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LOS ANGELES — Two fan paintings hang at the entrance of Where The Truth Lies: The Art of Qiu Ying at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The differences between the two works are so minor the eye labors to distinguish them. Both paintings, titled “The Queen Mother of the West Flying on a Crane” are exquisite, but the subtle brushwork of one painting is made by the hand of a Ming dynasty master and the other is a copy. The exhibition’s curator, Stephen Little, withholds the respective wall labels, taunting the viewer to claim the genuine Qiu Ying based only on observation. One painting possesses slightly more pigmentation, a firmer outline around a figure, and is generously stamped with the vermillion seals of admiring artists and collectors, but all these lovely characteristics feel like tricks.
Qiu Ying was a painter celebrated for his stylistic versatility and technical virtuosity during the middle Ming dynasty, in the early to mid 1500s. Even the casual student of art history likely encountered Qiu’s work; his “The Golden Valley Garden” (c. 1534–42) lives in many survey course textbooks as emblematic of Ming dynasty painting. Despite this iconic status and passage of 500 years, unresolved questions around the artist persist. Only three paintings are dated by his hand, resulting in a flawed chronology of his production. Biographical information, such as the dates of his birth and death are unknown. It’s not unusual to lack this documentation among lower socioeconomic classes from the Ming period, but if he was of a lower class, this prompts more questions about how the artist ascended in the cultural hierarchy. To top it off, Qiu is also the most copied painter in Chinese history, according to Little.
Copies in China have been produced to commemorate, learn, and dupe. In many cases, a copier did not intend to deceive, but when we fast-forward hundreds of years, the confusion around which works are genuine burdens artistic legacies. Qiu Ying was a painter for hire; he produced blue and green landscapes, narrative themes, and garden paintings all in large quantities. He followed the guidelines of particular genres, making it difficult to authenticate his work based on his stylistic preferences.
Where the Truth Lies establishes a new chronology for the Ming master and a guide for authenticating his work. To accomplish this, the LACMA curatorial team brought forth 45 artworks by Qiu Ying, 15 of which have never exhibited in the United states, making it the largest gathering of paintings by the artist ever in the country. The spectacular effort resulted in compelling new research. The exhibition is organized by the chronology it established: early works (1504–1525), mid-career works (1525–1542), and late works (1542–1552). The timeframe is supported by a complicated scaffold of brushstroke techniques, seal research (the red stamps prevalent on many Chinese paintings), and correspondence between artists and patrons.
Artists, including calligraphers, poets, and painters, often wrote or stamped a personal seal on the edges of Ming paintings (comparable to a social media “like” in the community). The most convincing evidence in Little’s research is derived from these markings. For example, inscriptions by calligrapher Wang Chong led Little to determine that a number of Qiu’s paintings could not be dated later than Wang’s death, in 1533. The inscriptions, such as those found on “Pavilion among Wutong Trees and Bamboo” (c. 1525-1533), are also proof of the various relationships that Qiu had cultivated with artists and poets by the middle of his career.
Displaying the artwork by date, instead of painting style, illuminates the astounding diversity of work Qiu produced within a brief period of time. Initially, the paintings in the mid-career gallery seem more tightly constructed, mature, and restrained. This assessment is quickly disrupted by the largest surviving painting by Qiu Ying, “The Jian’ge Pass” (c.1540–1545), a 10-foot-tall hanging scroll, nearly void of pigmentation, which depicts the Tang Emperor Xuanzong’s flight to Sichuan. Not far away, another monumental painting, “The Emperor Guangwu Fording a River” (c. 1534–1542), is like a “best of” Chinese dynastic painting. Blue and green peaks lose their footing in a mist that twists around the trunks of trees. A waterfall of ribbons and a crisply drawn temple perfectly nestle in spaces in between. The entire display makes it evident why art connoisseur Wang Zhideng, a contemporary of Qiu, wrote: “Qiu Ying’s brushwork, exquisite and elegant, would not put him to shame even before the old masters. And yet, it seems, like he cannot help but paint the snake and add legs to it.”
Where the Truth Lies attempts a scholarly reset button for an entire body of work, which will take some time for art historians to pick apart, and Little’s research will likely meet resistance. For example, many scholars such as Ellen Johnston Laing, questioned the authenticity of the important hand scroll “Saying Farewell at Xunyang” because the painting techniques did not conform to Qiu’s mature work. Little now argues the painting was made before the artist was 20 years old, dating its creation to 1504–1515, which explains the inconsistencies.
Unfortunately, at times it feels like the persuasive arguments of the exhibition catalogue elude the galleries. Minute details of brushwork, seals, and inscriptions are impressive and support Little’s assertions, but are challenging to see behind plexiglass and the glare of lights. I worry many visitors will feel excluded from the discourse, like they stumbled upon the inner circle of academic code-talkers.
An education gallery at the exhibition’s conclusion provides the “key” to the initial twin fan paintings where I started. Comparing the pair is like differentiating the flutter of a butterfly to that of a moth — impossible. I chose the butterfly, the more flamboyant of the two (the painting with a firmly drawn phoenix and emphatically green pines needles). I chose poorly. Armed with the truth, I immediately returned to the duo and noticed a man who’d attended the symposium on Qiu earlier that day; he, too, was studying the two fans. I let him know that I held the answer he seemed to be seeking, but before I could disclose the truth, he interrupted and said, “Well, of course, the Qiu Ying is this one,” and pointed to the correct painting. I asked why. “Qiu liked a sharp line on his rocks,” he claimed. “The other painting looks like someone trying to look like this one — trying too hard.” Although my feedback was not solicited, I noted that a uniquely styled seal the artist applied exclusively to his fan paintings was appropriately placed on the designated copy. “That point,” he said while turning away, “is neither here nor there.”
Where The Truth Lies: The Art of Qiu Ying continues at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through May 17. The exhibition is curated by Stephen Little, Wan Kong, and Einor K. Cervone.
The writer’s flight and accommodations were paid for by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.