If you want to better understand an ink painter's personality, then albums and handscrolls are probably most revealing about an artist, because their intimate style was designed to be appreciated among friends.
About 50 works of albums and handscrolls that have rarely been seen in public are being displayed in Beijing from the M K Lau Collection, a private Hong Kong family collection focusing mainly on 20th century Chinese ink paintings.
The show Intimate Encounter at the newly-opened Guardian Art Center features many modern ink masters, including Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Pu Ru (1896-1963), Wu Changshuo (1844-1927) and Lu Yanshao (1909-93).
"Intimate Encounter represents a very personal form of art, normally enjoyed among friends. It allows us to see the different personalities of the ink painters," says Catherine Maudsley, curator of the show.
Some of the albums on display have been wrapped up in layers of cloth, cases and silk covers, underlining the private nature of the pieces. And the artists who created them put their personalities, whether it be in the form of humor or drama, into these works.
The exhibition has nine pieces by ink painter Pu Ru - a cousin of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China - on display. Pu Ru is also regarded as among the most talented painters from the royal families of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
On one tiny scroll displayed under a magnifying glass for visitors to see more clearly, Pu Ru painted scenes of playful animals: a lonely tiger, a fox watching birds fly overhead, delightful deer and rabbits hidden in grass that even with a magnifying glass, they are hard to spot.
"It shows the dramatic and humorous side of Pu Ru," explains Maudsley.
Pu Ru's other scroll Lofty Landscape, which is about 11 meters long, shows off the artist's brushwork skills. Pu Ru demonstrated his technical flair by maintaining the high quality of brushwork across a variety of different painting styles over the entire scroll, explains Maudsley.
Pu Ru teamed up with friend and master painter Zhang Daqian to paint one of the handscrolls on display, known as "Pu in the north of China and Zhang in the south". In a mark of friendship, each artist painted a separate half of the work. This type of cooperation on a single scroll is common among ink painters.
Zhang's albums and scrolls are also on show. Three leaves of a 12-leaf album titled Mount Huangshan on display was painted by Zhang at the age of 34, in a style quite different to works in his later life, which explore a heavier use of color.
Altogether, the exhibition includes works by 19 artists, both from northern and southern China. They feature a broad range of styles, types of brushwork and a variety of subject matters.
Guo Tong, head of Chinese paintings and calligraphy at China Guardian Auctions, says the artists had to adopt the role of film director to successfully paint a scroll or album. Maintaining the order of each picture and the consistency of the content in each section was a major challenge to the ink painter.
"We try to show a variety of modern ink painters. This is just a small portion from the private collection," adds Maudsley.
The M K Lau Collection started acquiring Chinese ink paintings in 1977 and now owns one of Asia's finest private collections of 20th century ink-and-brush paintings.
It's the second time it has collaborated with China Guardian Auctions. Their first joint show was held in Hong Kong in 2015, and focused on ink paintings documenting historical events in New China.
In the current exhibition, it is the first time that the works have been seen in public after having been bought from auction houses or private collectors.
Guo says they want to use the exhibition to demonstrate how emerging collectors can set up and develop their collections.
If you go
10 am-6 pm, through Nov 22. Guardian Art Center, 1 Wangfujing Street, Dongcheng district, Beijing. 010-6518-9968.
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