NEW YORK — New York As banners outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art proclaim big, new retrospectives of some of Western art's lesser giants, a groundbreaking exhibition in a back wing is giving the first comprehensive view of one of history's towering geniuses: the 17th-century Chinese landscape artist, calligrapher and theoretician, Tung Ch'i-Ch'ang.
Dubbed "China's Picasso," Tung succeeded in moving the emphasis of Chinese art away from representing objective reality and toward abstraction. Nearly 300 years before the Western abstract expressionists, Tung radically reinterpreted traditional painting by subordinating everything in the composition -- including perspective and proportion -- to the needs of the composition and brushwork.
"You're moving toward a new understanding of the surface itself. Everything has been abstracted; it twists reality," said associate curator Maxwell Hearn, who helped organize the exhibition.
While Tung's position has been undisputed in Chinese art history -- he is seen as the key art figure of the past 400 years, and his works command record prices in Asia -- recent Chinese history and a certain amount of Western ethnocentrism have combined to make this path-breaking exhibition, "The Century of Tung Ch'i-Ch'ang, 1555-1636," his first retrospective.
Despite its tardiness and considerable difficulties in obtaining loaned works from four Chinese states and numerous collectors, the show is impressive. It consists of 171 works from the Beijing Palace Museum and the Shanghai Museum in China, and from private collectors in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, as well as from Japanese and Western private and public collections.
Its sheer bulk, and the unfortunate lack of exhibition area, have compelled that the exhibition be broken up into two shows. The first concentrates on Tung and runs until Nov. 29, while the second focuses on his successors, who dominated 17th-century Chinese art, and runs from Dec. 1 to Jan. 10, 1993.
These works show an artist in whom personal and artistic contradictions abounded: an ambitious politician, but a retiring painter; an advocate of studying past masters. but a radical who swept the cobwebs out of an artistically conservative era.
Given his background, it's not surprising that he had divided career loyalties. Born into a middle-class family, Tung was a brilliant student and passed numerous examination, catapulting himself into the top echelons of the civil service. He indulged in court intrigue and was an astute political survivor, adeptly retiring from political service when his opponent grew strong.
At the same time, however, he was devoted to the arts and was top calligrapher of his time. Because Chinese calligraphy and traditional landscape painting both use the same tools -- ink on paper or silk -- Tung easily moved into painting, too.
Although all Chinese painters are influenced by calligraphy, Tung radically incorporated its emphasis on brush technique and an abstract rendering of its subject. Rather than showing an idealized form of nature as favored by eighth- and ninth-century painters, or an accurate impressionistic rendering as championed by the masters of the Sung dynasty in the 10th-12th centuries, Tung put the emphasis on the composition, the brush and the surface.
Everything -- the artistic references, the poem that he inscribed in the scrolls' corner and especially how objects in the painting looked in relation to each other -- became tools for creating an expressionistic composition.
The degree that the styles in Chinese painting of this period predated Western art can best be illustrated by one of Tung's 17th-century successors, who seemed to anticipate Jackson Pollock by simply titling one landscape, "Ten Thousand Ugly Ink Dots." In such paintings, all pretense of trying to represent nature has been chucked out the window and replaced by an awareness that painting can also be nothing more than an ink-and-paper expression of an artist's emotions.
This meant that everything was fair game to Tung and his followers. If a tree should be smaller because it was in the distance but the composition required a bigger tree, it was OK to make the tree bigger.
One classic example is the painting "Ch'i Hsia Monastery." As James Cahill, a professor of art history from the University of California at Berkeley, made clear in a recent lecture at the museum, the actual monastery and mountain look entirely different from Tung's rendering.
Two things make Tung's break with the past remarkable. One was that he constantly urged imitation of the past masters. But again, what he apparently had in mind was a spiritual understanding of what they tried to accomplish as well as mastery of their techniques.
Second, he wrote down his ideas in theoretical treatises on paintings that not only show his awareness of his pivotal role in Chinese art but immeasurably spread his influence to successive generations.
As he made clear in one famous sentence, nature may be nice but art is better: "If one considers the wonders of brush and ink, real landscape can never equal painting."
Although this was initially treated as heresy, Tung became so admired that his style became the orthodox model and his practice of stylizing and abstractly rendering trees, bushes, mountains, streams and other images became the fashionable way of painting. Manuals were even produced to instruct painters how to paint them.
This was so much the case that Tung became a focus of 20th-century attacks. During the May 4th movement that started in 1919, for example, Tung became a symbol for what was wrong with traditional Chinese culture. China never developed Western-style science and military strength, the facile reasoning went, because artists like Tung hadn't favored the traditional Western style of "scientifically" rendering their subjects through the use of vanishing points and chiaroscuro.
None of these Chinese revolutionaries, who obviously hadn't heard of Cezanne or the young Picasso, thought of Tung as avant-garde, nor did Mao Tse-tung's China, which vilified Tung as a proto-capitalist landlord. Tung's paintings were not hung in Chinese art galleries for most of that postwar period.
Since the relaxing of such rigid ideology in 1978, Tung has become acceptable again, although scholars still debate his virtues as a man. Traditional Chinese biographies, which have a hard time separating the art from the artist, are giving ground to ++ a more Western view. It holds that, much like we view Ezra Pound, Tung can be viewed as a great artist while being condemned as a lousy politician.
Nowadays, few doubt that Tung was a very ambitious person, and that he sold his art and expertise as an art connoisseur to gain political favor.
And as Western museums and art historians, with their money and equipment study the scrolls, more and more evidence is mounting that he employed young painters in a studio, much like Rembrandt, to crank out Tung Ch'i-Ch'angs for his many customers, patrons and allies.
Whatever the course of Tung scholarship, its growing amount begs the question of why it has taken so long to assemble a retrospective. Mr. Hearn, the curator, said part of the reason is that Tung's works are scattered and most are in the People's Republic of China, which hadn't been willing to recognize Tung's achievements until recently.
The second is that most museums are in the West and cater to a Western audience. While non-Western art receives some attention, the bulk of money and space goes to Western art, as evidenced by two other of the Museum of Modern Art's exhibitions, the prominently displayed shows on Rene Magritte and Giuseppe Ribera.
"Our field is a generation behind Western art history," Mr. Hearn said. "Here is a man on the scale of a Picasso, Cezanne or Rembrandt, whose painting style became immensely influential, and he's only getting his first show now."
Where: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10028. When: Part I, through Nov. 29; Part II, Dec. 1 to Jan. 10, 1993.
Admission: $6 for adults, $3 for children; includes admission to the rest of the museum.
Catalog: $75 for two-volume, 1,000-page series of essays and color reproductions. $4.95 for smaller brochure.
Call: (212) 879-5500 for a complete listing of the lectures, movies and guided tours.