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This detail is from an elegant, informal group portrait depicting Luo Ping with his four brothers and their children in the garden of his Yangzhou residence, the Vermilion Grass Poetry Grove. The scroll was presented to Luo as a gift at the height of his career, around 1778, and carries more than twenty-five colophons by his friends.Visitors to the exhibition will note that the figures' faces are described in a Western-inspired manner with highlights modeling individual features. A subtle interplay of turned heads and glances emphasize the figures' intimate family bonds, culminating with the contented gaze of the host.
Jin Nong (1687–1763) was a devout, practicing Buddhist, so it is appropriate that, in this iconic portrait, Luo Ping likens his mentor to a luohan, or Buddhist saint. Since Jin had a great interest in ancient forms of writing, Luo has shown him puzzling over a Buddhist scripture written on a palm leaf. Luo derived Jin's pose and activity from a famous tenth-century image (see next image), but he has simplified the composition to focus on Jin's distinctive shaved head, small queue, full beard, and simple robe, the bold contours of which vividly reveal his fleshy body beneath. Despite the somewhat comic details, such as the hairy ears and open mouth, the figure is awe-inspiring—a spiritual being in a heavily carnal form.This portrait bears no artist's signature or seal because it was conceived as an icon; any trace of the artist would have detracted from the perception of the image as a divine revelation. The only text is Luo's archaic seal-script title: "Portrait of Mr. Dongxin ['Wintry Heart,' Jin Nong's sobriquet]." Above the portrait is a tribute to Jin Nong written by his old friend Yuan Mei (1716–1797), added in 1798.
One of the most revered seal-engravers of his time, Ding Jing (1695–1765) also earned a reputation for humbling wealthy patrons with his haughty attitude. Luo Ping became acquainted with Ding through Jin Nong (1687–1763) and painted this portrait around 1762–63, during his stay at Ding's home in Hangzhou. Luo Ping's portrait, inspired by the grotesque images of luohans (Buddhist saints), embodies his deep reverence for and fascination with his subject. Luo uses contrasting brushwork to dramatize Ding Jing's striking appearance. While his exaggerated long neck, bald scalp, and bony hands are drawn in fine, wavering lines that suggest the sitter's frailty, Ding's focused gaze and the wildly undulating contours of his robe intimate his undiminished willpower.The full scroll includes inscriptions surrounding the portrait, which were added by Ding himself as well as by his friends. To the left of and below the painting are Ding's letter and farewell poems to Luo Ping. Mounted above are a poetic colophon by the illustrious poet Yuan Mei (1716–1798) and a lengthy biography of Ding composed by his close friend Hang Shijun (1696–1773).
Jin Nong was already an established poet and calligrapher when he took up painting in Yangzhou around 1750. The dynamic interweaving of the three arts—calligraphy, painting, and poetry—is superbly exemplified in this album. His deliberately naive, amateurish painting style was praised as "archaic," "awkward," and "eccentric," while his powerful, blocky calligraphy was derived from ancient scripts engraved on bronzes or steles. Popular among friends and patrons, these delightful compositions in fresh colors were reused in a number of other works. Luo Ping, who probably contributed to the creation of such images while acting as Jin's "substitute brush," reworked some of them in his own paintings. The unusual scene of ghosts playing hide-and-seek in a misty forest (see next image) was very likely contributed by Luo, who made a specialty of such subjects.In this album Jin Nong claimed that four ancient masters provided inspiration for his own compositions, even though almost no resemblance is detectable. Such cavalier declarations reflect Jin's irreverent attitude toward past models.
In this magnificent album Luo Ping transcribes poems by Jin Nong (1687–1763) and interprets them in pictorial terms. No fewer than eight of the twelve compositions derive from Jin's originals, and in two leaves (nine and ten), he ingeniously imbeds portraits of Jin in intimate landscape settings as an homage to his mentor.In contrast to Jin Nong, however, Luo Ping employs a painterly approach to create a more realistic pictorial space, in which figures with detailed facial features relax in naturalistic poses. With no dedication and only one collector's seal, this album, presumably executed in the 1770s, may have stayed with Luo Ping throughout his life as a remembrance of Jin Nong.
Luo Ping's contemporary and enduring fame as an artist rests largely on his depictions of supernatural beings. The most celebrated work on the subject is the Ghost Amusement scroll. Painted around 1766, it instantly created a sensation. Attesting to its status are more than 160 attached comments written between 1766 and 1918 by prominent artists and scholars. Luo took this scroll with him on his many travels, using it as a pictorial calling card.The eight pictures in this scroll were conceived individually and mounted together at a later date. Luo believed in the existence of ghosts, which he claimed he could see. To capture his singular visions, Luo Ping employed a special technique of soaking the paper with water and applying ink and colors directly onto the wet surface. The images' contours thus bleed into the background, evoking a sense of eerie insubstantiality. The ghosts appear to dissolve into or materialize out of an ominous vapor.Oscillating between the comic and the uncanny, the ghosts' facial expressions and gestures recall familiar human emotions and foibles like fear, simple-mindedness, despair, and obsequiousness. Luo Ping's ghost paintings appeared at a time when ghosts were a popular topic of scholarly discourse. In addition to the quest for the unknown, the subject invites a comprehensive probe into issues of morality, religion, philosophy, and the underside of the social order.The scroll concludes with a pair of skeletons in a landscape setting (see image). Luo presumably modeled his haunting images after two engravings from a Western anatomy book, Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), which had arrived in China in the early seventeenth century. By depicting these skeletons in a recognizable landscape, Luo affirms the existence of ghosts in the human world.
