So, what are you slobbering over now? he asked me.
He was himself slobbering, he said, over some high resolution reproductions of yuan dynasty scrolls on silk that he bought at the Palace Museum in Taipei. With his "imagination on steroids"... he could gaze at those scrolls for hours and be totally occupied and utterly transported.
He described being particularly impressed by the seals impressed on the scrolls.
A yuan scroll might have 30 or 40 seal imprints--800 years of slobering recorded in vermillion ink
seals like qianlong's "I liked it" and yongzheng's "being boss is hard"
Wow. And what are you slobbering over now?
How to tell him that I am still looking and slobbering over that same Southern Song painting:
I once swore I could look at the painting everyday for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it, being continually and unendingly delighted by new details that I would discover one after another; day-by-day, at my own pace... gazing, slobbering, appreciating, noticing and delighting. It has been my computer wallpaper for over 10 years (probably closer to 15 years). And while most days I like to just space out and imagine myself floating in and out of the mist on one of those boats...
--drifting and dreaming of clouds and mists--
There are also days when I like to take a closer look at the many many collectors' seals and colophons that adorn the painting- the very first of which is the large sized calligraphy of Qianlong, 氣吞雲夢 (Dreams of Mists and Clouds). In fact, Qianlong had been much moved by this painting and had covered most of the available empty space in his remarkable calligraphy and vermilion seals. He also added to the handscroll by with a drawing of bamboo.
I described here how the scenery of Xiao Xiang had been a much celebrated artistic theme during the Song dynasty, and Dream Journey had come into being as part of a Song dynasty monk's great passion for the theme. Apparently the monk, a certain Master Yungu, had commissioned every painter he met to paint him their version of the famed landscape. This particularl rendition, however, by Painter Li, had particularly enthralled the elderly monk, who kept the painting close to him until the time of his death.
The painting then disappears from the historical record for a few hundred year until entering the collection of a Yuan dynasty collector. Thanks to the seals and colophons that now adorn Dream Journey, we know that during the Ming dynasty the painting was purchased by one of the most famous art collectors of the time, Secretary Gu Congyi. It was during this time that the great Ming scholar and calligraphery Dong Qichang inspected the painting and his assessment of the work of art in his impossibly elegant calligraphy (far right) that I have so admired on my computer screen all these years.
Secretary Gu had particularly prized 4 paintings in his collection: Dream Journey (by Painter Li, now a National Treasure in the Tokyo National Museum), Admonitions of the Imperial Instructress (attributed to Gu Kaizhi, now in the British Museum), Shu River (attrributed to Li Gonglin, now in the Smithsonion), and Nine Songs (once part of the Palace Collection but now missing). After Secretary Gu's death, the four paintings were scattered, each passing through different hands, and it was not until Emperor Qianlong, one of the greatest art-collecting emperors of all time, that the four paintings were reunited. So pleased was Qianlong for bring together these "old friends" that he had a special seal made with a dragon motif and the characters 四美具 ("four beauties") from his own calligraphy. A large size seal, he stamped this on all four paintings and then placed them in a special hall constructed for the sole purpose of housing them.
So, you know how things go. On that very same day that my friend was asking me about my recent slobbering, another friend-- indeed, a mutual friend-- a certain Señor Haquelebac left an interesting comment here on my blog. I quote:
Buyers often added their chop mark to calligraphy they bought. It sounds vandalistic but as far as I know wasn't regarded that way. It seems like an attempt to absorb the prestige, magic, virtue, or whatever of the artist into your person. Not as barbarous as being buried with a painting, which almost happened to a Van Gogh.
And so we come back to the idea that in certain non-Western traditions, art objects were viewed differently than how we have come to understand fine art nowadays. A world apart from Kant, these art objects were never "seen" as merely "objects" for detached or pleasurable viewing, but rather were closer in function to "props" to be used in a particular kind of aesthethic-ethical practice. So that the collector was also a practioner, and the art objects themselves excerted power in sense that in a very specific context the objects affected behavior. Aesthethic practice was thought to cultivate ethical sensibility. So, in this way a collector by adding his or her calligraphy or seal to a work of art was both inbibing some of the ethical power or virtue of the artist as well as weaving a bit of themselves with the object.
Does anyone know what happened to that Van Gogh, though?
For more on how this practice of art connoisseurship and pedigree was translated into Japanese ideas of o-meibutsu (お名物）, see the final part of this post: Anatomy of an Art Collector: Part 2