Wu Zhen 
Chinese 1280–1354

The bamboo is painted in ink on silk mounted on an album leaf, which is probably part of an album of ten or twelve leaves. In the upper left-hand corner the painting is inscribed in the semi-cursive script of calligraphy: ‘Mei Daoren [Plum (Blossom) Daoist] xi mo’, which can be translated as ‘Plum Blossom Daoist [one of Wu Zhen’s names] play with ink’ or ‘ink play by Plum Blossom Daoist’. The inscription is followed by a square red seal that reads: ‘Meihua Gui’ [another of Wu Zhen’s names] (see V. Contag & Wang Chi-Ch’ien, Seals of Chinese Painters and Collectors of the Ming and Ch’ing Periods, Hong Kong 1966, p. 515, fig. 1). In the upper middle part of the painting is the mark of an imperial oval red seal that reads: ‘Qianlong yulan zhi bao’ (imperial treasure seen by Emperor Qianlong) (see Contag & Wang, p. 582, fig. 20). For ten years after he had retired, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–95) spent his time collecting and authenticating paintings with his imperial seals.

Wu Zhen was a scholar artist and one of the four great masters of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Bamboo in spring rain, early fourteenth century, is one of Wu Zhen’s mature works. It is evocative of a scene in nature and at the same time expresses the artist’s inner state of mind.

Although Wu Zhen received a good education, he never attempted the civil examination to become a scholar official. He lived a meagre life, relying on painting for a living, but he refused to compromise his art to the whims of wealthy patrons. Wu was known as the best painter of bamboo of his time, although he also painted sombre landscapes.

The ink painting shows close affinity with calligraphy, regarded by Chinese art connoisseurs as the highest form of visual art. The bamboo is painted in swift brushstrokes; each bamboo leaf, twig and branch is painted or ‘written’ in one brushstroke, just as in the writing of Chinese characters. Unlike the court academy and professional painters, scholar-amateur artists were not trained in the technique of representation or form-likeness. However, scholars were trained from childhood in writing with a brush and, using the same disciplines as calligraphy, found it easy to turn the brush to the xieyi or expressive style of painting.

An intimate segment of nature, the painting is evocative of spring rain. The bamboo on the left is shooting with new leaves while another branch is windswept and drooping with rain. The animated brushstrokes create the feeling of a cluster of bamboo leaves dancing in the wind. The gaps of negative space between leaves and branches are stylistically unique to Wu Zhen’s bamboo paintings. The patina of the aged silk enhances the atmospheric effect. With swift brushstrokes, the artist also expresses his inner state of exhilaration.

The painting reveals Wu Zhen’s reserved temperament. It is unassuming and subtle, reflecting the scholar’s refined taste in art. ‘Plainness or blandness (pingdan)’ were among the qualities most pursued and praised in literati painting. Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), another scholar artist and also one of the four great masters of the Yuan dynasty, concluded his essay titled ‘Secrets of landscape painting’ thus: ‘In doing painting, there are four qualities that must be expelled: arbitrariness, sweetness, vulgarity, and derivativeness’. Realism and decoration, as in professional painting, were to be avoided.

This painting is presently the oldest in the collection of Chinese paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2006).