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Early Chinese Flower Painting & Xie Gongzhan's 'Chrysanthemums'

By Heather Herbstritt

Offered on the third day, March 18th, of Oakridge’s Spring Fine Asian Art and Antiques auctions are a visually diverse and historically rich collection of Chinese paintings and calligraphies. Notable among them are a curated selection of exquisite flower paintings, consisting of handscrolls, hanging scrolls, and fans.

Dating back to the 10th century, the long tradition of flower painting in China presents a fascinating perspective on the blossoming of Chinese art. Emerging as the initial ‘great’ masters of the flower painting genre were artists Huang Ch’üan (903-968) and Hsü Hsi (10th century). Huang Ch’üan fathered a floral style that valued an intensity of color, an adherence to realism, and an attention to precision. His technique consisted of carefully placing color within fine contour lines, this evolved among his apprentices into the ‘boneless’ style where color was applied freely and without the confines of a rigid outline. In comparison, the flowers populating the works of Hsü Hsi are defined by skillfully layered washes. Hsü composes his natural world without the use of line or color, rather swaths of ebony ink define the scene through skillfully built up layers.

Although stylistically divergent, Huang and Hsü’s respective techniques continued to mold Chinese flower art and artists long after their lives. Their concern with capturing the reality and essence of flowers inspired artists to strive not solely for static realism but the emulation of the ephemerality of flowers and nature. Active centuries after these masters, the works of painter Xie Gongzhan (1885-1940), to be featured in Oakridge’s upcoming sale Chinese Paintings and Calligraphies, illustrate the continued impact of Huang and Hsü’s foundational techniques.

Serving as a Professor of Chinese literature and poetry in universities across China, Gongzhan was an avid painter of flower scenes and subjects. His paintings can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Hong Kong Museum of Art; and have been featured in the auctions of Christie’s and Bonhams. Of the plethora of flower-and-bird scenes painted by Gongzhan, one of his most enduring subjects was the chrysanthemum. A long favored blossom in the history of Chinese flower painting, often associated with a scholar’s gardens and autumn, Gongzhan’s chrysanthemums are prized among his artistic oeuvre.


Of the three Gongzhan paintings to be offered at Oakridge’s upcoming sale, Lot 489 features that characteristic flower, the chrysanthemum. In a marriage of styles, Gongzhan uses the fine line illustrations of Huang in the dark dry unfurling petals of the chrysanthemums; yet their plump dewy leaves lose any sense of line and instead adhere to Hsü’s style of building up form

through layers of wash. These brush techniques in tandem with Gongzhan’s restrictive use of color, hints of white ghost along the petals and deep unsaturated greens capture rotund leaves, illustrate Gongzhan’s unique style that is enchantingly mindful of the genre’s history and yet completely individualized.




References:

Barnhart Richard M and Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York N.Y.). 1983. Peach Blossom Spring : Gardens and Flowers in Chinese Paintings. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.


"Gong Zhan Xie." Askart.com. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://www.askart.com/artist/Gong_Zhan_Xie/11200825/Gong_Zhan_Xie.aspx.


Harrist Robert E. Jr. n.d. “Ch'ien Hsuan's Pear Blossoms : The Tradition of Flower Painting and Poetry from Sung to Yuan.” Metropolitan Museum Journal Vol. 22 (1987).

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