I want to argue for the nonexistence of Li Cheng. --Mi Fu (1052-1107), Huashi (1) A Solitary Temple below Brightening Peaks (Qingluan xiaosi) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, is one of the most familiar paintings in the Chinese canon, often used as a starting point for a discussion of the classic landscapes of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). As Jonathan Hay observes in the first paragraph of "The Mediating Work of Art," this unsigned hanging scroll has long been associated with the artist Li Cheng, but, he adds, even if it "incorporates an awareness of Li Cheng's art, [it] is generally thought to postdate Li's lifetime." In a longer study soon to appear in Artibus Asiae, Hay has reattributed the scroll to the "ruled-line" (jiehua) architecture specialist Wang Shiyuan, who was active during the years just before and after 1000 in the Northern Song capital at Kaifeng. Here, however, his concern is not with authorship so much as with the painting taken as "an event that comprises mediations with which the painting also engages reflexively." With this choice, Hay aligns himself with the ranks of social historians of art, who have puzzled over the ways in which art might be understood not to mirror the society within which it is made so much as to interact with it dialectically. This approach views the work of art itself as continually generating and inhabiting new contexts (and where painting-as-text and its context are increasingly blurred); it sees art as radically contingent, forever in dialogue with its larger environment and fluid in its affect. To this end, Hay explores A Solitary Temple from numerous angles: as material object and visual code, as embedded in a social practice of painting, as reflecting recent political and religious events, as a semiotic system of reference, and even--most strikingly, to my mind--as a Buddhist icon enmeshed in a web of Confucian commentary.
What Hay leaves for his second study (which I eagerly await) are the implications of A Solitary Temple's assumed authorship. Yet the traditional attribution of the painting to Li Cheng, whose eye and hand it was thought to embody since at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), is as striking as any of the other modes of mediation he raises, in that the act of attribution--whether accurate or merely hopeful--speaks directly to the painting as an event that continues to unfold long after its original audience has left. For if we accept A Solitary Temple as the product of an artist--Wang Shiyuan or anyone else--who was aware of Li Cheng and his reputation, then we have to ask what he knew about the work of this famously elusive painter or under what circumstances of reception the painting he made might later have been accepted as a work of Li Cheng's own hand. What, in other words, did it mean to produce a painting in the style of Li Cheng at the turn of the tenth and eleventh centuries? And what did it matter who the author of such a sublime painting might be?
By the end of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth, a hundred years or so after Hay says that Wang Shiyuan painted A Solitary Temple and one hundred and fifty years after Li Cheng's death, the latter had achieved the status of painting sage among Northern Song connoisseurs. If we can trust contemporaneous observers, Li Cheng's authentic works were already extremely rare. Though the Xuanhe huapu, the imperial painting catalog compiled during the Xuanhe era (1119-26) by officials at the court of Song Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-26), lists 159 works under Li Cheng's name, only four were accepted as authentic by the artist's granddaughter, who came to court at the invitation of Emperor Renzong (r. 1023-64) to identify her grandfather's true works. Mi Fu (1052-1107) recorded this unusual event in his Huashi (History of Painting), where he also made the startling claim that he wanted to "argue for the nonexistence of Li Cheng." This conclusion, effectively staged as an art historical comparison of real and fake, comes at the end of a long peroration in which Mi asserts that of the three hundred works attributed to the master he had seen, only two were authentic:
I have seen only two of Li Cheng's landscapes: one of pines and rocks and one of a landscape. The four-scroll painting of pines and rocks came from Sheng Wensu's collection and is now in my studio; the landscape is at the priest Baoyue's place in Suchou and is a profoundly refined and uncommon picture. The pines are straight and vigorous; their branches and needles are bushy and shade-filled. The small Chu-shrubs are rendered without any superfluous brushwork that would make them look like dragons, snakes, demons, or spirits. The large pictures that are in the collections of noblemen these days resemble the signs on pharmacies done in the style of [the calligraphers] Yan [Lugong] and Liu [Gongquan]: they are not natural and thoroughly vulgar. The trunks of the pines are decayed, emaciated, with many knots. The shrubs look like firewood and have no sense of life. Cheng himself was an assistant in the Office of Imperial Banquets and received his jinshi [advanced scholar] degree. His son You was an official in the imperial censorate, his grandson You was a daizhi [scholar in the Hongwen guan]. Cheng was awarded the purple belt and gold seal as an official in the Office of Imperial Banquets. But even if he had been an artisan working for clothing and food, he could never have done so many paintings. They are all the products of vulgar hands working under false names. I want to argue for the nonexistence of Li Cheng. (2) Here Mi Fu, in a flurry of positive and negative description, gives his readers a sense of a real Li Cheng painting by contrasting it with what it cannot possibly be: "vulgar," "unnatural," lacking a "sense of life." He also suggests that he alone can separate the real from the fake; he is, after all, the owner of one of two extant authentic paintings by the master. He performed a similar sorting out for other early masters. The breadth of the Southern Tang painter Dong Yuan's (fl. late tenth century) actual painting practice was...