Art collecting has always been an international affair. Works made in one place are often sought after by people living in another.
Many of the greatest American Pop artworks of the 1960s are in German collections. French Impressionism from the end of the 19th century is superbly represented in the United States.
And going back hundreds of years, collections in Japan began to swell with paintings made across the sea in China. A magnificent show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art chronicles the phenomenon.
"Chinese Paintings From Japanese Collections" is something of a coup. It features 35 scrolls, some consisting of multiple panels, from the Tokyo National Museum and other collections in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Japanese museums are often reluctant to allow important works to leave the country, even for temporary exhibitions. But LACMA curator Stephen Little has managed a remarkable group of loans — including some that are just now making their premiere abroad.
Chinese scrolls, whether made to hang on a wall as a single picture or to be unrolled horizontally by hand, are painted in ink and colors on paper or silk. Their fragility demands limited exposure to light. So the exhibition will take place in two rotations (the first ends on June 1, the second begins June 7). Twenty-one paintings are now on view.
In fact, it's the very delicacy of the materials that is partly responsible for the riveting fascination that Chinese painting can inspire. The medium can be unforgiving.
In "The Poet Li Bai Chanting a Poem on a Stroll," 13th century artist Liang Kai has conjured a profoundly complex image with an astonishing economy of means. The figure of the poet occupies the lower two-thirds of the paper, his head tilted slightly upward toward the empty expanse above. (The vertical hanging scroll is about 21/2 feet tall and less than a foot wide.) Li Bai often wrote of the moon, but the space in the painting is a vacant field.
Essentially a contour drawing, the delicate strokes of Liang's brush leave a feathery trail of thinned ink. The marks describe the robed figure in profile, gently striding forward with hands clasped behind his back. The leisurely trail of marks follows its own visual "stroll" around the sheet.
Two tiny, jet-black dots — darker and more concentrated than the range of grays in most every other brush mark — identify the poet's slightly parted lips. A third dot denotes the far-away gaze of his observant eye.
Inevitably, your own eye is drawn to them. Like his body and the painter's ink, his mouth is engaged in quiet motion, here pre-figuring the formation of speech.
A relationship is obvious between Liang's fluid, gestural, painterly style and the concise, focused precision of calligraphy — handwriting with ink and brush. That's one reason this exceptional hanging scroll is easily characterized as poetic. Form and content, perception and contemplation resound.
No false moves are evident in Liang Kai's spare and brilliant work. In more densely painted scrolls — say, Zhang Ruitu's 1631 landscape, "Pine-covered Mountain Rising Through Clouds," or the 14th century hand-scroll that copies a long-lost series of views based on poems by Tang dynasty Daoist Lu Hong — errant brush marks might have been made. If so, you wouldn't know it; with exceptional skill, an unintended mishap might be worked into a satisfying, concentrated composition.
Zhang's painting of a pine-covered mountain is exhibited with two later copies by Japanese artists, a grouping that demonstrates the influence Chinese scrolls had on artistic developments on the island. The undated version from the 1860s by Hine Taizan, a scholar-painter in the ancient capital of Kyoto, is remarkably faithful to the original, showing one form of honorific. The 1866 version by Nanjo Jinko, a Buddhist priest, is a freer, less rigorous, more improvisational interpretation, which acknowledges the past while asserting present differences in a changing society.
Chinese and Japanese society were indeed changing, as they had many times before. The interest in Chinese painting outlined in the show is of necessity a thumbnail sketch, since it follows the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties through a 700-year trajectory.
Collecting began as a result of Japanese Buddhist monks making the often treacherous journey to sacred sites in China, where the religious philosophy had taken root. The monks brought paintings back to Japan.
Later, when travel was forbidden, Chinese merchants developed a lively export trade to satisfy an established desire abroad. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, social upheavals from China's resistance to Western incursions also pried loose treasured works of art, many of which found their way to Japan.
Japan was changing too. Not long after Taizan and Jinko painted their distinctive Japanese versions of Zhang's Chinese hanging scroll, something of an identity crisis began to unfold. As Japan modernized, the nation felt an urge to codify its culture.
Thus was born a complex system, still in place today, of identifying cultural patrimony. The LACMA exhibition is partly notable for the rarity and significance of many of its loans. In ascending order of prominence, it includes three paintings deemed by the government to be Important Art Objects, 14 to qualify as Important Cultural Property and one to reside at the pinnacle — a National Treasure.
That treasure would be a 14th-century Yuan dynasty image of a couple of eccentric guys, Hanshan and Shide, whose rollicking demeanor while sitting in the shade of a pine tree made them symbols of spiritual freedom. As curator Little notes in the show's excellent catalog, written with his LACMA colleague Christina Yu Yu, the hanging scroll was painted by Yintuoluo, a Buddhist monk from India who came to China with the Mongol occupation.
Japan's official ranking of objects of cultural patrimony seems strange in the West. On the upside, however, it protects works of art, providing stability in uncertain times.
On the downside, though, it freezes art history into a permanent canon of authorized greatness — A is better than B, which is better than C, and that's the way it will always be. The narrative of history, which should be fluid and open to reinterpretation, gets stuck.
The labels in the marvelous exhibition take care to acknowledge which Chinese scrolls the Japanese government wants you to know are the most important ones. One response might be to adopt the position of Hanshan and Shide: Point and laugh at the pious declarations of officialdom.
Of course, if you're going to do that in the face of so many exceptional works of art from so long and complex a period of time, you had better be prepared. The value of free thought lies in competition. Making your case for why you differ with established opinion might be essential, but it is never easy.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6222, May 11 through June 1. (Second rotation: June 7 through July 6.) Closed Wed. http://www.lacma.org