Chinese artist Bada Shanren lived a life of three distinct phases, separated by two apparently violent ruptures. He was born a prince around 1626, but lost that status — and his birth name, Zhu Da — when the Ming Dynasty forfeited power in 1644. He spent about 30 years as a priest of Chan Buddhism, better known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen. Then he reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown, sometime in the late 1670s, only to reemerge as a professional artist with no evident religious outlook.
Actually, his outlook is hard to fathom, which is why the Freer Gallery of Art titled its current survey of 43 ink paintings and calligraphic scrolls “Enigmas: The Art of Bada Shanren (1626-1705).” The painter was something of a trickster, which Stephen Allee, associate curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy at the museum, attributes to his Zen training.
Allee notes that Bada Shanren, a pseudonym the artist seemingly didn’t begin using until the 1680s, “is a specifically Buddhist name,” yet his later art has “no Buddhist content at all.”
To be properly confused by Bada’s work, it may help to be able to read Chinese. The monk-artist’s poetry is more arcane than his painting, Allee explains, and some of the most bewildering examples of Bada’s playfulness stem from text he added to his pictures. One unusual item in the Freer show is a lilac painted in opaque color rather than the translucent black more common in classical Chinese art. It’s identified by Bada as being in the style of an earlier artist, Lu Zhi. But it isn’t.
A distinctive, if not singular, motif in Bada’s painting is the empty center. Flowers, rocks, animals and other natural objects are situated around the edges, framing a core of unpainted paper. This can symbolize the complex Zen idea of nothingness: the true essence of everything, and also human consciousness untempered by experience. Some of the show’s earliest pieces are off-center pictures of lotuses — white flowers that grow from mud and therefore have come to symbolize purity in a mucky world.
The voids in Bada’s paintings are strongly contrasted by dense arrays of brushstrokes and areas whose multiple layers of thin, wet-on-wet ink suggest watercolor-painting technique. Sometimes backdrops are thick with painterly action, while figures in the foreground are suggested with outlines rendered with just a few strokes. Some of his landscapes are extremely detailed, but more often Bada offers simple lines and parallel shapes. In his 1699 “Crouching Cat,” for example, the animal’s tensed back resembles the curve of the rock above it (in between, of course, is emptiness).
Other creatures may be more symbolic. “Two Geese,” probably painted after the artist became a hermit, might be intended to show the value of companionship. In another painting, a pair of ducks have their eyes upturned, which traditionally represents rage in Chinese art and theater. The leading interpretation in China, Allee says, is that Bada was angered — and perhaps driven insane — by his loss of status when Ming rule ended. But many contemporary scholars, Allee adds, are no longer so sure about that reading.
As with all Freer exhibitions, “Enigmas” was assembled entirely from works in the museum’s collection, as founder Charles Lang Freer specified in his bequest. But the Freer says it owns the largest and most varied collection of Bada’s work outside China. So while it’s unusual to see an exhibition of a single 17th-century Asian artist in the West, there’s enough here to provide a strong sense of Bada’s skill and creativity. His true disposition, however, is a little harder to discern.
Enigmas: The Art of Bada Shanren (1626 – 1705) On view through Jan. 3 at the Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. 202-633-4880. www.asia.si.edu.