This humorous scene features Zhong Kui, a popular figure from Chinese folklore. Traditionally regarded as a demon-queller, he was revered for his supernatural power to ward off evil spirits and other malicious influences. Here, however, he is portrayed as an antihero. The scene illustrates one of Zhong Kui's underworld adventures in which demons trick him into drunkenness to steal his magic sword and boots. Contentedly inebriated, the fat-bellied, disheveled demon-queller is, ironically, rescued by his devoted demonic entourage.This painting demonstrates Luo Ping's early figurative style with its curved, tapering ink outlines, exaggerated drapery folds, and delicate delineation of facial features. Such lighthearted and vivid pictures held great appeal for the merchant population in Yangzhou.
This enigmatic image of a lone wanderer rendered in simple but vigorous brushstrokes may well be one of Luo Ping's self-projections. In a self-portrait dated 1780 he adopts the guise of a fisherman wearing a bamboo hat similar to the one in this work. The incongruity between the fisherman's rustic accoutrement and his self-aware, intelligent face is echoed by this jarring image of a man in a scholar's robe shouldering his possessions on a pole like a laborer. Most tellingly, Mr. Bamboo Hat's view on religion, as related by Luo Ping's long inscription above the figure, is precisely Luo's own.Carrying a round cattail cushion for religious practice and a rectangular knocking board to accompany his chanting, the figure preaches the anti-dogmatic, anti-institutional precepts of Chan Buddhism and invokes man's innate goodness and capacity for learning as the surest way to enlightenment.
Hanshan ("Cold Mountain") was a hermit and poet active in the eighth century. About three hundred of his poems have survived. Shide ("Foundling") was an orphan working in a monastery. The two are popular eccentric figures in Chan Buddhism, depicted together since the Song dynasty (960–1279) as a laughing pair of fools. (See the complete image.) With their wild hair, ragged clothes, and roguish smiles, they embody the attainment of inner peace unconstrained by monastic rules. Luo Ping's inscription conveys the pair's view that a boisterous, cheerful nature brings about universal serenity and happiness.The delicate drawing of the pair's faces contrasts with the broad and rough brushwork of the loosely arranged garments. Luo Ping may have encountered this particular style, fostered mainly in Chan circles during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, during his sojourns in Buddhist temples.
Luo Ping painted this very personal album in Yangzhou and invited his friend Jiang Shiquan (1725–1785), an eminent official and playwright of national renown, to inscribe it. Each leaf addresses a specific theme on human nature or the meaning of life by way of animal allegories. (See also the next image.) In accordance with Luo Ping's experimentation with innovative representation, Jiang Shiquan squeezes the inscriptions into tight blocks or improbable corners, or dangles characters like a string, or marches them at an angle like ants. The unusual placement of his inscriptions greatly enhances the album's visual appeal.
In 1794 Luo Ping's friend Zhang Daowo (act. late eighteenth century) left the capital for a post in the distant province of Sichuan in southwest China. He commissioned this painting of the Sword Terrace, a mountain pass known for its perilous topography on the route of his imminent journey. Zhang Daowo, whose sobriquets include "Donkey Rider," appears as such near the bottom of the scene.This powerful, complex composition is one of the few works in which Luo Ping engages directly with the tradition of landscape painting. He ingeniously integrates Guan Tong's (active ca. 925–950) monumental scale with Wang Meng's (ca. 1305–1385) intricate surface patterning to dramatize the rugged scenery of Sichuan.Eight inscriptions by Luo's and Zhang's friends, including Weng Fanggang (1733–1818), have been added to the mounting around the painting.
Luo Ping's patron Weng Fanggang (1733–1818) was an ardent admirer of the cultural icon Su Shi (1037–1101). An eminent scholar and artist as well as a devoted official, Su was particularly admired for his wit and integrity. This painting depicts Weng's studio, which he named after his idol. It was occasioned by Weng's private celebration of Su Shi's birthday, whose portrait can be seen on the wall behind an incense-burner on a tall stand.
Jin Nong started painting plum blossoms in 1756 at the age of sixty-nine. This monochrome album was reportedly painted during a six-week stay at Luo Ping's home in Yangzhou in 1757.Jin Nong's innovative plum paintings are poised between representation and abstraction. The images range from the exuberance of lacy blossom-laden boughs to the restrained elegance of a single, budding branch. There is a graphic quality to Jin Nong's compositions, achieved through a tight interlocking of painted image, calligraphy, and seals. His poetic inscriptions, written in his typically exact, vigorous manner, not only deepen the meaning of his imagery, but also act as graphic motifs that further animate each composition.