How to be a Chinese Foodie: Li Jin’s Ink Paintings at Sotheby’s

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Li Jin's Feast No. 6, part of the Shuimo / Water Ink: Chinese Contemporary Ink Paintings selling exhibition.

NEW YORK - In Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, Peking opera patron Yuan Shiqing was so knowledgeable about the repertoire that he corrected the actor who played Hegemon-King of Western Chu for walking only five steps in one scene while the custom called for seven steps.  This nuanced detail, capturing the essence of the literati culture in traditional China, reminded me of my father’s love of food. A newspaperman by profession and never working as a chef throughout his life, my father was a true food snob. When I was a kid, during many of our family’s restaurant expeditions, in addition to “comparing notes” with restaurateurs and chefs through pedantic chitchats, my father would sometimes go into the kitchens and demonstrate “how things should be done.”

Such was the classical Chinese ideal of literati art: scholars were versatile in their interests and pursuits; and an amateur aficionado could command a high level of artistry in many disciplines from painting to fine cuisine. Li Jin’s Feast No. 6 (2012), included in Sotheby’s upcoming Shuimo / Water Ink: Chinese Contemporary Ink Paintings selling exhibition, brings back, albeit with a twist, the sensitivity of that bygone era.

An image of a painting from Zhang Enli’s Eating series, taken during a studio visit in 2005. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Generally associated with the “New Literati School,” which in the mid-1980s sought to regenerate China’s ink painting tradition, Li Jin’s (b. 1958) works pay homage to the classical literati paradigm while simultaneously subverting many of its moral and aesthetic tenets. Along with Zhu Xinjian (b. 1953), another artist from the group, Li Jin deploys ink on paper to bring to focus sensuality of food and other pleasures in life: eat, man, drink and woman. The Book of Rites (Li Ji), one of the Confucian classics, refers to “drink, eat, man and woman” as the basic human needs. When Mencius (4th century B.C.), the torch-bearer of Confucius’ doctrine, debated about the intrinsic goodness of human nature with philosopher Master Gao (Gaozi; ca. 420-350 B.C.), the latter famously declared: “[D]esiring food and sex is part of human nature.”  Nevertheless, classical Chinese scholarly aesthetics, rooted in the Confucian tradition, did not flaunt epicurean pursuits.

In traditional ink paintings, small objects such as flowers and birds tended to lend themselves to intimate album formats, with each leaf spotlighting one or one group of objects. By contrast, Feast No. 6 was painted on a horizontal scroll of nearly eight feet long. Rather than a pictorial representation of lavishly prepared courses, it is a parade of food ingredients: fish, more fish, cuttlefish, shrimp, chicken claws, lobster, white radish, chili pepper, along with hyacinth flowers and a bottle of cooking sauce. These raw materials are set against a tablecloth of breathtakingly dense calligraphy, which transcribes verbatim the various “how-to guides” from the first chapter of Yuan Mei’s (1716–1797) Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suiyuan Shidan). More than merely a compendium of recipes endorsed by Yuan Mei, the classic is also a detailed instruction manual about ingredients and condiments whose selections, according to Yuan, are the foundation for mastering the art of cookery.

Contemporary re-creation of dishes based on Yuan Mei’s recipes from a book on my shelf. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Yuan has been widely recognized as one of the four great gastronomes of the classical China, along with Su Shi (1037-1101), Ni Zan (1301-74) and Xu Wei (1521-93), each an accomplished poet-painter-scholar. It was no coincidence that my favorite Chinese poet Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, penned the first systematic theory of literati art in China. In addition to art, literature, history, politics and social commentaries, Su wrote many treatises and poems about food connoisseurship. By using elaborate calligraphy and literary text to complement his images, Li Jin was drawing from the literati tradition where literary erudition distinguished scholars’ painting from those by often illiterate artisans or academy painters.

A contemporary rendition of, Dongpo Pork, a dish named after Su Dongpo, at a Beijing restaurant. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Gastronomy, like many aspects of Chinese culture, suffered in the Mao era when Li Jin grew up. Readers of literature about the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) surely have been impressed with the emotional intensity attached to the description of food due to its scarcity, such as an elaborate scene of catching and cooking a snake at a remote labor camp from A Cheng’s King of Chess

Wang Qingsong's The Night Revels of Han Xizai.

Li Jin’s feast is decisively different from the satirical undertone that one finds in many contemporary Chinese artworks dealing with similar subjects. Wang Qingsong’s 2000 The Night Revels of Lao Li, a contemporary photographic parody of The Night Revels of Han Xizai, originally painted by the Southern Tang artist Gu Hongzhong in the 10th century, is a large horizontal composition of a domestic scene where revelers in modern clothing were entertained by musicians and dancers while relishing food and beverage brought to them by servants. Paintings in Zhang Enli’s (b. 1965) Eating series are caricatures of gluttons and their seemingly mindless debauchery.

I awaited guests’ arrivals for my ten-course banquet. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Traditional literati aesthetics emphasized elegance and transcendence. Unbridled lust for extravagant feasts and sexual incontinence were generally off-limits in scholars’ painting. For Li Jin, one can celebrate carnal desires with an irreverent sense of humor and borderline bawdiness without apology. March 17, 2012, in four renditions, depict the artist in head-to-toe green frolicking with skimpily dressed merrymakers at New York’s St. Patrick Day parade. Simultaneously innocent and provocative, the pieces shake off the lofty message that one expects from the traditional literati art. Li Jin de-emphasized the drawing of outlines and exaggerated the effect of smudged colors to affect an ambiance of immoderation.

Li Jin's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Rather than covering up the traditionally tabooed subjects, Three Butterflies (2012) depicts the artist accompanied by two women, all in nudity. But one should take Li Jin’s revelry scene with a grain of salt. At the same time, there seems to be an underlying tension between desires and transcendence of desires. In the Mood of Selflessness (2012) depicts a young woman and three different resemblances of the artist cozying up against groves of bamboo. The inscription, which reads “[p]lanting flowers and bamboo / in the mood of selflessness,” is a quote from Hong Zicheng’s Vegetable Roots Wisdom (Caigentan, ca. 1590), a compilation of philosophical and poetic reflections on how to lead a simple and fulfilled life, both inside and outside this world, without the unnecessary trappings of the self and its desires. While the inscription spells out a transcendental aspiration for the state of selflessness, the image ironically portrays the multiplicity of the artist’s “selves.”

Li Jin's Three Butterlies.

I’d tend to think that through his paintings the artist attempts to resolve the tension between pleasures and transcendence, between desire and no desire, and between elegance and vulgarity. For me, with the right measure, food, art and parties are all aspects of life to be enjoyed. Growing up with my father’s reverence for the culinary art, I have naturally become fascinated with food and its preparation. Collecting cookbooks, including a compendium of contemporary re-creation of dishes from Yuan Mei’s recipes, is just one of my many food-related passions. When I find time, I enjoy treating my friends to a ten-course banquet that I make, with much inspiration from my father’s recipes, Yuan Mei’s words of wisdom and, now, Li Jin’s pictorial feast.

Shuimo / Water Ink: Chinese Contemporary Ink Paintings
Curated by Mee-Seen Loong

On view at Sotheby’s New York

March 14-28, 2013

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