Romantic Parting at the Shore: Peng Wei’s Borrowed Letters

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

NEW YORK - As the only female artist included in Shuimo/Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes, Sotheby’s upcoming selling exhibition in New York, Peng Wei introduces a different sense of urgency and intimacy in Try to Write Me a Letter (2013) and Two Ends of a Cloud (2013). At the same time as Peng draws on certain classical Chinese painting motifs traditionally rooted in the world of exchanges between (male) literati scholars, she also quotes texts from the Western tradition showing the correspondences between the best literary minds.

On the level of imagistic association, Try to Write Me a Letter is a classical, well-rounded rendering of a parting scene in a traditional format. In ink and color on xuan paper, the carefully drawn ocean waves are interspersed with tumultuous green/blue blurring ink wash. The unbridgeable expanse of water is a perfect symbol of separation.

Peng Wei, Try to Write Me a Letter (2013), ink and color on xuan paper (detail).

The “Parting at the shore” scene has long been one of the favorite subjects in Chinese literati writings and paintings. As James Cahill observed in his book titled Parting at the Shore, paintings of this special genre served as farewell presents and followed a long-standing convention of depicting a riverbank or a waterfront where the recipient of the picture was bidding farewell to a party of grieving friends and admirers before boarding a boat. Notable examples include Tang Yin’s Parting at Jinchang, Shen Zhou’s Parting at  Jingjiang, Qiu Ying’s Bidding Farewell at Xunyang and Dai Jin’s Parting at Jintai.

Qiu Ying, Bidding Farewell at Xunyang. Photo courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

While the river served as the symbolic divide between family and friends in classical Chinese paintings, rarely did one find a female persona taking the central stage or the same wrenching pain as expressed in Peng’s work.  Depicting a Chinese lady in classical attires seeing off her love interest who is departing on a boat, the composition is accompanied by the artist’s transcription of a love letter dated 1949 from Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann to Paul Celan. 

The interaction between two different cultural allusions seems to emphasize the translatability of universal emotions. At the same time, it also contrasts two very different approaches to expressing such emotions: one being restraint, while the other, outpouring.

One of the most important poets to emerge from post-World War II Europe, Paul Celan was born in Romania to German-speaking Jewish parents who later died in a Nazi concentration camp. After escaping the labor camp, where he was imprisoned for 18 months, Celan struggled to establish his literary career and construct a new life using the language of the “oppressor,” before he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970. Bachmann and Celan met in Vienna in 1948 and their tumultuous on-and-off relationship was marked by separations and intellectual companionship.

Peng Wei, Try to Write Me a Letter (2013), ink and color on xuan paper (detail).

In a letter dated November 24, 1949, foreshadowing Celan’s penchant for self-destruction, Bachmann writes of the “lostness” of Celan who “drifts out into a great ocean”: 

“I feel I say too little, that I cannot help you. I should have come to see you, to bring you out, to kiss you and hold you so that you would not slip away. Please believe me: one day I will come and bring you back. I see, with fear, how you are rowing out to sea, but I will build a boat and bring you back home from the destruction. But you must also do your part and not make it too hard for me. Time, with many other things, is working against us, but we must not let it destroy what we would save from its talons. Please write to me soon and say whether you still want to hear from me, if you are still capable of receiving the softness and love that are in me, if something can help you, if you still look for me sometimes and make me dark in that heavy dream in which I would like to become light.”

Peng Wei, Two Ends of a Cloud (2013), ink and color on xuan paper (detail).

Two Ends of a Cloud depicts another classic Chinese painting motif: a scholar looking afield through mountains and clouds. Several boats mooring in the foreground and workers are busy unloading shipments that just arrive.  Despite its idyllic tranquility, the image is juxtaposed with Peng’s transcription of the Chinese translation of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s letter to John Keats. In 1820 Shelley learned that John Keats fell ill with tuberculosis. He wrote to urge Keats to travel to Italy to improve his health and invited the young poet to stay with him in Pisa:

This consumption is a disease particularly fond of people who write such good verses as you have done, and with the assistance of an English writer it can often indulge its selection;- I do not think that young & amiable poets are at all bound to gratify its taste; they have entered into no bond with the Muses to that effect . . .  You might come by sea to Leghorn, (France is not worth seeing, & the sea air is particularly good for weak lungs) which is within a few miles of us. You ought at all events to see Italy, & your health which I suggest as a motive, might be an excuse to you  . . .  Whether you remain in England, or journey to Italy, - believe that you carry with you my anxious wishes for your health happiness & success . . . ”

Peng Wei, Two Ends of a Cloud, (detail of Peng’s transcription of the Chinese translation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s letter to John Keats).

Keats never reached the Shelleys in Pisa. He died in Rome in 1821 at the age of 25. Celan married a French graphic artist in 1952. Although Bachmann’s affair with Celan flared up again in 1957, her own life was tortured by emotional breakdown, addictions and overwhelming anxiety. The disconnect between Peng Wei’s subtle, subdued images and the tragic, sentimental texts alerts the viewers to our own perception of artworks within the framework of cross-cultural references.

Shuimo / Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes

A Selling Exhibition
Sotheby’s New York

March 14-28, 2014

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's