The Art of talking about Art – 2: Z for Zeng Jing

No, Zeng Jing is not a Chinese dish you order at a restaurant. Zeng Jing (Tseng Ching,1564-1647) was a Chinese painter during the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

We hear you, Senor. It’s one of the reasons we felt the need for this weekly introduction to the world of art to help us discover, nurture, and nourish our inner artist. And not sound foolish while trying to sound witty the next time we are confronted by a work of art.

Last time we touched upon one of the As of Art in A for Abstract. It’s only right, then, that our next stop is… Z, Z for Zeng Jing.

Z is for Zeng Jing

No, Zeng Jing is not a Chinese dish you order at a restaurant. Zeng Jing (Tseng Ching,1564-1647) was a Chinese painter during the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644. It was under its aegis, during the first half of the 15th century, that technological and design advances brought milky white and cobalt-blue porcelain to perfection.

Zeng Jing painted using subtle light and shade, and he was considered by many critics as being significant for his assimilation of illusionistic concave and convex method of western oil painting. His portraits were described as “breathtakingly real, as though they were a reflection of the sitter in the mirror.”*

Portrait of Ge Yilong by Zeng Jing: In this portrait a Ming scholar named Ge Yilong leans on a stack of boxed books.Zeng used the finest brush, pointed and vertical, to convey the beard. The subject’s face is configured using pale ink, while nostrils and cheeks are touched with umber to give tonal gradation and chiaroscuro effects.

A common feature of his portrait is the presence of large area of empty spaces surrounding the figure. The style of Zeng Jing was distinctive enough that it became known as Bochen style, after Zeng’s style name ‘Bo-chen’. His followers and disciples are known as the Bochen School.

It is characteristic of Zeng Jing’s portraitures that the subject only occupies a quarter of the space. Common literati practices required a considerable space to be left on the scroll for calligraphic inscriptions, which should be large enough and appropriately balanced with the pictorial elements of the overall composition. Since a large proportion of Zeng’s painting subjects were scholars, he often left space for later inscriptions.

And if all that is a bit much to digest for just the sake of polite conversation, just remember, it helps to know China. You never know, your next customer could well be from there (on last count, the arts and crafts market in China was worth over 10 billion dollars per year). And he or she might just appreciate the fact that you know a little more about China than just Chinese food.

*Yang Xin, Richard M. Barnhart, Nie Chongzheng, James Cahill, Lang Shaojun, Wu Hung. Three Thousands Years of Chinese Paintings. Yale University Press. pp. 243–246. ISBN 978-0-300-07013-2

Update: We have compiled the entire series of blog posts on The Art of Talking About Art in one place. To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.


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