47 – 71

Photo: John Lamberton

 

Close up man drawing characters on paper with calligraphy pen

Appliedinfo Partners / Getty Images

 

Portrait of Wen Zhengming

Artist unknown, 17th century

The Art Institute of Chicago

(CC0 1.0)

 

Eight Songs of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, leaf d

Wen Zhengming, date unknown

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

The Cassia Grove Studio, calligraphy detail

Wen Zhengming, ca. 1532

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Eight Songs of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, leaf f

Wen Zhengming, date unknown

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Living Aloft: Master Liu’s Retreat

Wen Zhengming, 1543

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Autumn Mountains

Wen Zhengming, early 16th century

The Art Institute of Chicago

(CC0 1.0)

 

The Cassia Grove Studio

Wen Zhengming, ca. 1532

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Eight Songs of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, leaf e

Wen Zhengming, date unknown

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Wintry Trees

Wen Zhengming, 1543

The British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Aerial View of Guilin

Yiming Li / Getty Images

 

Tealight candle burning

Vilin Visuals / Getty Images

 

Dark Winter forest Loop

khena / Getty Images

 

Burning incense sticks at temple

sayoesso / Getty Images

 

 

Wintry Trees’, British Museum

Wen Zhengming‘, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Chinese painting, Ming Dynasty’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

An introduction to the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644)’, Khan Acadmey

The British Museum, ‘Chinese landscape painting’, Smarthistory, 28 February 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

Gerhard Richter: Doubt

Gerhard Richter: Doubt 12:00 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

‘He disturbed my sense of what art should be.’ — Robert Storr on Gerhard Richter

Cézanne: ‘The Father of Modern Art’

Cézanne: ‘The Father of Modern Art’ 14:15 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Jacky Klein discusses how a recluse from the French countryside became the first Modern painter.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus: When Salvador Dalí met Sigmund Freud

Metamorphosis of Narcissus: When Salvador Dalí met Sigmund Freud 15:03 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Dawn Adès tells the story of the historic meeting between Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud, and unpacks the mind-boggling painting the artist took with him.