Hawk with Notes. Ink on paper, 45 x 51 cm.

The range of Xie Zhiliu’s talents, recognized even in his own day, seems particularly astounding when viewed from our age of hyper-specialization. Calligrapher, poet, painter, connoisseur, and art historian, Xie belonged to a group of polymaths who came of age as the classical Confucian educational system ended and the high-stakes game of redefining the literatus for a New China began. In a life bookended by the fall of the Qing and the rise of Jiang Zemin, Xie turned his training to the task of studying and stewarding China’s cultural patrimony. The books, paintings, and calligraphy that he produced have exerted a huge influence on subsequent generations.

Xie’s achievements have been more readily understood at home than abroad, so it is not surprising that this is the artist’s first major show to be mounted outside China. Drawn largely from a gift to the museum by the artist’s daughter, Sarah Shay, and curated by Maxwell K. Hearn, the exhibition takes the unusual approach of foregrounding ephemera— tracing copies, freehand drawings, and annotated sketches in pencil and ink—in an effort to illuminate Xie’s working method. The cumulative effect of all this preparatory work, though somewhat lacking in visual pizzazz, is highly intimate, like a surreptitious peek into the artist’s studio. It provides a portrait of a man for whom copying, looking, writing, and painting formed a regenerative cycle of creativity.

The first two galleries mostly present tracing copies of early paintings. In his Dunhuang studies, one can feel the young artist diligently venturing to unravel the secrets of the murals’ beauty—their line, proportion, and iconography. A similar assiduousness characterizes his copies of classical paintings from the Shanghai Museum, in which he tackled modulated, bravura brushwork and precise architectural drawing with equal assurance. Among all classical painters, Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) exerted the greatest hold on Xie’s imagination. This enduring fascination is well treated in the third gallery, where traces and freehand drawings chart Xie’s attempts to understand Chen’s quirky style. This section benefits from two Chen paintings from the Met’s collection, thoughtfully placed to invite comparison with Xie’s studies.

The exhibition seems eager to prove that copying can encourage creativity, rather than stifle it; in this, it seems designed to counter chauvinistic Western ideas about Chinese painting. Xie’s drawings are accordingly presented as artifacts of a painter’s process, in which Xie first assimilated then moved beyond classical models to form his own style. Sketching certainly played this role for Xie, but it served other important functions which get lost in the show’s message about the productive role of copying in traditional painting pedagogy. Xie’s drawings were also acts of art history, in which he used his hand to train his eye how to look at classical paintings, and his tracing copy of Liang Kai’s Eight Eminent Monks is especially fascinating in this regard. The copy boils Liang Kai’s colorful painting down to a linear, monochrome rendition. To indicate color, Xie added annotations which, though terse, reveal his laser-like vision; one sees the Liang Kai differently after looking at Xie’s copy, testimony to the acuity of his connoisseurial eye. These are the drawings of a scholar, and they point to the inseparability of art from art history in traditional Chinese practice, an important theme that could have been explored more fully in this show.

“Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting” provides backstage access that will excite enthusiasts of twentieth-century ink painting, though some non-specialist viewers may feel fatigued by the abundance of monochrome drawings. While the final two galleries do include some finished works, more examples would have provided a more complete picture of how Xie ultimately channeled looking and drawing into a singular artistic practice. Small foibles notwithstanding, the exhibition offers an enlightening and thoughtful look at an important figure, and the personal nature of much of the material imbues it with a touching, biographical quality. The show ultimately reads like an act of filial piety, not just on the part of the artist’s daughter, but also on the part of the curators, who, like all contemporary scholars of classical painting, walk in Xie’s formidable footsteps.      Joseph Scheier-Dolberg