History has largely forgotten bapo painting, a witty trompe l’oeil style that arose seemingly out of nowhere in mid-19th-century China.
The paintings, resembling collages of old calligraphy rubbings and other ephemera, had little to do with Chinese tradition, which hewed toward expressive landscapes and figures. The Chinese middle class loved them — perhaps using the scraps of heritage depicted to flaunt their cultural knowledge — but the elite turned up their noses. The realism was copyist, they declared. Bapo was, in a word, kitsch.
“China’s 8 Brokens: Puzzles of the Treasured Past,” now up at the Museum of Fine Arts through Oct. 19, is the first museum show devoted to the style. Credit Nancy Berliner, the museum’s curator of Chinese art, with unearthing this style, which petered out around 1950.
Bapo didn’t come from nowhere, of course. China’s 19th century was filled with calamity. The Taiping Rebellion laid waste to centers of Chinese cultural life between 1850 and 1864. Towns were destroyed, libraries lost, and, with them, a great deal of cultural legacy. Bapo painters honored that legacy.
Historic references stoke every painting in “China’s 8 Brokens.” The title refers to Chinese symbols for good luck, and Berliner, with a little luck, has chased down many of those references, even, she said in an interview, going so far as to sneak with her flashlight into a deserted Chinese pavilion, Indiana Jones-style, to find a particular piece of carved calligraphy.
She devotes one wall to dissecting Liu Lingheng’s “Lotus Summer of the Xinghai Year.” A fan tops it, painted with a copy of a landscape by revered 18th-century painter Wang Hui.
Reiteration is central to Chinese art. Each artist interprets the master in his own way. Bapo painters engaged in that tradition, but, as realists they also subverted it. And with all their layers, they rhymed disparate shreds of history, making puzzles.
Below the fan, Liu paints a bronze vessel and a rubbing of the calligraphy inscribed inside. Calligraphy is the most vaunted Chinese art; bapo paintings are filled with it. The next image is of a rubbing of a stone carved in the year 137, recording a military defeat.
There’s also a roof tile, a seal praising longevity, and everyday scribbles, such as an envelope. Liu completes the picture with a cover leaf for a Manchu language textbook, which may be sly political commentary. Liu made the painting in 1911, the year the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty fell from power. He was, perhaps, thumbing his nose at the Manchu.
Despite the upheavals and grief that sparked bapo, many of the works are frankly playful. One panel of Zhu Wei’s “A Complete Picture of 100 Years” assembles bits of ephemera into a singular, scrappy painting of a dark-eared dragon.
Others present riddles within riddles. Yuan Runhe’s wily painted fan, “A Surface of Obtained Flaws,” depicts an envelope and a thank-you note, which says that, in gratitude, the writer is sending a painting of a fan. Is it the object itself? Perhaps, but Yuan also paints a piece of a painting of a fan. Call it fan fiction.
Bapo died out, but contemporary artist Geng Xuezhi has picked up the baton. “The Jade Rabbit Welcomes the Spring” plants itself squarely in the tradition, with a Pop art spin.
“China’s 8 Brokens” will certainly reawaken interest in this deserving form. Literati may have dismissed it, but these artists presented their culture — and cherished it — in a radical new way, more realist and more conceptual than Chinese art had been before.
“Presenting the New Japan” the MFA’s lively new installation in the Art of Japan gallery, drops into a turning point in Japan’s history. In 1853, after more than two centuries of Japanese isolation, US Commodore Matthew Perry demanded the Japanese open their ports. They did, and when Emperor Meiji took the throne, fifteen years later, he aimed to put Japan on the international stage.
The arts played a large part in that marketing campaign. Japanese wanted to show Westerners their exquisite handiwork and their adroit adaptability. Like bapo, the hybrid art in “Presenting the New Japan” was poo-pooed by some arbiters of high culture, such as Edward Sylvester Morse, one of the MFA’s founding curators. They decried it as “export art.”
Ah, but nothing is pure, everything changes, and “Presenting the New Japan” brims with surprises and delights, such as Takaishi Shigeyoshi’s magnificent articulated model of a dragon. It has 167 moveable parts, including toenails and tongue. In Japanese mythology, dragons go back a millennium; and Westerners, newly bewitched by Japanese styles and stories, couldn’t get enough.
Shibata Zeshin, a nimble painter and lacquer artist, knew the export market’s passion for story. His painting “Hawk and the Warming Bird” depicts a folktale: A hawk in winter held a small bird close to stay warm overnight, then, in gratitude, set the bird free. It’s a brilliant painting, with great, drooping blots of snow empty of pigment, and the noble hawk whiter, in places, than the snow.
Some of the art frankly panders. “Izanami and Izanagi Creating the Japanese Islands,” a painting by Kobayashi Eitaku, presents Japanese myth in the style of a Western history painting, with overblown heroics. But the awkwardness of the culture clash has its own intrigue.
There’s an urgency and freshness in many of these works that comes from Japan’s eagerness to put its best foot forward and its canniness about what the rest of the world wanted. By the early 20th century, Japan was a First World nation. Clever economic, diplomatic, and military tactics took it there, but the crazy love affair Westerners had with Japanese art certainly played a part.
China’s 8 Brokens: Puzzles of the Treasured Past
through Oct. 19
Presenting the New Japan
At: Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org